A quick trip, but an amazing one nonetheless. I met up with Jamie Kennedy of the European Tour, along with his buddy Keith Paterson as we met up in Belfast for a bit more than 48 hours of world class golf in Northern Ireland. First up was Royal County Down, followed by Royal Portrush, and capped off with Portstewart.
In addition to these summary posts, please check out the podcast that Jamie and I recorded after the trip talking about the experience.
The hype train for this gem on the North Atlantic Ocean has been steaming along well before the R&A announced that The Open Championship would be returning to the Dunlace Links at Royal Portrush in 2019 for the first time since 1951. A lot has changed in tournament golf since Portrush last hosted a major championship event, and significant changes were required to both the golf course, and the layout in general to be able to accommodate thousands of golf fans, players, grandstands, and all of the other logistics that go into a golf tournament. The changes are numerous, and according to some locals, the property has spent more time in recent years resembling a building site rather than a golf course. We were lucky enough to see it in late April as spring was blooming on the northern coast of this small country, and saw a golf course ready to emerge from a construction cocoon into a a big boy championship golf course.
We were afforded the luxury of time that we were not blessed with the day before at Royal County Down, and we made sure to make the most of it. The two hour drive from Newcastle that morning was a disaster for my hangover, but as we pulled onto the property, it magically lifted. We hit some balls on the range, scraped some putts around the putting green, and even hit some chips at the wonderful practice facility.
Our host for the day was David Mulholland, a member at the club, and as we would soon find out, quite the stick. He hadn’t played 18 holes since July of 2016, but the Northern Irish Jeff Knox showed no signs of rust on this day. We joined him and his son for lunch in the Skerries Room, then set out for one of the more enjoyable rounds of golf I can ever remember.
I didn’t want to start out immediately discussing the changes being made to Royal Portrush, and for a couple of reasons. One, I had never seen the course before the changes that have been made and the ones that continue to be made, thus I have nothing to compare it to. Two, the course that we played on this day was so great that I don’t want it to seem like the developments surrounding the course supersede the experience of actually playing it.
The first hole is a bit nondescript. A straightaway par-4 with an uphill approach to the green (shoutout to Keith for stuffing one to a foot for a tap-in birdie on this Saturday). The second is a strong dogleg left par-5 where you begin your views of the sea in the distance. The third is a cute par-3 with generous banks flanking the green that will help bound the ball towards the center, or punish you if you miss. This is where I captured the first footage of the sweet swing of David:
Effortless and repeatable. I’ve never seen someone make golf look so easy. Jamie was David’s only challenger on the day, but more on that a bit later.
The 4th is a strong two shotter, with a tee shot that aims you at the out of bounds down the right, and an approach that heads back out towards the sea. I busted on a drive and still needed a 5-iron to reach a green guarded by dunes. Such a strong par-4.
Your sense of anticipation begins to rise as you climb the tee box to the world famous par-4 5th. Everybody’s cameras came out for this signature hole on a course chalked full of them. There’s a reason I’ve got four pictures of this hole alone in the space below. It’s one of the most scenic holes of golf I’ve played, and somehow manages to look sexier from every different angle you look at it.
It’s a shorter hole, and strongly encourages you to swing away at a driver. Jamie and I were able to get it down within about 50 yards of the green, toss some wedges in, and walk off with some rather memorable 3’s.
This scene was so great that we went back out after the round with the drone to attempt to fully capture it. Just off the property to the right, there was a wedding on the beach. Families were down in the sand with their dogs and their kids soaking up the April sunshine. Waves crashed on the shore and on the cliffs in the distance. Not a lot of words were shared among our group when we reached this point, as we did our best to just take in the sights, smells, and sounds.
The 6th is a strong par-3, pictured on the right below, requiring a mid-iron that must be kept left of the large mound protecting the right side of the green.
Open Championship Changes
From what I gathered from David, with the agreement to bring the Open Championship back to Portrush, there were a series of changes required by the R&A to be made to the golf course. The most significant change is the removal of the 17th and 18th holes in their entirety, and the addition of two phenomenal looking new holes near the sea. The new holes will be the 7th and 8th holes, and the original 7-16 will be pushed back two holes, with the old 7th hole being the 9th, and the old 16th now being the finale.
Here’s a brief flyover of the magnificent par-5 7th. (The wind was crazy, and the drone was not performing well, so I wasn’t able to take it further down).
It may help that the turf on these holes had been virtually untouched by play to this point, but the holes look incredible. Two holes from the Royal Portrush Valley course were absorbed by the Dunlace Links, and I’m going to assume that the changes will be met with 100% approval. The original 17th and 18th holes were rather non-descript, and deemed to be not worthy of a closing finish of an Open Championship. While the views of the sea will be limited due to the size of the dunes framing the right side of the new 7th, the upgrade is significant, and I can’t wait to see them in play.
The 7th as shot above is a long par-5, and the new 8th is a dogleg left par-4 that heads back in the opposite direction. The second shot will be played back towards the Giant’s Causeway and the cliffs you see in the distance. The pictures probably don’t quite do justice to how appealing these holes are to look at in person.
The new holes are far from the only changes being put in play. Several greens have been redone, a tunnel has been installed to be used by players to improve the flow of traffic, and many other logistically minded adjustments are apparent across the property. Despite all of the work being done, on this day in late April, the course appeared to have taken great shape according to everyone in our foursome.
I’m not gonna do a hole by hole for all of these, but will point out some of what I found to be the best and most significant holes. The routing was slightly altered for us, as we essentially swapped the order of the 7th and 9th holes, swung through the exceptionally quaint halfway house, and made our way to the back nine. Remember that in the future, all of these hole numbers are going to be bumped up by two.
The 13th is a great par-4 back out towards the water called “Skerries”, for the view of the Skerries Islands in the distance.
Then you come back with a beast of a par-3 called Calamity. At over 200 yards and huge forced carry, this is one of the most intimidating shots on the course for an amateur, and will play as a great test down the final stretch as the 16th hole at the 2019 Open Championship. The picture below doesn’t do justice for how appealing yet challenging this hole looks like from the tee.
The 15th is a fun par-4, and very driveable at 360 yards due to the severe downslope leading down to the green. Myself and Keith were able to pipe a few drives down the hill and onto the putting surface for some easy 3’s. The 16th, which will of course be the finale in 2019, is a great dogleg right par-4 that will be a stern test as a finishing hole.
We traversed on to the finishing two holes, a long par-5 and a medium length par-4 as Jamie and David continued their Duel in the Sun. As Jamie stood over an 8 foot par putt on 18, we both knew what it was for without having to even mention it aloud. I let out an audible “YES!” as it lipped in for an incredibly impressive one-under par 71, edging Ulster Jeff Knox by a single stroke (by my count). Playing off the same handicap, he blew the doors off me by a clean 13 shots in one of the more impressive rounds of golf I’ve seen. We played it at about 6,700 yards, with a strong wind, on a course he had never seen before, and he shot 71? Unreal. Tremendous amount of pop.
Summary and Epilogue
Aided by nearly perfect sunshine, the luxury of time, and the guidance of a distinguished member of the club, Royal Portrush was a transformative experience. Members are typically not permitted to take more than one guest out on a Saturday, and David specially arranged with the club to have us out. As was typical in almost all experiences I’ve had in the UK, the club did not have an aura of stuffiness in the least, and the experience was was much richer for it.
At the recommendation of nearly everyone that had ever been to Portrush, we hit up Harbour Bar for dinner. Nearly the entire town was there apparently on the same recommendation, as the wait for dinner was a solid 1:45. Not to worry. We put our names in, headed upstairs to (an also very crowded) bar, ordered a few pints of the black and some appetizers, found a booth, and cheers’d to another epic day. The time flew by, our table was ready, we went to town on some delicious food, and tried to keep our eyes open.
After dining, we went over to the smaller downstairs bar for a nightcap, and Jamie immediately earned the respect of the famed bartender Willie by ordering a Bushmill’s 12 year. We took up residence at Darren Clarke’s normal booth, and were even bought a round of drinks by Willie himself.
It was very busy, and we enjoyed lively conversation with those seated near us (they thought I was Canadian?). The atmosphere was jolly, and we could not have had a better first 36 hours in the country.
If you can’t tell with the 2,000 words, and the plethora of photos within this post, this was a really special day. I’m thoroughly excited to revisit the area for the Irish Open this year, and hopefully get back out to take another crack at Royal Portrush. This is a really special place, and it’s going to be awesome watching the pros take it on in 2019.