Dunluce Road unfurls along a perimeter of jagged white cliffs to the east of the Northern Irish town of Portrush. It’s raining heavily, and the sky is a similar brooding grey to the basalt columns in nearby Giant’s Causeway. You join us at the most scenic point on the route: to our right, the crumbled ruins of Dunluce Castle – House Greyjoy to Game of Thrones fans – emerge from their rocky camouflage on a promontory 50 feet above the frothing Atlantic crashing against the shore.
Snapping us out of our rapture, a speeding car overtakes us, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a vehicle coming the other way. Drama is befitting of any pilgrimage to a course on The Open rota, but I could do without the heart palpitations heading onto the first tee.
The route slopes down towards the beach, and through the mist and duneland, the familiar sight of a golf course takes shape among the undulating landscape next to the shore. Royal Portrush, host of The Open in 2019, is stunning from afar but up close the swathe of links terrain, which will soon play host to the largest sporting event to come to the country in decades, is a feral beauty that entices challengers into her clutches: “This,” as locals in the nearby pubs will tell you, “is how golf was meant to be played.”
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It hasn’t been an easy journey to bring The Open back to Northern Ireland and Royal Portrush – both hosting the prestigious competition for the first time since 1951 – but the course has passed the R&A’s expectations for an Open venue with flying colours. Renowned golf course architects Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie, whose recent transformation of Trump Turnberry has received plaudits worldwide, were tasked with renovations to Harry Colt’s 1932 design and the work to create two entirely new holes on the Dunluce Links.
By the time we step onto the 420-yard par-four 1st hole, tournament preparations have entered their final stages, with just the brand-new 7th and 8th holes – occupying a sensational spot of land at the foot of a gigantic dune – not yet ready for play. The new holes are replacing arguably Portrush’s only weakness, the current 17th and 18th holes, which will instead be used to accommodate the spectator village and infrastructure throughout The Open.
Back on the course, the first fairway is a narrow target from the tee. Long grass just off the fairway is an omnipresent feature on this track – and its greatest defence, with the course having the fewest bunkers (62 in total) on the Open rota. Drive straight, shoot low. Simple.
As we get to the meat of Mackenzie and Ebert’s changes, we roll through the lengthened par-five 2nd, now playing a hefty 577 yards into a new green complex, and make our way towards the coast and the signature 5th hole. With the green teetering spectacularly on the edge of the cliff, this 403-yard left to right dogleg is a real highlight.
To the left of the 5th green, a giant dune keeps watch over the brand-new 7th and 8th holes. Scoping out the terrain revealed a highly appetising 572-yard par five that plays down into a valley and narrows towards a bunkered green before doubling back on itself for a 435-yard par four that looks likely to be one of the toughest challenges on the course.
Say your prayers to the golfing gods – in the swirling wind, par feels like an eagle.
Players must take an aggressive line to a slanting fairway for the easiest approach to the green, mindful to avoid the severe dune bank along the left-hand side, ready and willing to punish any errant drives: this is a hole where majors will be won and lost. Combined with the 5th and tricky 191-yard par-three 6th, this run of four holes is an inviting prospect whether you’re viewing on TV or playing it in the flesh.
It’s worth noting, too, that all four par threes were preserved in their original format, their shape and form already considered perfect in every way. Around the turn, the 15th and 16th holes are score wreckers disguised by their beauty. The former begins with an uphill blind tee shot that requires a perfect line over impenetrable rough – knowing your yardage is all important here if you wish to find the centre of the fairway, doglegging from right to left – but the difficult drive is worth it once you reach the crest of the hill and one of the highest points on the golf course. To see the rolling coastal landscape laid out in front of you is one of the best sights in European golf.
The next hole, known by locals as Calamity Corner, is a 230-yard uphill par 3 that more than lives up to its ominous name. Dangerfront and right makes this one of the most pressured tee shots on the course. Say your prayers to the golfing gods – in the swirling wind, par feels like an eagle. To put it another way, when my slightly under-hit shot clung on for dear life at the front of the green, the post-round Guinness in the modern clubhouse tasted better than I could ever have imagined.
Royal Portrush isn’t the only golf course gaining momentum in 2017. From 4-9 July, the stunning duneland of Portstewart Golf Club’s Strand course will play host to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open – and what a course for the best players on the European Tour to use as their warm up for The Open later that month.
Down on the beaches of Portstewart Strand, Game of Thrones fans visit one of the TV programme’s most recent filming locations, but the best fight scene here is our golfing party doing battle with one of the finest front nines in world golf a few metres away.
Standing on the first tee is a humbling experience – before you, huge dunes act as intimidating guards of the serpentine fairways winding at their feet. The sensational par-four 1st, surely one of the best opening holes anywhere, plays downhill left to right. My group quashes its first-tee jitters and sets up birdie opportunities. Our confidence is short lived, though. If the 1st is stunning, the 2nd is simply breathtaking: thread your drive between two dunes the size of office blocks, and you’ll be left with a 160-yard iron shot to an uphill tapered green guarded by more dunes. It’s tough, but worth every bit of challenge. It continues in this manner for a further seven holes – dodging green giants, dipping over hollows and challenging every feature of our game. This is rollercoaster golf, with a set of clubs your only safety harness to its twists and turns.
The draw of a big tournament has brought with it much-needed improvements to the back nine, too. A Dr Jekyll to the front nine’s Mr Hyde, it has more of a parkland feel as it opens up along the River Bann inland. It’s a serene nine holes, bringing you back to earth after the wild front nine. Meet the diamonds of the Emerald Isle….