Taking a trip to Irish golf heaven and teeing off on its best new course

By Staff


Nic Brook tees up for some top golf on Antrim and Donegal’s best courses, staying in Bushmills Inn Hotel, a few miles along the Causeway Coast from Royal Portrush, the only club outside England and Scotland ever to have hosted The Open

Every so often, golfing pals will suggest a trip; little raids to oil the swing rust, indulge our mania and play new fairways. Generally it doesn’t really matter how good the courses are that we visit, the craic is the thing. Occasionally though the tracks prove top quality, adding to the appeal of the jaunt.

So I didn’t have to read any further when I saw that Antrim and Donegal were mentioned in an email. I simply replied, “I’m in!”

There is something special about golf in these two counties that I’ve always loved. They sprawl across the north and northwest of the island of Ireland with Co Antrim in Northern Ireland, while Co Donegal lies across the border in the Irish Republic. In golf though there is just one governing body for all Ireland, the Irish Golf Union, no political divide, just a love of the game.

These two counties also have a combined coastline of more than 800 miles. Bear in mind that a seaside links golf course is my idea of heaven, while more than 10% of the world’s 247 ‘pure’ links are in Co Donegal alone, and you’ll understand why I’m a fan.

So it was then, that one autumn evening found me checking in with pals to the Bushmills Inn Hotel, a few miles along the Causeway Coast from Royal Portrush, the only club outside England and Scotland ever to have hosted The Open. The old coaching inn is charming. It’s so easy getting here these days, with regular flight to either Belfast International or City of Derry airports.

There’s an initial guilt that partners aren’t on the trip, as the Bushmills Inn has fine dining, plus a snug bar with an open fire, but this is a high mileage road trip with little time to even unpack. There’s an early start the following morning, with check out and departure while it is still dark. Royal Portrush beckons and demands respect.

The Dunluce Links at Portrush is the toughest links I’ve ever played. I’ve been fortunate enough to have played many championship courses, yet in the score or more times I’ve tackled Portrush it never fails to beat me up, however well I’m playing at the time.

The Harry Colt designed layout is a delight, meandering on the gentle slope among dunes that give way to the cliffs above the Whiterocks Beach. Every hole is thrilling, and there are spectacular vistas. It’s fair and a spectacular roller coaster, so no surprise that it has hosted two Open Championships (most recently in 2019 when Shane Lowry won the Claret Jug) and will do so again, with the 153rd Open due here next year.

The members are warm and friendly, despite the rather austere looking clubhouse. You’re on the Atlantic coast, so the building needs to be solid. All here are quite rightly basking in the glory of recognition and being atop the game’s elite.

We hit the road, heading to Donegal, and golf at Rosapenna, 70 miles to the west. The beautiful Rosapenna Hotel and the three golf courses at the resort are a major source of employment in the area. The Casey family, Rosapenna’s owners, are vital to the wellbeing of the local area and their entrepreneurship has reaped reward.

I first played here in 1987. Businessman Frank Casey Snr had bought the hotel some years before and had set about revitalising the run-down complex. Back then there was just one course – the Old Links – which had been designed by St Andrews’ Tom Morris in 1891, but by 2003 that layout had been refreshed, and a second course, Sandy Hills, added to the links beside Sheephaven Bay.

Two other courses on the bay, in an area of dunes further south, never quite had the same investment, and when they went bust – during the 2008 financial crash – they were added to the Casey portfolio. American golf course architect Tom Doak was commissioned to transform the two courses into a single layout, the St Patrick’s Links, which opened in the summer of 2021.

St Patrick’s is an absolute treat, and quite easily the best ‘new’ course I’ve ever seen. It was blowing a gale when we were there, but the wide fairways and big undulating greens made for a joyous game. St Patrick’s Links is seaside golf on steroids.

Day Two’s hurricane winds heralded a deluge on our final day. A shame, as we’d driven 60 miles north to the Inishowen peninsula after Rosapenna to reach Ballyliffin, and its two links courses – the most northerly in Ireland, staying at the comfortable (and very reasonable) Ballyliffin Hotel. The Old and the Glashedy Links occupy a vast sprawl of rippled landscape beside the curve of Pollan Strand, just 30 miles south of Malin Head.

So if there’s any weather, you certainly feel it here. We played the Old, in spite of the torrential rain, and it is a real beauty. The Old Links holes aren’t as dramatic as the Glashedy’s, yet it is such a tough course, demanding a gritty, head-down concentration over the seemingly never-ending, dour, closing holes.

If ever there’s a place to quickly recover from a game of golf in tough conditions, then it is at Ballyliffin. It has the most welcoming clubhouse and the friendliest members in the world. They also serve a seafood chowder and fine pint of Guinness, so whatever your score, it doesn’t really matter.

I was here in 2006 and witnessed schoolboy Rory McIlroy, at the time just 17, knock it round the Old in a then course record 67. In June, Ballyliffin hosts The Amateur Championship, the R&A’s most prestigious amateur tournament. I hope to get along as a spectator, to see how the next generation of the world’s best fare on Ballyliffin’s great courses.

Till then, I’ll savour a pint of the black stuff in our local Irish bar, recalling the fabulous greens of Antrim and Donegal, hoping that pals suggest a next pilgrimage to St Patrick’s finest fairways… sooner rather than later. Fore!

Book the holiday

Flights to Belfast International and City of Derry are available from airports including Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Jersey, Leeds Bradford, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted.

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