The weather. We British have a preoccupation with it. It has been the hot topic since time immemorial but in fairness that is understandable. Any people who live in a temperate climate with such changeable weather are tossed around on the raging sea of its capricious vagaries so our obsession is born of necessity. It defines us. It changes us. It causes joy. It causes misery.
All golfers have a love / hate relationship with the weather. We love it when it gives us beautiful sunshine. We hate it when our 4 ball, booked months in advance, is cancelled due to a flooded course. Indeed, my own relationship with golf can be clearly defined by a landmark moment in my relationship with the weather. The day that I wanted to play more than I cared if it rained was a big moment for me. Up til that point I was a fair weather golfer. It was something I did when the sun shone. After that moment I’d play in anything. It was a sea change and it marked, for me, the moment when I emerged from the chrysalis of a fledgling golfer to the full bodied butterfly of obsession.
Golf was invented on the scrubby shorelines on Scotland and as a result we regard links golf as the true home of the game. And links golf goes hand in hand with bad weather. The new American prodigy may break records on every Stateside course, but we don’t really respect him until he can birdie the Road Hole in a force 9. As such we, as a golfing nation, have a yearning to play golf by the sea, and to test ourselves on the prestigious courses of legend. I am no different and though I have held off until my ability and corresponding handicap was such that even attempting it was worthwhile, I have recently been on a pilgrimage of sorts. You see, I was born in Northern Ireland, and we have some of the world’s very best links courses. We also have the world’s worst weather.
This year I managed to blag myself a couple of sponsors passes to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down and decided to bring my friend Rob with me as he is the only friend I have who would gladly spend 12 hours watching men we don’t know knock a small white ball round a field. In the rain. But, I knew that watching them play would simply ignite a strong desire to do the same and so we determined to get in a round the next day. We would be in Northern Ireland and surrounded by some of the best golf courses in the British Isles, but to be honest there was only one place we wanted to try. Royal Portrush.
This place is another legend. Built at the end of the 19th century as a resort to draw train bound tourists, the course as we know it today was largely designed some years later by Harry Colt, himself an icon of course design. Colt preferred to draw out the natural topography of the places where he worked instead of moving tonnes of earth, and in Portrush he found the perfect triangle of dunes on which to create a links masterpiece. The land was covered in undulations, kinks and hillocks allowing him to place greens in situations naturally defended but visually stunning. But that wasn’t all. Rather than route the course through the valleys of this landscape he chose instead to route it over them, often carving fairways along the ridges of the sand. The great canyon in the middle of the land he left for the Valley Course (boyhood club to one Graeme McDowell) which he completed a few years later. For the Dunluce he wanted the higher ground. He wanted the view. He wanted the wind.
The Dunluce Championship course at Portrush stands over the landscape, allowing visitors great arcing views from Inishowen in the Irish Republic in the west to the white sandstone cliffs of the north Antrim coast along to the east. In the distance the great ruins of Dunluce Castle add a touch of romanticism as the waves crash and roll in the long white strand of beach below it. As a site for anything it’s sublime. As a site for a golf course, it’s perhaps better than Pebble Beach.
Unusually for a links course, Colt saw no real need to litter it with impossible bunkers. That’s not to say there aren’t any. The 17th hosts ‘Big Nellie’, one of the largest bunkers I have ever seen, as high as it is wide, and the intimidating first hole includes a treacherous bunker to the left of the approach which can only be described as a monumental chasm in the side of the hill. Thankfully I have never been in either. On my round I did, however, take 13 shots on the 16th after getting stuck in one bunker and eventually escaping from that to drop straight into another. That hole is destined to be the new 18th when the course is altered for the 2019 Open and woe betide anyone who falls foul of the sand on finishing their round.
But, only half the reputation at Portrush is the course. The other is the wind. Based on the opposite side of Northern Ireland to Royal County Down, it faces north into a seascape where the Atlantic meets the Irish Sea. Scotland is so close you can see it and the wind howls down the channel between the two countries. Even good days can see 20mph gusts. Bad days will see your well struck drive turn full circle and come back at you like a boomerang on a kill mission. It’s extreme.
Playing golf in any wind is daunting. Unless you naturally hit the ball arrow straight, and few people really do, the fade or draw will be exaggerated. Even 5% too much either way and the wind will take it, flinging the ball away from the target. Playing at Portrush means accepting that you will have to deal with the wind. Every drive, every fairway shot, every approach needs to be adjusted and the first time you play it that’s really hard. You can’t always see the green or even the fairway so judging the shot to allow for the wind is…difficult. Sitting as it does on a bluff above the sea means that there is always something blowing, either at you, past you or around you. It swirls and eddies. It recedes and it hits you in the face. Hard.
It also brings with it the rain. On our round we stopped at the quite lovely half way hut (which is a fully stocked bar!) and wallowed in the sunshine, but my caddie pointed west to the impending doom of some horrendous storm clouds and the visible blanket of water it was laying down on Inishowen. By the 11th tee we were soaked, facing an impossible shot to a par 3 below us and a full blown storm coming at us from the side. All we could do was hope the expensive waterproofs we convinced ourselves were genuinely worth the money we spent would work. None of our 4 ball made the green, though I came closest when I hit it before bouncing off the back, and that was only because of good advice from my caddy to play it like a 200 yard hole and aim way, way left. One hole later though, and we were stripping off our wetsuits and again playing in the sunshine.
But the wind never let up.
In fact, our caddies, often quick to tell tales, said that many an overseas golfer on a tour of Ireland for the first time wanted to have bad weather. In some way they only feel the experience is legitimate when they’ve had a round in a gale, the rain lashing them. So many golfers, particularly from the US, play their golf on manicured, pristine courses in perfect sunny weather, so they come to Ireland for the opposite. They come for the extremes. They come because somewhere deep down they know they can only really call themselves a golfer if they’ve parred the 14th at Portrush in the wind and rain.
For the record, I did par the 14th, though it was one of only a handful that I did well on. Even then, it was a fluked second shot from the rough and a solid putt that got me over that line. I also parred the 9th, 17th and 18th, which would be more impressive were the last two holes not destined for the scrapheap as the course is slightly remodelled for the 2019 Open. Apparently they’re not good enough for championship golf. Just hackers like me.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing the Dunluce and I would enjoy it at any time, in any weather, with any company. But, the round I played there was one of the most fun I have had in years, largely due to the caddies and a special mention must be made here of why and how to get the best from that experience. Before Rob and I even arrived we had decided that getting a caddie each would be fun. It’s not something regular golfers do very often, so it makes it special. We also knew by reputation how hard the golf course is and how invaluable to the round it is to have a caddy tell you where to aim and where the dangers lie. I told them they’d get a name check, so I was looked after by William Collins on my round and Rob was entertained by Muskie, which I assume is a nickname. Then again, he is from the North Antrim coast and they’re a bit weird up there, so it could be real! ;-)
I say ‘entertained’ because that’s what it was. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much on a golf course in my life. The weather was changeable at best, I hit some horrendous shots on a course I desperately wanted to play well on, and yet here I was, rolling about, having a giggle. Us Northern Irish have, how shall I put this, a terribly black, sarcastic and dry sense of humour. It’s something that often gets us in trouble with non-locals who take it at face value. But, we also know how to be polite and keep ourselves to ourselves. If I could give you any advice it would be to enjoy the craic with your caddie instead of just making him carry clubs while you stomp around in a grump. Forget about scoring well on this course. If you try too hard, it will destroy you. Life’s too short anyway, but you’ll see a whole different side to the course when you’re laughing your way round. Banter between players is one of the very best reasons to play golf and getting it from these wily old locals is simply the best fun I’ve had in a long time. On one hole I snap hooked a ball off the tee and upon asking if I’d be able to find that was told “Son, you could wrap that ball in bacon and a dog couldn’t find that”. It’s a particular pleasure that has to be experienced to be believed so make sure they know you’re not a stuck up arse and you’ll have a much better time.
As for the overall experience of Portrush, it must be said that the clubhouse is functional, but not pretty. Certainly not on the outside. Inside it has more character, in a sort of 1990’s mock-up of a public school refectory way, so it’s a bit … Victorian Disney. Verging on a home for the elderly perhaps. But, the staff are very friendly and you’re welcomed to the club almost like a day member even when just playing a round. I had a shower in the members locker room after I finished, which in many private clubs is a no go area. The pro shop is fine, stuffed to the gills with branded apparel and with heaving shelves of tatt players can pick up to take home to their peers, so you’ll be well catered for in that department. Rob even bought himself a shirt, which was unexpectedly reasonable in price. It’s not very big though, compared to some places I’ve been (Pebble Beach, for example, has an entire shopping mall selling golf related rubbish).
The one sore point is the town of Portrush itself. As a native I knew what to expect, as Portrush is a sort of cheap thrills seaside resort long past it’s heyday and now populated by day trippers on the hunt for an amusement arcade. It’s biggest draw now is the static caravan which proliferates all spare areas of ground and unfortunately now surrounds the course on the town side. But, to say this detracts from the golf is both untrue and profoundly elitist, something which golf has done well to distance itself from over the past 30 years. It’s better to think of Portrush as existing in the real world, unlike Carmel and the residents of 17 Mile Drive. The world of Royal Portrush is one of fantasy golf but it isn’t so detached from the world around it that it forgets what’s important. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a golf course in which all sorts of people, from the golfers to the pros to the caddies to the locals you see walking their dogs on the links, people with real jobs and real struggles, have learned to co-exist peacefully. Much like Northern Ireland itself.
Just remember to take your waterproofs.
PS, A few months ago I wrote about Royal County Down and at the end I said that I could not compare it to Portrush as I was yet to play it. Now I have played both and I am duty bound to say which I prefer. It’s a very tough call, largely because they are so very, very different. Royal County Down is a fairytale. It’s whimsical and magical like a JRR Tolkein novel. Royal Portush is more War And Peace. Big and expansive and impenetrable, yet more human in ways. I think I’d prefer RCD on days when I wanted to escape the world. Portrush is where I’d go if I wanted to celebrate it.