Like a whiskey tasting at the 235-year-old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland’s links golf is full of all the flavors you’d expect but always surprises you with new colors, smells and even emotions. That visceral reaction starts at the top of every golfer’s travel bucket list with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, ranked No. 1 and No. 7 on Golf Digest’s World 100 Greatest Golf Courses (outside the United States). Fair warning: It might require you to book as much as a year in advance.
Portrush’s Open course, Dunluce Links, and the underrated Valley Links make for a stirring 36-hole day. The Valley is better than ever with elevated views on its new closing stretch, including the downwind, drivable 18th. For the world’s best players, the Dunluce Links’ appeal is that its challenges are clear. Though that can be just as appealing to average golfers, there’s a difference between reading about a concussion and picking a fight with Conor McGregor, so train properly and be sure to enjoy the views of the sea before you get knocked sideways.
As for Royal County Down, which also has a nifty par-66 Annesley Links, the status of its Championship course (above) is as obvious as the view looking back at the first tee hard by Dundrum Bay. With the Mountains of Mourne and the Victorian spires of the 120-year-old but thoroughly current Slieve Donard Hotel looming like a Hollywood CGI backdrop, golf here is as in a dreamscape. Its holes are 18 perfectly constructed mysteries, some blind but all beguiling. Emblematic of the entire links, you could play the one-two punch of the par-3 fourth and par-4 fifth the rest of your life and never tire of the game.
Beyond Portrush and R.C.D., there are the discoveries that savvy travelers already have checked off their Northern Ireland courses bucket list. Atop that roster put these:
Portstewart, which has three 18s, is most memorable for the Strand’s opening elevated tee shot, but the entire course moves like a revolving moon-scape between the sea and the River Bann.
Castlerock’s recently upgraded Mussenden Course bounces along like the prototypical links, with burns, sod-wall bunkers, blind holes, a rail line and the town of Coleraine in the distance.
Ballycastle is a delightfully schizophrenic mix of parkland, heathland and links holes. Typical is its beach-side 10th, whose 110 yards can play as a pitching wedge or 3-wood.
Ardglass starts with your back literally against a clubhouse in a castle that dates to the 1400s. The tee shots on the first two holes call for bold carries up and across cliff edges and crashing surf below, and much of the course is elevated and exposed to winds that demand solid strikes, confident lines and often a good sense of humor. At Ardglass, like the region itself, the laughter before, during and after the round might just be the best thing you’ll discover.