My take on Royal Portrush

Northern Ireland has been almost invisible to travelling golfers. In 2009, only 34,000 golfers made the trip across the Irish Sea, and while these figures seem healthy enough, they are trifling when you consider the quality on offer. Just ask Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.

In between visits to the most exotic golf courses on the planet, the Irish trio like nothing better than returning home and in particular to the two championship courses that weave their way through the dunes at Portrush. In terms of homecomings, this must rank up there with the best of them.

The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush hosted the Open Championship in 1951. It was the first and only time the event has been held outside mainland UK, and it’s easy to see why. In theatrical terms alone, the course is beguiling as it twists and turns through a warren of high dunes. Add to that the salted blasts gusting off the Atlantic Ocean and you have a track with menace around every corner. Indeed, such is its severity that during the 1951 Open only two golfers broke 70.

Around fifty years later, Rory McIlroy carded an 11-under par 61 at the North of Ireland Amateur Open – quite a feat for the then 16-year-old amateur. “To shoot 61 anywhere is great,” he commented, “but to shoot it around Royal Portrush is even better.”

You can put McIlroy’s achievement into context when you consider the course he was playing. Dunluce Links is a trophy course that is as ferocious as they come. A gentle opener belies the stern test that lies ahead, and by the time you reach the 479-yard fourth, described in the yardage book as a par 41/2, the golfing examination is well and truly under way.

But such is the unrelenting nature of Portrush that this colossus of a hole is followed by a dogleg right that tests the nerve like only the very best holes do. White Rocks begins with a formidable tee shot to a bunkerless fairway shaped only by the dunes that sweep around towards the ocean and on to the cliff-edge green. Hitting the green in two is something that will live with you forever.

And so it continues; a train of exquisite golf holes each providing difficulty and beauty in equal measures. “You have to put yourself in good positions off the tee,” says Patrick McCrudden, a part-time shop assistant at the Portrush pro shop and current holder of the course record since the introduction of new championship tees.

“If you’re going for the greens from the fairway, it’s so much easier because the rough is very thick,” he explains. “Some of the pin positions can be quite treacherous, so you have to think where’s the best place to miss your shot. It’s all about good course management.”

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