Discovering Northern Ireland and its hidden gems

Rory Anderson heads to this golfing hotbed to take in three of the region’s courses as well as the sights and delights of its capital city, Belfast.

Rory Anderson
Wed, 20 Dec 2023
Discovering Northern Ireland and its Hidden Gems

It has been my pleasure to have played golf in 24 countries all over the world since I first started working in the golf industry.

In my role as a golf influencer, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to all corners of the globe and to some of the most famous golf venues in the game, but I can honestly say that, pound for pound, the island of Ireland is my favourite golf destination.

Believe me, I am not prone to making sweeping statements but I can’t think of another country that beats it when you consider everything on offer.

From the unbelievable quality of world-class golf courses – both links and parkland – and famed hospitality to the history, culture and variety of off-course tourist attractions on offer, Ireland, quite simply, has everything needed for a once-in-a-lifetime golf break that will be etched in the memory forever.

So, when the invite came through to spend a few days in Northern Ireland on a golf and city break to Belfast, I could not find my passport quick enough – until I remembered that you do not actually need one to travel to Northern Ireland as it is part of the UK!

Related: All you need to know about golf in Ireland

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One of the many joys of playing golf in this particular part of the northern hemisphere is how easy it is to get to. There is a plethora of daily flights that run from all over the UK to Northern Ireland’s three airports – Belfast City, Belfast International City of Derry Airport in Londonderry – while another popular option is to take the ferry from Liverpool to Belfast.

If you are looking for a golf and city break, Belfast is the ideal option, with lots of fantastic courses within easy driving distance as well as an array of tourist attractions and the chance to enjoy the great vibe of Northern Ireland’s capital city.

No trip to Belfast would be complete without a visit to Titanic Belfast – an emotional experience with the attraction built on the site where the ill-fated liner was launched in 1912 – while St. George’s Market should also be on your list. Belfast has a great nightlife and numerous great restaurants, but the Mourne Seafood Bar is a must if you like your seafood. Great vibe and fantastic food, especially the oysters.

The itinerary for my trip featured golf at three of Northern Ireland’s finest venues – Castlerock to the north of Belfast in County Antrim and Belvoir Park and Ardglass in County Down – home to, among other things, Royal County Down and the studios where the epic fantasy television series Game of Thrones was filmed.

First up was the Mussenden Course at Castlerock, a 90-minute drive from Belfast city centre and situated on the famed Causeway Coast which also features Portstewart and Royal Portrush (host of the 2025 Open). A classic links and set amid towering the dunes, Castlerock is a more than worthy neighbour to its more famous counterparts.

Originally founded as a nine-hole layout in 1901, the course was extended to 18 holes seven years later and has been the subject of a major renovation programme in recent years overseen by the architect Martin Hawtree. Six holes have been changed and the results are there for all to see, with the Mussenden earning widespread acclaim from players after being one of the two courses used in this year’s ISPS Handa World Invitational tournament, co-sanctioned by the DP World Tour, LPGA and LET.

After a gentle start which includes the renowned par-three fourth hole ‘Leg O’Mutton’, the course really comes alive from the sixth hole onwards and presents a number of challenges that will test all parts of your game, while the par-three ninth (214 yards off the tips) is one of the most visually attractive holes in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Not being much of a city person, I felt immediately at home on the Co. Antrim coast and could easily have stayed for longer. My visit after golf to the Giant’s Causeway – 20 minutes from Portrush and featuring around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption – left me as awestruck the fourth time around as it did the first time I saw it. The Bushmills Distillery, The Island of Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery, is also highly recommended while make sure you check out The Bushmills Inn. Featuring an assortment of nooks and crannies and a great menu, it is super cosy and will definitely be my accommodation of choice when I next head back to this part of the world.

Just a short drive from Belfast, it is hard to believe that Belvoir Park is set just two miles from the bustling city centre, it is so peaceful. This beautiful championship layout was laid out nearly 100 years ago by Harry Colt and bears all the hallmarks of the legendary designer as it meanders through 163 acres of mature woodland.

Boasting a distinguished history having hosted The Irish Open, The Irish PGA, and The Irish Close tournaments, it is no pushover and is a welcome inclusion on any golf itinerary.

Fans of Game of Thrones – including myself – will be well aware of the important role Northern Ireland played in the filming of the series, making a trip to County Down and the GOT Studio Tour at Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge a must for any diehard fan. Opened in 2022, the state-of-the-art visitor experience has quickly become one of Northern Ireland’s most popular attractions so booking in advance is recommended.

Of course, golfers from across the world have headed in their thousands to the region to pay homage to another superstar over the years, and Royal County Down – venue for the 2024 Irish Open – remains as popular as ever with lovers of the game.

I was headed in a different direction, though, to Ardglass Golf Club, and could not have been more impressed with what I found. I had never played there before but, having spent years listening to people on social media telling me how good it was, I was intrigued to see for myself. They were not wrong.

It is an incredible golf course and features one of the best opening stretches of holes that I have ever played, with the first five or six holes hugging the coastline. I had a perfect weather day, but I can imagine that the course is quite a challenge when the wind gets up.

Either way, you are likely to take as many shots with your camera as you do with your clubs, while fish and chips in the world’s oldest clubhouse (it dates back to 1405) in front of an open, peat fire served as the icing on an already sumptuous cake.

It was one of the most enjoyable days that I have had on a golf course for a long, long time and it was with a heavy heart that I packed my bags and headed to the airport for my flight home. Suffice to say that, to steal an iconic catchphrase from The Terminator film, I will be back. And hopefully very soon.

www.ireland.com/golf