Blown away by the Irish Isle's northern coast

The par-4 5th hole 'White Rocks' on the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush Golf Club.

The par-4 5th hole 'White Rocks' on the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush Golf Club.

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- Here’s a textbook case of how not to do a golf trip: 8 days, 11 courses, four hotels, 700 miles. I always tell people not to cram too much into a golf trip. But what do you skip when canvassing Ireland’s northern coastline?

In our case, not much. Irish Links Tours & Travel had arranged an aggressive itinerary for our group of 24 Golfweek course raters.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin, we were whisked to Enniscrone Golf Club, where we warmed ourselves in the modest clubhouse on the island’s far northwest corner. It quickly became apparent that we were going to get the full Irish golf experience, starting with horizontal rain as we made our way through the towering sand dunes along Killala Bay.

That proved a tame introduction compared with our subsequent visit to Carne Golf Links, which, like Enniscrone, was designed by Irish legend Eddie Hackett.

Everything about this place, on the northwest shoulder of Ireland, was more remote and extreme. The dunes had more kick to them, and the wind howled at 40 mph, making it difficult to walk, much less stand upright, and rendering our pull carts useless. Someday I’d like to go back and play the back nine under rational conditions. This is surely the most exhilarating, if maddening, stretch of quality golf I have ever known. Back-to-back extreme reverse-camber short par 4s; a downhill par 3 where I had to aim my 6-iron more than 45 degrees left of the target to allow for the wind; and a wild buckaroo of a par-5 finishing hole. The pillbox of a clubhouse served as a perfect little storm shelter.

The elements were relentless; steely pellets of rain pounded us the next day at County Sligo Golf Club in Rosses Point. When the rain finally abated, we were able to get a better appreciation of the crumpled dunes that shape this Harry S. Colt design. The course occupies a sandy peninsula between Sligo Bay and Drumcliff Bay and affords stunning views of the craggy Ox Mountains that loom all around.

Our one decidedly modernist gesture ensued at Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, 50 miles east and inland of Sligo, just over the border into Northern Ireland. Here on 600 acres sits a five-star golf resort and conference center, done up as a retro-feudal town that’s appealing even if unintentionally kitschy. The Faldo Course, designed by six-time major winner Nick Faldo and opened in 2009, makes spectacular use of an expansive natural setting. The course shifts gears, ambling variously along one of two lochs, wooded parkland and open meadow. Afterward, we found our way (by invite) off campus to a local, unnamed “ceiole house,” a makeshift bar and music hall, replete with homey shrines to Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and John Wayne, as well as an open bar for which contributions were welcome but fees not assessed. It all made for a late night.

• • •

At Rosapenna Golf Resort, way north in County Donegal, they’ve been playing golf astride Sheephaven Bay since Old Tom Morris laid out a course there in 1891. Our morning there was devoted to the resort’s Sand Hills Links, a 2003 design by Pat Ruddy that rumbles through towering dunes and can wear you down if you wander off the fairway into the heavy, knee-high rough.

The second round proved a bit schizophrenic. Ostensibly, our play was over Rosapenna’s Old Tom Morris Links, but a road expansion had impinged upon part of the original layout and a new nine, designed by Tom Doak and opened a decade ago, formed an unaccountably miserable front nine that combined poor design with worse construction and grow-in. Some members of our group fell out at the turn, but those of us who persisted were rewarded with a stretch of Old Tom’s holes that sat beautifully on a vast stretch of linksland below a towering ridge.

At Ballyliffin Golf Club, the northernmost links on the whole of Ireland, the members are everyday tradesmen, which these days means folks who have trouble finding work. The two caddies in our group, one an electrician and the other a homebuilder, were suffering along with the rest of the country and supplementing their incomes by looping. The fee for a single round, 40 euros (approximately $50), covered a month’s worth of golf membership dues. No wonder that at workingmen’s clubs, the members assiduously protect their right to caddie for tourists. Along the way, visitors benefit from their homegrown expertise.

And what a joy to have that help at Ballyliffin – by far the surprise of the whole trip. The Old Links course started as a nine-hole links in 1947 and expanded to 18 holes when moved into crushed dunes east of town in 1970. It was good enough to host European Tour and Ladies European Tour events. Faldo thought so much of the place that he first tried to buy it, then renovated it. But he can’t claim credit for the best hole on the course, the 179-yard, par-3 fifth hole, “The Tank,” so named because the green amounts to an elevated fortress sunk into a rocky crag that fends off the approaching bombardment.

The sister course, Ballyliffin’s Glashedy Links, a 1995 design by Ruddy and Tom Craddock, wends its way through some of the most towering dunes in the whole north of Ireland. So subtly do the first few holes dance atop those sand piles that you hardly notice you’ve climbed, until you make the turn to the tee of the 181-yard seventh hole (“Loch na nDeor”) and find yourself gawking at the green 80 feet below. The design concept here is disarmingly seductive; a front nine that wraps sinuously counterclockwise up the back of a hill, and a back nine that reverses the path and is more oriented seaward to the north.

Continuing east into Northern Ireland, Portstewart Golf Club, another workingman’s club, has been home to golf for more than a century, though its present routing did not get settled until 1990. That’s when club member Des Giffin designed seven new holes for the front nine on previously untouched dunesland overlooking the River Bann. The result is an exhilarating opening stretch, though the consensus that night at the

Bayview Hotel was that the quality of ground and shotmaking are not matched by the back nine.

• • •

Lest anyone forget it, class still matters in Great Britain. As soon as you leave one of the blue-collar clubs and go to a place named “Royal,” you can feel the difference. At Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, there are no members as caddies; that’s a fate reserved for locals who likely will never become members at these upscale, very English-style clubs. You can see it in the well-tended Victorian gardens adorning the clubhouses. And you can see it in the subtle gender bias of the forward tees, which require women to tee it up at 6,100-plus yards.

Culture aside, these two royal clubs offer extraordinary golf. The only argument among golfers lucky enough to have played them is which one is better.

Portrush, designed by Old Tom Morris in 1888, sits hard along the Atlantic. It starts off modestly, then accelerates into a mad dash at the fifth hole, a 411-yard dogleg right called “White Rocks,” where the green is cut so close to the edge that you can land an approach shot with seeming security, only to see it bound over and down onto the beach. As for sheer heartthrob drama, no hole among the 198 we saw came close to the theater of horrors presented on the tee of the 210-yard 14th, aptly named “Calamity.” There’s an area short left of the elevated green roughly the size of a picnic blanket for landing a smart run-up approach. Otherwise, you have to launch the ball high and far to carry a grassy crevice short and right – so deep that caddies and players have suffered broken legs trying to climb through the ravine.

As for Royal County Down, it made sense to save this for the last day, as we might have spoiled things by having played it first. The turf here south of Belfast along Dundrum Bay is lush to the touch but plays firm. And even on blind shots, you know that something special awaits when you finally look down upon the landing area. The most beautiful moment of all comes at the tee on the 486-yard, par-4 ninth hole, where the bay rolls in on the left. Deep behind, as if forming a backdrop, are the Mountains of Mourne, and immediately behind the course rises the facade of the iconic 19th-century landmark Slieve Donard Hotel.

We made it across the whole of the north of the island. Along the way we gave up our umbrellas, for when the rain comes it rips in sideways with such fury that the only equipment you really need is a two-piece insulated rain suit and a tolerance for hellacious conditions. The occasional storms make you appreciate all the more one of those glorious, sunny days when the late-afternoon light opens across the sandy links and you see the craggy, gnarly ground – as if the gods had opened a crack in the sky to let the sunlight pour in.

Sure, there are moments when you want to quit the nonsense of epic struggles and just settle in at the bar for another pint.

But there are moments when you want to cry for the good fortune you have in stumbling upon this golf scene.

• • •

If you go

A road trip along the coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland will quench your thirst for links golf:

1. Enniscrone Golf Club

353-96-36297; www.enniscronegolf.com

2. Carne Golf Links

353-97-82292; www.carnegolflinks.com

3. County Sligo Golf Club

353-71-9177186; www.countysligoglfclub.ie

4. Lough Erne Resort

44-28-6632-3230; www.lougherneresort.com

5. Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort

353-7491-55000; www.rosapenna.ie

6. Ballyliffin Golf Club

353-7493-78100; www.ballyliffingolfclub.com

7. Portstewart Golf Club

44-28-7083-2015; www.portstewartgc.co.uk

8. Royal Portrush Golf Club

44-28-7082-2311; www.royalportrushgolfclub.com

9. Royal County Down Golf Club

44-28-4372-3314; www.royalcountydown.org

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