Due to the current health pandemic in the world, a golf trip to Northern Ireland is not a likely scenario right now. That said, when it becomes an option again, don’t miss out.
Before the world went sideways I found that was the case for myself.
For the first time in my five decades I made the trip to the emerald isle.
When I look back on that time, the richness of the details left in my mind might be enough to foster an entire book. Of course, those moments might have meant more to me. The people, the history, and the geography alone are emotionally impactful, but that is near impossible to convey in words alone. You have to be there to feel it, just as many people who have made the trek previously had told me.
I know a future story, one much more in-depth, will lie ahead, but in the meantime, I’ll use this allotted space to serve up a condensed slice of the experience that will now mark my life forever.
Did I fall in love with Northern Ireland? In a way, yes. It spoke to me. For many reasons.
Quinn’s traces its history back a century. Once a grocer in the front and a bar in the back, this Newcastle establishment still retains its original look and feel. Antiques abound in dark cabinets, and the worn, unpolished wooden floor immediately connects you with those who have come before.
Ever dutiful I contributed to the local economy with the purchase of a Guinness product, sampled the local fare, and soaked up the atmosphere.
It was the perfect entry point to the trip.
Locals tipped their cap and said a hello, with a smile. No stern glances. Tourists are welcome. There are no strangers here. I was immediately at ease. That does not always happen in insulated destinations. Maybe it was my golfer “uniform” (a FootJoy rain jacket) or my lack of hesitation to imbibe in one of the nation’s favoured beverages. Whatever the case, I felt immediately bonded to the pub, the town, the country. That feeling would permeate for the entire visit.
Just hours before, our group had hurtled north from Dublin, crossing the almost imperceptible dividing line between the “Republic” and the North. The currency changes but to the naked eye not much else does. Sure, over the week undercurrents of the island’s social and religious history would come to light but they are hardly the presence you might perceive them to be from afar.
Better yet, when you get to a course, golfers are just that. One and the same.
Welcome, Here Is ALL the Weather
Amongst our group we could do nothing but laugh as we prepared for our first round of golf in Northern Ireland. The warm confines of the spectacular Slieve Donard Hotel would be difficult to leave for most, but we were in-country to play four rounds of golf, and dammit, that was going to happen.
Sure, it was pouring rain so hard that one of the world’s most renowned links courses, Royal County Down (RCD), was so saturated that it was closed when we arrived for our tee time, but that was not going to deter us.
By the time we hit the first tee the only thing that changed was the fact the course was open. Wind and rain lashed us for eighteen holes, and it was glorious.
Hard? Yes. Visually stunning? That too.
Scorecards had disintegrated by the time we stumbled back to the club house but there, the only thing more dominating than the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains and the Irish Sea were the smiles on out faces.
Golfers wait months to access RCD, and we understood why. As muscular as it is, the 130-year-old course can be intimidating for most, but if you play the appropriate tee (listen to the starter) you’ll simply leave with a healthy respect for the storied layout, and a few less scars.
We tended to our bruises at Brunel’s that night, a local restaurant just steps from the Donard. In less than 36 hours our party, replete with Americans, Australians, and Canadians, were united in the covenant of golf. One where we would all admit that the land we were in, and what it offered, was the essential element.
By the middle of the next day we were like a bunch of kids on the road trip of our lives.
My guess is that many Irish trips end up like that.
A2 Golf Heaven
The next three days were a blur of golf, awe-inspiring scenery and more food and drinks than should be allowable for any human.
We soaked up the sunshine in Ardglass, enjoying its friendly confines both on the course and in the ancient castle that serves as its clubhouse. Pro Paul Vaughan was a wealth of knowledge and his place eschews the stern nature of RCD in the favour of cliff-side views and ample room to play on many holes. The waterside tests in the first part of the back nine will keep you on edge, but overall it is the type of course any level of player will enjoy.
Already emboldened by our start to our journey, the graces of the A2 were our muse for the next days to follow. We based ourselves in the Causeway Hotel at the Giants Causeway and enjoyed the delights of nearby Bushmills, the links of Royal Portrush and Portstewart, and felt as alive as any golfer can. Pub sessions at the hotel and the Bushmills Inn (where the food was also phenomenal) bonded our gang even more.
We could not have had better conditions to experience Royal Portrush. The adjacent strand (beach) was on full display, At the time it was within weeks of hosting The Open Championship; the grandstands and leaderboards were in place, and we capped the day with a reception that included the presence of the Claret Jug.
Even without the trimmings the links were phenomenal, leading many in our veteran group of journalists to count it among the best they had ever played.
Our group split up the next day, with a trio of us moving on to tackle the rugged terrain of Portstewart. There, high winds were ready to provide a fitting send off to our golf time. We all fell in love with the front nine, marvelling at the routing through massive dunes before the closing holes gave us a gentle goodbye.
On To Belfast
One thing I know in this world, one night and a day in Belfast, even though it is a small city, is not enough. I made the most of it.
In fact, in my scant twenty hours there I gave up the immense comfort and views of my high-floor room at the Grand Central Belfast in favour of soaking up every bit of the place that I could.
That included a Black Cab tour with Desmond, who gave us personal insight into the complicated geo-political pedigree of his country. He encapsulated it beautifully, matching the reflection of what we had seen in our short time.
“Most of us here just want to go about our business. To go to work; to raise our families, and just live our lives,” he shared.
That’s what I witnessed in care-free Belfast. Long into the night, after a stunning dinner at The Meat Locker and tour of The Merchant Hotel, we wandered from landmark pub to pub. Surprisingly, without the pleasure of a drink. In and out we went, just wanting to see all the famous stops. Finding people in good form and welcoming in each place.
I fell asleep with the twinkling lights of the vibrant city outside my window.
The next morning, our last in-country, my body needed sleep, but I had one mission left to complete.
At sunrise I walked the streets, largely alone, taking in the famous dockyard that launched the Titanic, and exploring as many cobblestone-covered streets as I could manage in three scant hours. I was in awe of the historic properties mixed in with the modern structures and thought of the words shared by our Blue Badge guide days earlier.
“We have one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” she told us.
Many would assume the past reference was about the nation’s internal battles but after some time in country I understood that there was a greater richness to her view.
Despite what many think, Northern Ireland only lives in the past to embrace their rich heritage, much of that they can be very proud of. They also see a great future ahead. And thankfully for those with an interest, golf continues to be a significant part of their amazing story.
So, when you can, do not delay in getting there to be a part of it.
Grand Central Belfast