Northern Ireland

It hits you from the start. Driving into the small northern Ireland "holiday town" of Portrush, you are struck by the vast wall of sand dunes that separates the town from the sea -- and by the thought that soon you will be playing golf smack in the middle of it. You get out of your car and feel a rush from the bracing ocean air, check in at the Royal Portrush pro shop, and prepare to play its Dunluce Course -- the only course outside England or Scotland to have hosted a British Open (1951). You then take to the first tee, only to feel mildly disappointed that the opening hole turns away from the sea.

You play three solid, if uninspiring, holes, then walk off the third green through the wildhaired rough, and gaze to your left at the consoling beauty of the sublime holes set against the sea -- and the game changes. You focus on avoiding the deep blond rough, navigating the big greenside bunkers, and finding the best hump around the green that will make your ball carom in the correct direction. 


The course then darts back and forth in the dunes, making a sort of decisive turn after the 13th. The 13th is a dogleg left par-four with a deep pot guarding the green. The par-three 14th, famously named "Calamity Corner," plays 210 yards uphill across a ravine to a sliver of green, and the 15th heads resolutely for home, its fairway swooping down off a dune about 100 yards in front of the putting surface.

Nothing -- at least not until the final two holes -- is straight or flat. The holes clamber around the dunes and at the remotest parts of the course almost topple into the sea. Everything seems to move, as though the land underneath is roiling as you play. It is impossible and beautiful and wonderfully playable, all at the same time.

Northern Ireland is the ideal golfing destination for many reasons. For one thing, there seem to be two kinds of golf courses: the famously great, such as Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, and those that are merely first-class. The game here also lacks pretension, carts, and, maybe best of all, the five-and-a-half-hour round. (And, as one wag wrote recently, "it isn't brimming with Yanks.") In addition, only at the most reknowned clubs do green fee exceed $50, and most courses require little more than a courtesy phone call to clear the way for a tee time.

The mournful history of the land itself give yet another reason to travel here. In the 1,500 years since St. Patrick landed here in County Down on his return from Europe, invasion, famine, and religious war have brought the region despair time and again.

"The Troubles," of course, have discouraged golfers from visiting Northern Ireland, and rightly so. Unlike in some golf areas of the south, there seldom are busloads of golfers pulling up at three-star hotels. But things have changed since the Good Friday Truce of 1997, and our guide -- actually a New York lawyer and writer who's been traveling to Belfast on business for 15 years -- reminded us of just what it was like in the old days. "There were guardposts all over, with sodliers carrying submachine guns," he said as we drove through Belfast, the capital city. "You were frisked in the airport -- often they'd frisk you going into a movie theatre."

Now with the exception of Belfast's rundown housing projects, there are few signs of strife. Local officials have stepped up their efforts to beckon foreign companies. Tourism is an obvious means toward prosperity and the tourism arms of both the Irish government and that of the North understand that they can help each other. In fact, a joint effort by both governments to attract more American golfers represents the first time the governments have colaborated on just about anything. The goal? That golers who enjoy the purity of the game in Northern Ireland will return.

Just a short iron across the sea from Scotland, the coast of North Antrim has borne history's stamp time and time again. It was here, for instance, that the blood-covered Red Hand, the symbol of Ulster, originated. Folklore has it that a Gael and a Norman staged a race to the shoreline through these waters, with control of the province the prize. Sensing the race was lost, the Gaelic contestant cut his hand off and threw it onto the shore.

Here is also the Giants' Causeway, a vast formation of volcanic rock that gave the area its moniker the "Causeway Coast." The busloads do show up here, exiting to clamber around the hexagonal pillars of lava that appear to march off into the crashing waves. Nearby also is the Bushmills Distillery, the oldest whiskey distillery on earth, and a familiar name to residents of the U.S.

It's also the home to half a dozen fine courses, most proudly Royal Portrush. But the Causeway Coast offers other courses just as comely and nearly as challenging. Portrush's second course, the Valley, exists in the Dunluce's shadow, but it would be an A-list layout any place else. Nestled in, as its name suggests, a valley between the huge dunes and the start and finish of the Dunluce, is a more sheltered course and is shorter. But if offers all the challenges of good links golf.

A few miles to the west, Portswtewart has two 18-hole courses and a small nine-holer. After a moderate opening hole, its Strand course plays over seven holes built recently in the area's huge sandhills. The hole everyone remembers is the par-three sixth. Although measuring only 140 yards, it plays to a plateau green and, depending on the wind, can call for anything from a 3-iron to a wedge.

The Old Course, at the eastern end of Portstewart, is much shorter, 4,800 yards with a par of 64. It begins close to the rocky shoreline before turning inland. It was here -- on this land, not the course -- that golf first was played in Portwteart, back in 1889.

Continuing west for 10 miles, just beyond Coleraine, we encounter an almost primeval sweep of holes in a lonely tract of hilly dunes. Welcome to Castlerock, the least known of the causeway Coast's courses but perhaps the most underestimated. Castlerock starts and finishes inland but is open to the elements for the meat of the course. Speaking of which, the signature hole is the 200-yard, par-three fourth, called "Leg'O'Mutton" because of its shape.

Although the causeway coast is the "emerging" destination, it would be a grave mistake to come here and miss Royal County Down, on Ulter's southeast coast.

Royal County Down tumbles over land suited for naught but hiking and losing golf balls. Its outward nine switches felicitously back and forth, revealing an uncanny procession and variety of shot demand which seem beyond the capability of any mortal designer's imagination. For instance, the ninth, the most famous hole in the north or south, features a blind drive over a wall of gorse -- by no means the only such shot on the course -- against a background of the towering Slieve Donard mountain. Keep it as far left as possible for the best angle for your middle-iron approach. 


After the round our group reconnoitered over a few pints then decided to head down the road to play a little-known course named Ardglass, in a peaceful little seaside village fabled as a centuries-old hole-in-the-wall for pirates and bandits. The golf course is the town's prize, an alluring panorama of sea views, rolling inland hills, and greens perched atop cliffs. Ardlgass is very much a hometown golf club where you'll happen on school foursomes or dads playing with their sons, and the ancient clubhouse has as hospitable a taproom as you could hope to find.

You can stumble across a glorious little course here practically by accident. One day we struck up a conversation with someone wearing a "Kilkeel Golf Club" windshirt -- and soon we were headed about 20 miles south of Royal County Down to have a look at this nifty little parkland course. Then we hastened across the border to play a course called Greenore, on a peninsula between Dundalk Bay and the southernmost part of Ulster.

But wherever you may go in Northern Ireland, whether in the wilds of the dunes at Royal Portrush or on the first tee at Royal County Down, you may be struck by the same thought, as you survey the terrain around you, dusty green and comforting, like some ancient, indestructible wool sweater. Planting your golf ball amid the peat-scented mist, clouds shrouding the sky overhead, you will wonder that as cursed as this part of the world has been, is how blessed it is with golf.