Northern Ireland: golf guide

Crown jewels and best of the rest - where to play in Northern Ireland

Charlie Lemay's picture
Fri, 22 May 2015
Northern Ireland: golf guide

As a golf destination, Northern Ireland is hard to beat. It boasts some of the most beautiful and characterful courses on the planet and has a wonderfully friendly atmosphere that will make even the most timid tourist feel at home.

In boxing terms, Northern Ireland is a featherweight fighting in the heavyweight division. 

Despite being a relatively small country, you will need more than a weekend break to sample the best that Northern Ireland has to offer.

After all, this is where Rory McIlroy, footballer George Best, author CS Lewis and poet Seamus Heany grew up, it's where Titanic was built, and it has a unique cuisine which is supplemented by a seemingly endless supply of Guinness -  and that's before you've even left Belfast.  

We've highlighted 15 of the country's best courses, three of which should be on every golfer's "bucket list". 

The crown jewels

Royal County Down

The host of this year's Irish Open is one of the most characterful golf courses you will ever tee it up on. 

Located in the scintillating setting of the Murlough Nature Reserve, Newcastle, players can gaze at the Mourne Mountains and out over the Irish Sea as they make their way around. 

Read a full review of Royal County Down

The opening nine is arguably one of the greatest stretches of links golf on the planet, while Peter Alliss said the layout is "the best prepared links I have ever seen".

Players will have to contend with super slick greens, punishing heather and gorse, blind shots and often strong wind and rain. 

Regularly ranked inside the top five courses worldwide, Royal County Down is a "must play" for all golfers.

Type: Links
Length: 7,168
Par: 71
Price: £££££

Royal Portrush

Founded in 1888, this famous layout boasts two spectacular Championship golf courses - the Dunluce and the Valley.

Dunluce, redesigned by HS Colt in 1947 and again in 1951, hosted the first ever Open Championship held in Ireland. In the event, only two players managed to break 70, which highlights the layout's difficulty.

Undulating greens with nasty run-offs are scattered among huge sand dunes, overlooking the spectacular Antrim Coast.

The Dunluce Links is now 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke's home club, while Portrush-born Graeme McDowell has been a fixture there since childhood.

Regularly voted in the world's top 20 courses, Royal Portrush is one of Europe's premier tracks and will host the Open Championship at least three times in the next 25 years. 

Type: Links
6,658 (Dunluce) 6,054 (Valley)
72 (Dunluce) 70 (Valley)

Lough Erne Resort

Lough Erne was voted "Golf Resort of the Year" by the Irish Golf Tours Operators Association in 2010, cementing its place as one of the Emerald Isle's best golf destinations.

The layout was six-time major winner Nick Faldo's first design in Ireland, and it is situated in a 600-acre peninsula between Lower Lough Erne and Castle Hume Lough.

Water is a prevalent feature at Lough Erne, coming into play on 11 holes, so accuracy is paramount in order to score well. 

While still in its infancy, having only been open since 2007, it is quickly earning itself a reputation as a world-class golf facility. 

Type: Lakeland
Length: 7,167 yards

Best of the Rest

Ardglass Golf Course

Situated on the south-east coast of County Down, Ardglass is a rugged links course that winds its way along the coast. 

It's claim to fame is that it boasts the oldest building in the world being used as a clubhouse, built on the remains of fortified warehouses erected around 1400.

Dramatic elevation changes provide golfers with spectacular views of the Irish coastline, especially on the opening five holes which hug the cliff tops.  

Type: Links
Length: 6,268 yards
Par: 70
Price: £££

Ballycastle Golf Club

The seaside resort of Ballycastle is situated on the Causeway Coast which is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Founded in 1890, the final layout didn't come into fruition until 1926 and has remained largely unchanged since. The opening five parkland holes are bounded by rivers, while golfers can enjoy superb views of Glenshesk and the North Antrim Coast.

Type: Parkland/links
Length: 5,876 yards
Par: 71
Cost: £££

Belvoir Park Golf Club

This layout is considered one of HS Colt's finest designs, and it lies just three miles from the centre of Belfast. 

The layout was considered Northern Ireland's best parkland track until some of the holes were used for cultivating potatoes during World War II. 

All the fairways are framed with trees, and players can marvel at Samson and Goliath on their way round - the cranes that built Titanic. 

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,685 yards
Par: 70
Price: £££

Castlerock Golf Club

Situated on the North Coast, Castlerock is a fabulous links course located in a small seaside village. 

Golfers can enjoy breathtaking views of the River Bann, Donegal, and on a clear day Scotland and the Isle of Islay.

The Championship Mussenden Course is a quintessential seaside track, with firm, fast greens. Even closer to the sea is the nine-hole Bann Course.

Type: Links
Length: 6,805 yards (Mussenden) 4,892 yards (Bann)
Par: 73 (Mussenden) 68 (Bann)
Price: ££££

Clandeboye Golf Club 

The Championship Dufferin Course, which is largely woodland and heathland in nature, is renowned for its unforgiving opening holes, boasting narrow fairways and many trees.

The Ava Course has one of the best holes in Ireland, the 524-yard, par-five second hole, known as the "Tower Gap". The sheltered nature of this layout makes it just as popular as its sister course.

Type: Parkland/heathland
Length: 6,742 yards (Dufferin) 5,755 yards (Ava)
Par: 71 (Dufferin) 70 (Ava)
Price: ££

Galgorm Castle Golf Club

Home of the Northern Ireland Open, Galgorm is set on 220 acres of mature parkland in the grounds of one of the country's historic estates.

Rory Og MacQuillan Castle overlooks the 10th green and a network of ancient earthworks are on show at the fifth and eighth holes. 

At the rear of the clubhouse is the Golf Academy, boasting a floodlight driving range, and the estate also hosts a beautiful garden centre. 

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,930 yards
Par: 72
Price: £££

Holywood Golf Club

Rory McIlroy's home course is set in the Holywood Hills of County Down, seven miles outside Belfast. 

The flat opening nine has open fairways, while the back nine is undulating and features water on a number of holes, plus impressive views across Belfast Lough and plenty of McIlroy memorabilia in the clubhouse.

Read a full review of Holywood Golf Club.

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,078 yards
Par: 71
Price: £

Kirkistown Castle Golf Club

Situated on the Ards Peninsula, Kirkistown Castle is an old-fashioned links test and is the most easterly 18-hole course in Ireland. 

The James Braid-designed layout makes perfect use of two small hills at either end of the course. The 12th hole links the two hills, with the tee box on one and an exposed green on the other. 

The area has the lowest rainfall in Northern Ireland, making it playable all year round.

Kirkistown Castle is the closest links course to Belfast. 

Type: Links
Length: 6,167 yards
Par: 69
Price: ££

Malone Golf Club

Malone's 27 holes centre around a large trout lake which will test golfers on numerous occasions as they make their way around. 

The club is located on 330 acres of woodland park at the Ballydrain Estate, which provides a serene setting. 

Read the full review of Malone Golf Club

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,706
Par: 71
Price: ££££

Portstewart Golf Club

Portstewart offers golfers 54 holes of spectacular golf on Northern Ireland's famous Causeway Coast.

The Strand Course is the club's premium layout, set in classic links country amid towering sand dunes and views of the Donegal hills, the Atlantic and the River Bann. 

The original Old Course has tested players since 1894, and the modern layout has come a long way since then, hosting numerous prestigious events. 

Type: Links
Length: 7,004 (Strand)
Par: 72
Price: ££££ 

Royal Belfast Golf Club

Founded in 1881, Royal Belfast lays claim to being the oldest golf course in Ireland. 

In 1881, Thomas Sinclair spent a holiday in St Andrews, Scotland, and enjoyed the game so much he persuaded the Laird of Holywood to give his land free of rent for a course. 

In 1885 the club became "Royal" after the Prince of Wales was invited to become its Patron.

HS Colt and WA Murray designed the current course, which dates back to 1925.

It provides stunning views of Belfast Lough and is a tough but rewarding outing. 

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,185
Par: 70
Price: ££££

Shandon Park Golf Club

This popular East Belfast parkland course has some of the best greens in Northern Ireland.

The layout is not long but provides a challenge to all levels of golfer.

The club has been a production line of talent, the most recent being five-time European Tour winner Michael Hoey. 

Type: Parkland
Length: 6,336
Par: 70
Price: ££