Playing Ireland’s Royal Portrush

With the 2019 Open Championship returning to Northern Ireland for the first time in decades, we sent a golf writer to play the upgraded host course. You’ll want to tee it up here, too – and walk in the footsteps of the world’s best pros.

BY TOM MACKIN — Summer 2019

hort of a generous post-round tip, there may be no sweeter sight for a Royal Portrush Golf Club caddie than his player striping a drive down the middle of the first fairway. That’s how my round starts on this sunny and windless day, putting a smile on the face of Mark McClelland, a Portrush native carrying my bag. It’s a good start on the Dunluce Course, one of the world’s finest links layouts, where the Open Championship returns this summer after a 68-year absence. 

In Northern Ireland 60 miles north of Belfast on the North Antrim Causeway Coast, Royal Portrush hosted the Open in 1951 — the first and only venue to host it outside of England and Scotland. With a current rotation of nine courses in those two countries virtually set in stone for the championship, a return to Royal Portrush had long been doubtful. But its successful hosting of the 2012 Irish Open caught some eyes at the R&A, which manages the major. The spotlight that shined on Northern Ireland thanks to a combined six major wins by natives Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, and Rory McIlroy since 2010 also helped. Plus, a calming of the country’s volatile and often violent political landscape (known as the “Troubles”) further eased organizational concerns.

As McClelland and I stand on the tee of the par-3 third hole overlooking the entire course, he acknowledges not having expected the major championship to return to his hometown. “With the Troubles and everything, I thought they would leave it a while longer,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be here in my lifetime. But the course itself is certainly good enough to host it.”

o argument there. The seaside setting, the rumpled fairways, and the tight turf all fit the bill. Still, the club made definitive changes in preparation for the Open, none larger than eliminating the relatively weak former 17th and 18th holes (which will instead host the championship’s tented village and hospitality area) and building two new holes (now the seventh and eighth) using land previously part of the adjoining Valley Course. That forced a renumbering of other holes, plus the club added numerous bunkers and back tees throughout. Finally, it built a well-hidden tunnel inside a large grassy mound behind the sixth green to expedite access to multiple holes for Open participants. 

One person who wouldn’t be surprised to see the Open return to Royal Portrush would be the late Joe Carr, Ireland’s most decorated amateur golfer. “My father won one of his three British Amateurs there in 1960,” says his son Marty, who runs Carr Golf, a Dublin-based international travel business that won a Golf Digest Editors’ Choice Award for Best Tour Operators last year. “He said if he could play a golf course for the rest of his life, it would probably be the Old Course at St. Andrews. But if he had to play a golf course in Ireland for the rest of his life, it would be Portrush.” 

Marty Carr has seen visiting golfers, especially Americans, increasingly gravitate to Northern Ireland on trips deftly organized by his company in recent years, thanks in no small part to the popularity of the spectacular Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle, 90 miles north of Dublin and ranked No. 1 in the world by Golf Digest last year. But the roster of worthwhile courses also includes Portstewart Golf Club, where an unforgettable front nine moves up, over, and through massive sand dunes, all a short drive from Royal Portrush. Some 30 miles south of Belfast sits Ardglass Golf Club. Opened in 1896, the course has a striking collection of par 3s — highlighted by the second hole, which requires a tee shot over a wide, rocky gap and the Irish Sea far below — and claims the world’s oldest clubhouse, part of it a former castle from 1405. 

At Royal Portrush, I long for a speck of Joe Carr’s talents as my scorecard fills up with more bogeys than pars on the front side. Ever the savvy looper, McClelland distracts me with an array of stories, including one as we stand at the back of the fifth green overlooking a beach and the Atlantic Ocean. 

“One day out here we saw guys in costumes dancing around a campfire that way on the beach,” he says pointing eastward. “Then we looked the other way and there were 20 guys on horseback wearing fur jackets and holding spears. They charged the campfire guys and had a pitched battle.” Not one guy spilled blood, however, for this filming of a Game of Thrones episode.

 

espite righting the ship with a few pars, and even a birdie on the par-5 12th, I’m not exactly doing what this year’s Open champion will need to do: Hit a low ball, manufacture shots, and be very creative. And I’m enjoying calm and sunny conditions, a rare combo in a place where weather can be as unpredictable as the bounces golf balls take on fairways.

But it’s the final five holes where Royal Portrush gets especially tricky. Each requires, as Northern Ireland native Liam Neeson has said in numerous movies, a very particular set of skills. You need a precise approach to hold the elevated green on the 14th, while the dogleg-left, par-4 15th requires a supremely accurate tee shot. But you can’t avoid Calamity Corner — it’s the name of the famous par-3 16th hole.

“You’ve got to stay left to avoid the steep drop-off down the right side,” advises McClellan on that tee. “Use the mounding just left of the green and your ball will roll onto it.” My swing, club, and ball don’t listen, so we watch my tee shot fade into a deep, dark recess of high grass 30 feet below, and right of the green. Purgatory, the par-4 17th, is less painful. After sinking a par putt there, I ask McClellan’s predictions for this year’s winning score. 

“If the wind picks up, you’ll see plenty of high 70s and 80s,” he says. “Great leveler, the wind. But otherwise, I would expect 12- to 14-under par as the winning score.”

After pulling my drive left on the par-4 18th (formerly the 16th), I bounce a 9-iron approach off a mound right of the green, ending up 25 feet directly above the hole. The day’s four-ball match has come down to the last hole. 

Come July, a grandstand full of 5,000 spectators cheering on the champion golfer of the year and winner of the 148th Open Championship will border this 18th green. Today, only four caddies, three other golfers, and a few disinterested seagulls formed the crowd. But as my putt drops into the cup for the win, I gladly settle for the muttered groans of my opponents.

Want to play Royal Portrush? Carr Golf offers tours with tee times there and on other Irish courses you’ll want to play. 855-617-5701; carrgolf.com

For more information about Ireland: ireland.com

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