Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
To say I was completely and utterly blown away by the sheer quality and golfing aura that surrounds what will be the 2019 Open Championship venue is a gross understatement. Writing this review a week later I’m still struggling to come to terms with just how good the Dunluce Links is.
I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to play all of the top links courses in the United Kingdom yet even in comparison to those placed in the very top echelon there is something about the links at Portrush, in County Antrim, which gives it an undefinable edge. It’s links golf in its most satisfying form.
I’m honestly not sure it gets much better than this. I had played Royal County Down two days prior and as brilliant as that was Royal Portrush (a completely different style of links it must be said) had a special ingredient of stardust that had me mesmerised and searching for superlatives.
Admittedly the topography is ideal for golf but Harry Colt, not overly known for his work at the seaside, has created a genuine masterpiece when he remodelled it in 1929 following the formation of the club back in 1888 as ‘The County Club’. Two of his original holes were replaced in the 1940’s with the now 10th & 11th but the essence of the course is undoubtedly his. The recent work of Martin Ebert in eliminating what were two of the weakest holes on the property (the old 17th and 18th) and replacing them with the new 7th & 8th has also taken something already very highly regarded to a completely different level.
I could describe each hole in blissful detail but it is not just the exceptionally high quality of the individual holes which elevate Portrush to a different stratosphere, it’s the odyssey the course takes you on; the timing of the holes, the exquisite routing of the links, the unexpected magical moments you experience whilst trying to golf your ball. It’s almost as if the actual golf you are playing is totally inconsequential but at the same time the actual golf you are playing is the most important thing in the world. The experience is sublime. The actual golf is even better.
Of course it’s a proper test of links golf; endlessly challenging from the tee, imperiously demanding into the greens and intensely interesting once you are upon them. Royal Portrush has it all and more.
The bunkering is minimal throughout but is located in all the right places although quite often it is the natural contours of the land that Colt has used to defend the course. The bunkers are clean in appearance but menacing due to their gathering nature which means they have a much larger footprint than their size suggests.
Each tee seems to offer a plethora of choices in terms of line and length, risk and reward. Corners can be cut, aggressive lines can be taken but sometimes conservatism is the best choice. The state of play in the match or how your scorecard is shaping up may determine the decisions you make.
The drives at the 4th and 5th are an early introduction to just how good Portrush is from the tee but every tee-shot will ask you a different question, however, each time having the ability to shape your ball will benefit you because the fairways move slightly one way or the other at driving distance; there’s rarely a straight hole here. There are some forced carries but most of the time the golfer can decide how much he wishes to chew off and how agressive he wants to be.
One criticism often thrown at Portrush is the penal nature of the thick rough (in combination with the relatively slender fairways) and whilst this may be true on my visit during the heatwave of 2018 the course played absolutely perfectly. The prolonged spell of dry weather had thinned out the fescue and your ball was findable, playable but rightly hindersome if you tried to be too greedy.
Approach shots into the greens must be given the utmost respect and will test your ball flight in any sort of breeze, a regular occurrence on this elevated parcel of land that juts out into the Atlantic. The rising second shot into the opening hole immediately engages your golf brain and sends a warning of what lies in wait. In a similar manner to the tee-shots you are asked to work your ball into the greens; the 4th is a fine example as is the 9th & 18th and even the shorter par-fours (5, 10 and 15) leave you on edge with only a short iron in hand but with a multitude of ways in which to execute the shot. You hope and pray that your judgement is sound.
Many of the greens are expertly sited on top of dunes whilst others appear to be nestled within them but the creativity and imagination of Colt rmeans that what often appear to be gathering putting surfaces are actually mystifyingly difficult to hold. Due to the sparse use of sand you will often be faced with a recovery shot from a tightly mown area off the crispest of turf.
Hole-after-hole Portrush delivers big time. There are several magic moments during the round. Standing on the 4th tee and trying to work out the puzzle of just how to get your ball to the green in the fewest strokes possible is one for sure. The plethora of options when you are stood on the 5th tee with the green far away to the right is another bewildering juncture. Visually, walking onto the 6th tee is a feast for the eyes and a place you simply need to drink it all in; I could have spent an hour here simply appreciating the view, the land that we’ve already covered and will cover and simply appreciating the game of golf.
The sixth tee is a place where a long sandy beach, the sea, white cliffs and duneland converge to create the most delicious of golfscapes. The first third of the course is wonderful which culminates at this teeing ground. There are then two further specific areas which for me tie the rest of the entire course together thanks to its exceptional routing.
These two lesser moments, but equally important to the momentum of the round, are at the short 13th, backing onto the 17th green, which is one of those lovely areas where golfers converge and gives a glimpse of things to come. Then the wonderful 14th green and 10th/15th teeing area is another of those special locations, under the gaze of the halfway house, at the epicentre of the links. For me, these two subtle passages of play help glue all the bits together before what is a thrilling ending. It may perhaps be by accident but the creation of the two new holes has enhanced the flow and rhythm of Portrush which now builds to a big crescendo over the final few holes.
In summary, Royal Portrush has a tempo and tone that is unmatched.
After 14 holes you genuinely feel as if you’ve played enough high quality golf to satisfy a full 18 but the nirvana continues from the 15th as the course breaks new ground - just when you thought we’d seen it all we experience new things over the unparagoned closing stretch that we haven’t witnessed before; the variety and timing of events at Portrush is one of its biggest assets.
There’s a curiosity about the Dunluce links, it’s a round that you never want to end, like a dream you never wish to wake up from. It is truly a dream.
The unexpected wide drive at ‘Skerries’ – named after the rocky outcrops in the near distance - is so very inviting but must be kept left before a tricky approach to a majestically contoured putting surface with another glorious vista as we surprisingly but pleasingly return to the coast. It’s a chance for birdie but it’s one we must surely take because a dropped stroke is almost inevitable at the next; ‘Calamity Corner’ a par-three of over 200-yards across a vast chasm which must be almost 100-feet deep and falls steeply to the right. This is the final euphoric high moment at Portrush but the final two holes still deliver.
The unique 17th has a ski-slope fairway which could add 80-yards to your drive if you are long enough and whilst the 18th may not be regarded as one of golf’s truly great finishing holes (yet) it is a very formidable and well-designed two-shotter which will no doubt crown a worthy Open Champion in 2019.
The coastal road from the East, where Dunluce Castle is located, gives perhaps the best appreciation of the course in all her glory. It's one I experienced a couple of days before playing the course on the way to my hotel. From here you can see that the holes are set high up on the cliffs but at the same time scrunched low down in the dunes. From this grand vantage point you can really appreciate the beauty of the links where everything is in perfect proportion.
It all adds up to 7,313 yards from the championship tees, however, most of us will play from 6,705 or even 6,476. Par is 72. It will be less for The Open – which returns for the first time since 1951 - because the long 11th will surely be a par-four. It will be interesting to see how the R&A set the course up for The Open. On a calm day, like all links courses, the scoring will be good. I just hope they don't grow in the fairways to bowling alley width and juice up the rough to protect par because then we wouldn't see the best of Portrush.
Royal Portrush can also boast a second course and a very fine one The Valley Links is too. The first tee is located around 700-yards from the main clubhouse (you can drive or walk down the old 18th fairway) where you will find a starters hut and buildings for the Ladies Branch of Royal Portrush Golf Club and the clubhouse for Rathmore Golf Club.
Following an innocuous, but perfectly acceptable start, the round really gets going at the 6th from where we enjoy a run of holes until the 10th which are quite excellent. The 6th, 7th and 8th in particular offer much shot-making opportunities - I simply loved the short par-four 7th ‘Cradle’ where you have a number options on how to find the putting surface with your approach and the 8th is a bamboozling long hole.
We must then find some big hitting for the up and down nature of the flatish 10th, 11th and 12th before a wonderful run for home which contains some full blooded links golf.
The Valley course, also originally designed by Colt, recently lost two holes (5 & 6) to the main Dunluce course but created some new ones towards the end of the round to compensate and tweaked a couple of others. The slightly altered 16th (now a par five) is the highlight from this rousing closing stretch which also contains a couple of very good short holes and a fun finisher over bumpy ground.
The course in its own right is a very fine links and one that makes a fine bedfellow for the Dunluce. It’s no pushover either at 6,346-yards, the par is 71.