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Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland: A royal round

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,
Royal Portrush Golf Club - Dunluce course - No. 5 green
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The fifth green on the Dunluce layout at Royal Portush Golf Club is guarded by some of the rolling terrain that covers much of the golf course. (Courtesy of Douglas Ford Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: It was announced June 16, 2014 that Royal Portrush will host the 2019 Open Championship for the first time since 1951. It is the only course outside of England and Scotland to ever host the event.

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- This country is doubly blessed in having two golf courses that could legitimately claim a spot in the world's top 10: Royal County Down Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club.

Although no apparent rivalry exists between the two, the former would almost certainly edge it if ever there was a straw poll among Northern Ireland's fanatical golfers.

But Royal Portrush is not short of admirers among the top professionals and handicap golfers. And it's very easy to see why.

Right up on the northernmost tip of the country, Portrush is a quaint seaside town that came of age in Victorian times. If you can spare a little time, the most beautiful way to arrive from Belfast is by car along the coastal route that stretches all the way around County Antrim. Shortly before you reach Portrush, stop at the famous Giant's Causeway. There's no golf, but it's an inspiring spot.

Royal Portrush, Open venue

Like Royal County Down, Royal Portrush is blessed with two golf courses. The Valley Course is set among the dunes and has its loyal supporters, but the Dunluce Course sends golfers into almost uncontrollable shrieks of delight.

Of its many claims to fame, Dunluce is the lone golf course outside of Great Britain to host the British Open. That was back in 1951, shortly after H.S. Colt altered the layout.

Only two competitors managed to break 70 during the event, but not every golfer has found the venue as difficult. In the North of Ireland Amateur Championship in 2005, Rory McIlroy shot an astonishing 61, recording nothing worse than a 4. Playing off plus-4 at the time, his score was adjusted to 65.

You'll find other famous names on the honors boards in the clubhouse. Darren Clarke, for example, won the same championship as McIlroy in 1990. Portrush-native Fred Daly played the golf course frequently and became the only Irishman from either side of the border to win the Open until Padraig Harrington captured it in 2007. Daly was also the only Northern Irish major winner until Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open in 2010. Daly's triumph, in 1947, occurred when he worked as the professional at the Balmoral Club in Belfast.

I asked Des McLaughlin, the starter at Royal Portrush, about the secret to playing the Dunluce course

"Keep the ball on the short stuff, which is tough to do," said McLaughlin, who then noted that areas left and right of the opening hole are out of bounds.

Gary McNeill, the Irish Amateur champion in 1991 before he turned pro in 1993, is the head professional at Royal Portrush G.C.

"The Dunluce course remains the fairest links I have ever played," McNeill said. "It will test every club in your bag, and each hole will present you with its own unique challenges. Sacrificing a little distance for accuracy, particularly if the wind blows, will give you every chance of playing to your handicap. That is, if you can keep your eyes off the majestic scenery."

Royal Portrush's tough rough

Royal Portrush's Dunluce Course might indeed be fair, but it's also quite deceptive. Because the dunes mostly sit back from the fairways and the terrain doesn't appear too intimidating, you've often got less room than you think. Although it doesn't look too tough, the rough is punishing. And with the golf ball bouncing unpredictably off the mounded fairways, you'll spend more time off them than on.

But McNeill is right in that the views over the Atlantic Ocean, across to Portrush and inland to the mountains, are as unforgettable as some of the holes. The best include the fifth, a wonderful par 4 that sweeps downhill to a green that sits above the sea, and No. 14, a frightening, uphill par 3 of more than 200 yards aptly named Calamity.

Royal Portrush Golf Club: The verdict

The Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush is simply a sensational links golf course that comfortably lives up to all the hype. Comparatively uncrowded even on a beautiful day, it provides a joyous romp around the dunes and something close to a spiritual high. The only slight disappointment is the somewhat anticlimatic finish. The 17th and 18th are rather ordinary holes, as the dunes disappear. Otherwise, it's flawless.

More photos

Royal Portrush Golf Club - Dunluce course - No. 14Royal Portrush Golf Club - Dunluce No. 5 and 6

Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Dunluce

    Bill Hogan wrote on: Feb 17, 2011

    Oh yea, Royal Portrush is the real deal! Hardest course in Ireland will test every ounce of nerve ... and it's beautiful too. Go there, play it ... guaranteed to be in your Top Five!


      • RE: Dunluce

        Jim Penson wrote on: Jul 15, 2011

        I agree.Better than County Down and
        for that matter any course in Ireland
        and Britain as well.I am biased being a member but could play this course everyday.Unfortunately to old to make the trip from Los Angeles to Belfast
        regularly anymore.Say hello to Wilma for me.Jim Penson


          • RE: RE: Dunluce

            Bill McGarr wrote on: Jul 25, 2011

            Looking to reach Jim Penson. I have a beautiful Royal Portrush golf bag with Jim Penson's name on it. I live in the U.S. and bought it at a flea market years ago. I only now decided to do a search for Jim. Please contact me if you would like. Regards, Bill


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