Royal Portrush — the best?

As I’ve mentioned, two weeks ago I managed a trip to Ireland that included the likes of Portmarnock, the European Club, Royal County Down, County Louth and Carton House (more on these later.) But for what it is worth, I thought the best of the bunch was Harry Colt’s Royal Portrush. From the uphill first hole, to the bunkering on the 18th, Portrush is one hell of a test of golf.

So what makes Portrush so fine? The first hole gives you a pretty good indication — the fairway is tight, but fair and the approach is difficult, but still presents options. You can bail right or run a ball in, for instance, but it’ll take two strong shots to have any opportunity to make par, let alone birdie.
The fourth (above) also demonstrates some of facets that make Portrush one of the best — if not the best — in the world. Sure, it is a 460-yard par four, but the hole is wide off the tee, allowing players to put the ball in play. The approach, however, struck with a long iron, must navigate past a hill in the front left and manage to catch the opening to the green. That said, there is a way to bounce the ball into this remarkable green, making the hole difficult, but ultimately fair.

The mix of holes, like the short 8th (right) also play a role in making Portrush so tremendous. While the 4th will test your long game, the 8th is short and asks players to determine just how much of the dogleg they think they can manage. There’s the option to play the hole as it presents itself and hit an iron to the turn of the dogleg; for the more adventurous, there’s the option of biting off as much as you can chew. Failure to pull off the shot will likely result in a couple of lost shots, but the green is receptive to a mid iron and birdie can be had. Himalayas, as the 8th is called, is a significant component in making Portrush great.

The par threes, as expected, are also exceptional. The most famous of which is Calamity (below), the 210 yard single shot hole that plays into the wind. On a tough day, like the one my group faced two weeks ago, the hole can force players to hit a fairway wood.
That’s a tough shot considering there is a drop of 40 feet in front and the immediate front of the green rolls a faded approach off into the rough. Few par threes are as difficult – or clever – as this one.

The only slight letdown at Portrush is the finishing holes, though the 17th, with its massive bunker “Big Nellie,” is a sight to behold off the tee. Beyond that, the 17th is rather pedestrian. The 18th rests on the least interesting piece of land on the property, but still makes for a fine two shot hole by testing the accuracy and power of the player. Bunkers are scattered throughout and the green, which rests to the north of the clubhouse, is a fine example of Colt’s work.

So what are we to make of Portrush, when all is said and done. Like Pine Valley, it presents an intriguing mix of long and short fours and threes. Its fives are also a mix of long and difficult, with options thrown in where birdie is possible. The greens are fascinating and allow balls to roll to their rest.

The best in the world? Having played Pine Valley on two separate occasions, I feel a match between Crump’s gem and Colt’s finest hour would result in a draw. Some have suggested Royal County Down, with its mountain backdrop, is a prettier sight. But when you hit your tee shot on fifth to the green with a backdrop of ocean and white cliffs, it is harder to imagine anything better.

While Portrush isn’t in a league of its own, it plays on a whole other team from most golf courses. The best? Hard to say, for certain. But it is among the most brilliant designs I’ve had the good fortune to play.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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