A Couples’ Golf Tourney in Northern Ireland

Bunker trouble at Castlerock Golf Club in Northern Ireland. (Image: Sharon McAuley)


Canadian Golf Traveller editor Brian Kendall and publisher Sharon McAuley journey to Northern Ireland for a nervous first step into the world of tournament golf. Ready to make the trip yourself?  The scoop on popular Irish amateur tourneys that tee off on some of the Emerald Isle’s most fabled courses. 

 

Brian Kendall: From seaside at Scotland’s Old Course to the mountain fairways of Banff, my wife and I have enjoyed countless rounds of golf together. But the invitation to play in Northern Ireland’s annual Causeway Coast Mixed Golf Tournament made us both nervous. Would the unaccustomed stress of partnering in tournament match play, even in an event advertised as “casual and fun,” blast a divot in our usually happy marriage?

Sharon McAuley: My biggest concern was whether our games would hold up under the pressure. Would Brian be able to tame his wild driver and keep the ball in play? Could I rise to the challenge of making every shot count? Knowing how competitive I can be, Brian suggested we make a pact. No harsh words or dirty looks after a flubbed shot. No recriminations later on back at the hotel. Win or lose, we vowed to savour every moment of our Irish adventure.

BK: It was a dream itinerary. We’d rubberneck in Dublin for a day after landing, get in a warm up round at renowned Portmarnock Golf Club, and then drive from the Republic to Northern Ireland’s famously scenic Causeway Coast for the start of the tournament. The three-day better ball, handicap-adjusted event would be played at a trio of the world’s most hallowed links, Portstewart, Castlerock and Royal Portrush.

SM: Visiting Dublin had been a fantasy of mine ever since I’d studied James Joyce’s Dubliners in university. Fighting our jetlag, we explored Grafton Street, a popular shopping avenue, and the stylish Temple Bar district, both still bustling despite the headlines about Ireland’s imploding economy. To celebrate our arrival, we hoisted a pint that evening at Davy Byrnes pub on Duke Street, an old haunt of Joyce’s.

BK: Eager to start swinging the clubs, we made our way early the next morning to Portmarnock, a classically designed beauty set on a wind-buffeted peninsula just north of Dublin. Like all true links, Portmarnock plays on ground uncovered when the sea receded. Humps and hollows, whin bushes, gorse, heather and sand dunes confront golfers at a constantly demanding layout created more by Mother Nature than man.

SM: Shell-shocked by Portmarnock, we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence as we pointed the car toward Northern Ireland and the start of the tourney the next day. About three hours (and countless roundabouts) later, we checked into charming Bushmills Inn on the main street of Bushmills, just inland from the Antrim Coast and home to the 400-year-old whiskey distillery of the same name.

BK: Tournament day dawned gloriously sunny, a gentle breeze rustling the golden fescue at nearby Portstewart Golf Club’s Strand Course, set on bluffs hard by the sea in the resort town of Portstewart. Together with our opening round opponents, Liam and Rosemary, a gregarious couple from Dublin, we stared awe-struck at one of the game’s most gorgeous opening holes. Fighting down our jitters, Sharon and I managed to ignore the distraction of the crashing ocean and the blue Donegal Hills to hit solid drives off the elevated tee to the fairway flanked by massive dunes below.

SM: Brian struggled with his driver through the rest of the front nine, and I could feel the pressure to put some points on the card. When he suspected my energies were flagging, Liam, a retired Cadbury’s executive, generously offered my pick from his stash of chocolate bars. By the time Brian finally caught fire on the back nine, the match was as good as lost.

BK: Hey, links golf takes getting used to. A course like Portstewart forces North American golfers to hit shots they might never play in a lifetime of parkland golf back home. Hacking it out of the fescue with a lob wedge quickly becomes your go-to shot.

SM: Still happily reliving our best shots, our group joined the ten other couples in the tournament (a mix of Irish, Brits, Americans and Canadians) for lunch on the clubhouse deck. Most were early retirees with plenty of time to travel and work on their games. Everyone, winner or loser, clearly felt exhilarated by the setting and the golf.

BK: That afternoon we explored the Causeway Coastal Route. Huge cliffs of red sandstone define a stunning coastline dotted with historic castles and forts. But the highlight was the Giant’s Causeway, an astonishing honeycomb of thousands of six-sided basalt columns formed alongside and under the sea following a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.

SM: That’s the science. But I prefer the Irish folktale of how the love-struck giant Finn McCool built the columns as stepping-stones in an attempt to woo a beautiful giantess on the Scottish island of Staffa.

BK: Finn McCool himself would have had trouble muscling a ball out of the hairy rough the next day at Castlerock Golf Club’s Mussenden Links, a short drive from Bushmills in the seaside town of Castlerock. Our round two opponents were Herb and Henriette, another amiable Irish couple who just managed to edge us during a hard-fought battle over Castlerock’s rollercoaster ride of hillocks and swales.

SM: I still laugh when I remember Brian’s head disappearing as he followed his ball into the largest and deepest bunker I’d ever seen. Despite the loss, our no-recriminations pact held fast. By now we were both having too much fun to stress about our scores.

BK: Sharon and I were high from the thrill of playing one incredible links after another. But the tournament’s organizers wisely saved the best for last. The next morning we turned a corner of the Causeway Coastal Route and marveled at the unmatched setting of Royal Portrush Golf Club’s Dunluce Links. Tumbling down the hillside to seaside cliffs is an unbroken profusion of links holes as fine as any in Ireland. Some fairways are no wider than a county road, and many dogleg abruptly through dunes blanketed with whin and gorse.

SM: Herb and Henriette awaited us on the first tee for the second day in a row. Having so far posted the worst records in the tourney, we four played that day not for glory, but to avoid the embarrassment of finishing in last-place.

BK: Back and forth we battled deep into the round. On the par-five seventeenth, stunned by scoring a rare par, I walked off the green with the flagstick still clutched in my hand, finally called to my senses by the group behind. In the end, we beat Herb and Henriette on the scorecard, only to lose the match once our handicaps were reckoned in.

SM: We expected at least a little razzing from all our new friends that night during the closing dinner at Royal Portrush’s clubhouse. But people seemed hardly to notice who had won or the final standings. Everyone was too busy laughing, sharing memories, exchanging e-mail addresses and vowing to come back to Northern Ireland and play it all over again next year.

 

Tee it up in an Irish tourney

 

2017

Great Irish Links Challenge  May 15 to 18. A field of up to 600 will compete at two famous courses in the southwest Irish Republic: Lahinch and Trump Doonbeg. Open to amateurs with an official club handicap of 24 or less. Entrance fee: $672(US) per person.

Causeway Coast Amateur Golf Tournament June 5 to 9. One of Europe’s largest amateur golf tournaments, with up to 800 competitors. Four rounds played in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, Ballycastle, Castlerock and Ballyliffin. Open to amateurs with an official club handicap of 20 or less. Entrance fee for international visitors: $246(US) per person.

 

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