I’ll admit straightaway that the Mussenden Links at Castlerock in County Londonderry is right up my street.
It’s an authentic, genuine, rugged links course that does everything you would expect of it and at times much more. It’s rough around the edges but that’s the way I like it and this natural layout certainly delivers.
Founded in 1901 it was Ben Sayers who converted it into an 18-hole layout seven years later before further changes were made by Harry Colt in the 1920’s with more alterations in the 1960’s.
One of the things I most liked about the course is the wandering routing. Quite often during the round I had lost my sense of bearing as the holes twist, turn and intermingle with each other.
You also have to try and shape your tee-shot for maximum benefit which is another thing that always tick a personal box of mine. On my visit in June 2018 the course played so firm and fast that I didn’t hit driver once, it was really running with parched fairways. Several of these undulating fairways have speed-slopes which if you hit can eek out some extra yardage. The course was very brown, had been burnt to a crisp and played absolutely exceptionally.
A couple of modest left-to-right dog-leggers get us underway; the first is a good hole, the second is not (but does have a lovely green complex). It also looked like the green had recently been re-laid, or perhaps even remodelled and was one of half-a-dozen I noticed during the round. Further research tells me it is the work of Martin Hawtree who was asked to redevelop some of the bunkering and six of the greens and their surrounds.
The next few holes are not the best on the course but use up a lot of the poorer terrain early on in round which is always preferred. Out-of-bounds (onto the trainline which hems the course in on the opposite side of the links to the river and sea) is very clearly in focus at the daunting 4th called ‘Leg O’ Mutton’ because of the narrow-then-widening shape of the green and its surrounds; here you must avoid the railway on the right and a magnetic ditch on the left with the green sandwiched between the two. I also found the strategic par-five 5th which narrows from tee-to-green an engaging hole.
Whilst we are playing these holes the promise of duneland awaits us to the left and we finally reach it at the excellent 7th where we play to a rumpled fairway before firing to an elevated green set amongst the sandhills.
This commences a very good run of golf holes and although 12, 13 & 14 are more lacklustre the finale is superb also. The 12th should perhaps be noted for the unusual landform in the middle of the fairway where a gigantic hummock protrudes upwards and can wickedly deflect a ball left or right.
Holes 7 and 8 maximise the duneland with holes which bend around dunes to lofty greens set on plateaus. The secluded 9th green, at the foot of more sandhills, is also a delight whilst the arching 10th plays along and then over a ridge which feeds down to a green that falls away – this hole is more understated but arguably the best on the links. And the drive at the long 11th is no less impressive as the great golf continues.
On the run for home the par-five 17th should be singled out for praise and is another vying to be the best on the entire layout, certainly visually. From a photo-opportunistic teeing ground you play from this elevated position to a collapsing fairway which is guarded by a central bunker at approximately 250-yards with two further deep pits, and I mean deep, about 80-100 yards further on. These must be played over if you are down the right but with a favourable wind you can get home in two.
The last is also a fine finisher; hopefully after a drive that has curved around the dunes on the inner elbow of this left-to-right dogleg you will play up to a raised green sat proudly in front of the clubhouse.
Par is 73 (with five par fives and four short holes) at this rustic links with a top yardage of 6,805.
All-in-all Castlerock delivers a true links treat. It’s not perfect and doesn’t live up to the very high standard of nearby Portrush or Portstewart but it’s certainly the next best thing going and at times can be included in the same conversation.
Castlerock also has a superb relief 9-hole layout called the Bann Links, designed by Frank Pennick in 1986. If you’ve got a spare hour, 90 minutes at most, I would urge you to give it a quick whirl. It actually enjoys the best of the duneland, at the mouth of the River Bann, and is a fantastic warm-up for the main course.
You must walk a good five minutes through a neighbouring caravan park to locate the first tee but once you are there, and have played the modest, lay-of-the-land, getaway hole, it’s non-stop fun with lots of quirk! You will play to rollicking fairways, greens in secret dells and to flags atop of plateaus.
Don’t mistake this for anything less than serious golf though; there are several top drawer holes. There are only nine of them in total and the par-34 layout measures a princely 2,446-yards but it packs a big punch.
If The Club wanted to they could pinch some land from this course to enhance the main links but that would be to the detriment of this delightful short and sporty course. The back-to-back one-shotters (3 & 4) are a true joy, as is the entire course. The first of these successive par-threes is just 92-yards but has a terrifyingly narrow volcanic entrance - the solitary bunker on the entire course is way down to the left and a steep drop to the right - whilst the next is do-or-die in terms of hitting the green.
The 2nd, 6th, 7th and 8th are all medium to short par fours and each one plays really well whilst the 9th – another par-three – has the most unusual green where a back right pocket could potentially hide the flag from view off the tee thanks to a huge dune!
It’s a serious nine-holes but I’d suggest you to not take it too seriously and just enjoy the ride.
Copt Heath is a very fine parkland golf course that requires precision, plotting and a deft touch around the slick greens.
The Blue is a mix of American-style design and traditional English parkland. It's an unusual combination which makes the most of the terrain available. It was designed by Simon Gidman and opened in 1994.