Dispatches from Northern Ireland, Part 2
For decades, my wife has told a story of an old friend of hers, from Toronto, who spent a summer in the late 1960s, on a North Sea oil rig.
His only job was to work as an interpreter between the Scottish crew and a resident crew of wildcatters from Texas, who not only shared work and living quarters with the Scots, but also the same English language. They all got along famously, but neither side could understand a word of what the other side was saying. It took a Canadian to figure it all out and explain it. Apparently, we’re pretty good at discerning accents.
Except, that is, if you’re traveling on an executive bus through downtown Belfast, and trying to decipher a single word of what the Irish tour operator is describing about the landmarks you’re driving past. I had thought that all Irish people had a lovely lilt to their English, like Liam Neeson, but clearly I was wrong. Incomprehensible was the only theme I got out of Billy’s narration. In any event, details be damned, Belfast was visually very interesting.
It was also halfway between the first and second destinations on our recent golf journalists’ familiarization trip to Northern Ireland. Newcastle, home of world-revered Royal County Down Golf Club, bordering the Irish Sea, was stop number one. (You can read about it HERE.)
Stop number two would be on the northern coast, bordering the Atlantic, in the town of Bushmills. Famous as the home of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, carefully aged since 1608, it’s also the neighbour of Portrush, home of the Royal Portrush Golf Club… which you will get to know much more intimately next year as the site of the 148th Open Championship.
The Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush holds the distinction of being the only layout in Ireland, and off the mainland of Great Britain, to ever have hosted The Open. It last did so in 1951, before American pro’s rediscovered the event and made it, always arguably, the most prestigious golf tournament in the world that it is today. In preparation for The Open next year, the R&A has requested that the Club jimmy around with some holes on the Dunluce, creating two new ones in mid-property that will make for a better finishing package. Good decision: I loved playing the two new holes, 7 and 8, though I’m probably no better a judge of golf design than my late cocker spaniel, Gracie.
When our intrepid 8-man band of brothers arrived at Portrush, the wind had attained what I’ve come to believe is its standard Irish speed of 40mph, the temperature hovered precariously around the 7 degree mark (making the wind chill factor about 2), and the clouds were shouting “we’re comin’ to get ya, suckers!” As you may remember from last week’s installment of this travelogue, I had deliberately packed without adequate clothing for the Irish elements, disbelieving that Irish elements could be so cruel. So having endured two days of rotten weather already, I cringed at the clouds and prayed to St. Patrick to let me play the round as a dry person. I believe my prayer began with “please sir, I come in peace.”
To no avail.
The rain lashed at our souls on and off (more on than off), through the round. But again, I did not let it deter me from savouring the opportunity to play the course, nor from vowing to buy myself some proper rain gear one day.
The course at Portrush is a tough one, I’ll say that. Even for a lousy golfer like me. Mind you, getting the ball airborne from time to time certainly can make a difference. But I chose not to go that route.
Like all links courses, from a distance, and even from an elevated viewpoint coming in from the east, Portrush is nothing special to look at. Just a big bumpy field beside the beach. It’s not till you get to the tee of each hole that you really appreciate the naturalness of the property, and the very subtle challenges that you’re presented with, especially if the course designer was someone as downright brilliant at his job as Harry Colt, who remade Portrush from the original, back in 1932.
There are millions of us, including yours truly, who believe that Harry Colt was the finest golf course designer of all time. There are probably more outright classics in his portfolio of over 300 courses on 6 continents, than any other architect’s. (For readers of Fairways, his two local designs include Hamilton (Ancaster) and Toronto Golf, which should be on every list of the top five in our country.) I’ve played ten of Colt’s courses, and all are in my personal top 20.
Unfortunately, when you only get to play a great golf course once, in terrible conditions, it’s hard to notice the beauty and the challenge when your head is looking down and cocked to one side to avoid the sheeting rain. But two famous holes here at Portrush certainly stood out for me.
Number 5 carries the name White Rocks, I assume because of the visible shoals in the ocean, which form a stunning backdrop to the green. It’s a short par 4 that will play to only 403 yards in the Open. I strongly recommend that none of the pro’s who play it next year decide to skull their approach shot, as I did, and watch their ball disappear over the green, on its way to either a whale’s belly or washing up on the Jersey Shore 100 years from now.
The 16th is called Calamity Corner. I would rename it “Disasterville”, personally, due to the fact that my beautifully executed downwind 5-iron decided to take a right hand turn as it approached the green, tumbling down approximately 40-feet into the valley adjacent. Two whacks with a 54-degree, and two putts, gave me the five I hadn’t intended on scoring. But what a great golf hole!
Our gang of self-professed experts all agreed that the winning score after 72 holes next year could range from 6-over to 16-under, depending on the weather conditions. I don’t mean to be mean-spirited, but I hope the pro’s get at least one day of what we faced, because what we faced was pretty common weather, and I’m sure Mr. Colt had weather in mind when he designed this fabulous golf course.
A late dinner and early wakeup found us on the first tee of Portstewart Golf Club next day. It’s just a little further west along the road from Royal Portrush.
If I’d heard of Portstewart before this trip, I don’t remember. But I can tell you straight away, the front nine here is the best, most unforgettable nine hole stretch I’ve ever played, anywhere. (And I’ve played 311 other golf courses.)
The opening drive sets you off an elevated tee staring in the face of a mountainous sand dune about 275 yards straight ahead, to a sliver of a fairway that heads to the right, behind another hefty dune closer to the tee. And from there, every hole on this nine meanders through, up, over, and around dunes that have been here since the beginning of time. In some ways, it’s even more links than links is generally considered to be. And in some ways, it’s reminiscent of some of the modern American desert courses in the southwest U.S. that meander in and around mountain canyons. However you look at it, it’s magnificent, and well worth the visit.
The back nine at Portstewart is far less dramatic and much more open, with lovely views of the gentle river Bann, and the ever-lush farmland beyond. There are few sand dunes on this side, but it’s still a good collection of holes. In the end, I decided that I actually liked Portstewart better than Royal Portrush, but that might have been helped by warmer and sunnier conditions than the day before.
Both courses, by the way, offered spectacular views out to the ocean, and the coastline which stretched for miles on either side. I’m so glad I had my iPhone camera in my pocket, although photos never seem to do justice to the real thing.
While in this neck of Northern Ireland, our group had the good fortune to stay for two nights at The Bushmills Inn. This charming little spot is not affiliated with the distillery, but if you’re craving some Irish whiskey, the source of the nectar itself is about a par 5 just up the road.
(And by the way, for those of you who may be screaming at me for misspelling “whisky”, you’re only partly correct. I discovered the little known fact that Irish whiskey is always spelled with an “e” and Scottish whisky, better known as Scotch, is not. Thank you, gratuities welcome but not expected.)
At the Inn, we enjoyed very comfortable accommodations, and a hearty repast in its Taste of Ulster dining room one evening. To me, Bushmills Inn is the epitome of what a quaint country inn should be, and I half expected to turn a corner and bump into Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon having a quiet supper by the fire. It’s conveniently located right by the famous Giants Causeway, a geological outcropping of mind-boggling origin. I took time to visit the Causeway, saw no giants, and came away thinking, I’m glad they don’t charge an admission fee. But I would have kicked myself for being there and not going to see it.
The next night, we trekked roughly 100 yards around the corner for a fine dinner at The French Rooms, to which I would happily return on my next visit, which may, alas, never happen. I found all the meals we were served in Northern Ireland were consistently hearty, meaning they fill your plate and your stomach, unlike so many trendy spots in Toronto which seem to promote the art of a carrot or a bean, along with mild starvation. The Irish believe in meat-and-badaidas, which went down well with eight golf writers, I can assure you.
If another visit to Northern Ireland doesn’t happen for me, I’ll be very sorry. It was wonderful, and everyone that I met who lives in this fine country, was jolly and friendly and helpful. I’m sure they’re equally hospitable in the (southern) Republic of Ireland which remains on my bucket list at, or very close to, the top.
The Irish have a rich history and culture that they’re extremely and justifiably proud of. And that’s in no small part because emigrants from Ireland, over the centuries, have had such a profound effect on the development and progress of other countries, especially us two in North America. My own roots are British, but like the rest of the world, I proudly pretend that they’re Irish on March 17 each year, and I secretly wish it was a fact.
Golf in Ireland is a significant component of Irish history and culture. The people of Northern Ireland will be basking with an even brighter glow when The Open returns to Royal Portrush after 68 years, thirteen months from now. The pros will undoubtedly love it.
If you’re a golfer, and you end up meeting your Maker without ever having made the journey to play these courses, then in St. Patrick’s view, if not St. Peter’s, your life will never have been fully complete.
Royal Portrush Golf Club: www.royalportrushgolfclub.com
Portstewart Golf Club: www.portstewartgc.co.uk
Bushmills Inn: https://www.bushmillsinn.com
The French Rooms: http://thefrenchrooms.com