By anyone's reckoning, Northern Ireland is tiny. It has a population of just over one and a half million, which is just three per cent of the total of the United Kingdom. Put another way, there are over four times as many people from Hong Kong as there are from this scenic – if historically troubled – corner of the Emerald Isle. Amazing then that three of the last six major champions – Graeme McDowell, Hong Kong Open-bound Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke – should hail from such a diminutive country.
Add to those luminaries the names of Michael Hoey (who after 10 years playing pro golf has won twice in Europe this year) and the comparatively new name of Paul Cutler (the unbeaten star turn at this year’s Walker Cup) and Northern Ireland has a quite remarkable roster of players.
While in part true, it’s probably unsustainable to argue that it’s simply a unique product of the gritty Northern Irish character which has made such great golfers of these men. Similar cases are made for Scottish football managers (eight of 20 English Premiership managers at the time of writing are Scotsmen) but the truth always seems more complicated.
Perhaps Northern Ireland’s embarrassment of pro-golfing riches has something to do with its fantastic courses, most famously Royal County Down and Royal Portrush which regularly appear right at the top of the rankings in Britain, Europe and even the world. They are Northern Ireland’s finest tracks and in fact all of Ireland’s greatest courses. They are must-plays on any travel itinerary around the north. Not all the aforementioned players call those clubs home - though McDowell and Clarke are Portrush men – but all regularly tested themselves on them whilst coming through the ranks, so maybe their unique challenge explains something of the players’ successes.
Add to those two courses a third must-play, Lough Erne (which Rory McIlroy now represents on tour), a fabulous Faldo layout at Enniskillen, and you have the basis of a near unparalleled golf tour. Lough Erne is only three years old, not a links course, and laid out as the centerpiece of Northern Ireland’s first ever five-star resort. This may sound unpromising to the visitor seeking seaside sport, but it is an undoubtedly brilliant addition to golf in the region.
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN
Royal County Down is an amazing golf course in an amazing location, regularly, almost continually, rated number one in the British Isles. It requires considerable skill: the golfer must be accurate and long. But it offers up much fun too: there are some blind drives, the fairways are fast and the greens furious. The Mourne Mountains, the Irish sea, the glorious gorse, the smell of peat, the little town of Newcastle’s towers: all these add to the golfer’s joy. That Tom Morris, Harry Vardon and Harry Colt have all contributed to the design just adds to the thrill.
Perhaps its finest holes are the fourth and the ninth. The fourth is a long par three, so lovely and so tricky it gives great significance to any well struck shot which will forever live in the golfer’s memory. The ninth is probably the course’s most famous hole. It demands two great blows. Cresting the heathery hill over which the blind drive has been struck you are captivated by the sight of the mountains beyond the bay and the lighthouse at St John’s Point. The perfect drive will have been struck square on the spire of the red-bricked Slieve Donard Hotel above the cluster of town roofs, carrying the brow and then dropping 100 feet to the fairway below. Perhaps one can get away with a slightly slack drive, so long as it travels far. But the approach must be threaded firmly and finely amongst a pair of bunkers.
The front nine is much lauded, possibly the greatest half in the world of golf. But in fact the entire composition is wonderful. The once slightly mundane 18th now boasts 25 bunkers – not just for the sake of it; the result is rousing.
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