(This is the sixth in a series about my 2005 trip to Ireland. Day one can be found here.)
There’s nothing better than being first off. I think that’s always true in golf. Certainly there’s nothing more calming for the nerves after a long cross country drive with Baltray to the historic Bushmills Inn the night previous. And even though Castlerock wouldn’t likely be the first choice of most heading to the area (it might not even be third, as Portstewart is held in high regard by some), I must say I was delighted by the grey sky and light wind we found when we arrived at Castlerock at 8 am.
Surprisingly, there was no one at the club yet. No one in the pro shop, only a handful of maintanence staff to tell us to hit away. So that’s exactly what we did.
Castlerock came as a bit of a surprise, though not right off the top.[photopress:castlerock5.jpg,full,alignright] The opening hole was a fine mid-length four, and the second hole, an apparently 180 dogleg, was downright bad. From there the course, designed apparently by Old Tom Morris with some tweaks by the likes of Harry Colt, had all the elements one would want from turn of the 20th century golf: wild dunes, quirky streams, railway tracks, plunging, dipping greens.
The best at Castlerock rival anything you’ll find in the country; the ninth, a spectacular long par 3 of more than 200 yards offers a remarkable green set in the midst of looming dunes. Similarly, the 17th, a par five with its lumpy, face-of-the-moon fairway and green hidden just ever so slightly, forced one to hit brave shots.
The rest was just good golf, and the course was a pleasure to walk as it rolled away from the clubhouse and back into the dunes on the 18th.
After our five mile walk around Castlerock, I’m not sure what enticed me to do another few miles down a steep hill (and later, up again) to see the Giant’s Causeway. Oh, what’s that you say? One of the great natural wonders of the world. That must be it.With site seeing out of the way, our foursome headed to the majestic Royal Portrush to test our meddle. It was at Portrush that the last British Open was played outside of Scotland and England (1951), and it may well be the last instance the Open Championship is played on Ireland’s lime green shores.
That’s a shame because the course may be the best in the world, one of those rare tracks that could still host the best in the business and not be embarrassed.
One has a sense of the greatness of Portrush from the start. The opening hole is a mid-to-long par four with a second shot up a rise to a green on the plateau. The course remains relatively open at the start, including through the long and dramatic fourth, through to the fifth, with its tee shot majestically being launched at the sea.
That’s where Portrush turns and gets tight and extremely hard. [photopress:Royal_Portrush_4th.jpg,full,alignright]Thick fescue lines most narrow fairways, meaning accuracy is more important than length, as it won’t matter how far you hit it if it ends up in the rough. There is still exceptional holes within this grouping, including the 8th, with its dogleg forcing players to hit their tee shot over a small outcropping of dunes. All of this culminates in “Calamity,” the all-or-nothing par three 14th where players either hit the green or perish in a huge hollow that plunges in front of the hole. It is a good example of Colt’s style at Portrush, which emphasizes heroic shots at several points in the round.
Yes, Portrush ends with a simply and tough par four, but until that point the course is flawless, and even the closer is not without its charms. I’d argue it Portrush is the best in the world.
At the end of the day we retreated to the Bushmills Inn for a couple of Guiness, a remarkably good dinner in the inn’s dining room, and inevitably, a strange encounter with an drunken Irish ghost. If the trip had ended at Portrush, with the rain just starting to come down, it would have been perfect. Only one thing could make it better — Royal County Down.
Tomorrow — Day Seven, Royal County Down
Royal Portrush: Website
Green Fee: £110 to 125