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Royal Portrush

A Colossus on the Giant’s Causeway Coast

By: Robert Sidorsky

Appeared in April 1999 LINKS

Royal Portrush Golf Club is an oversize golf course in every sense. Located on the northern shore of Northern Ireland, it runs along the Giant’s Causeway Coast, one of the most monumental meetings of sea and land in all the world, where limestone cliffs sculpted into strange shapes by the tides rise from wide arcs of beach to meet the green and rolling glens of Antrim.

Legend has it that this aquatic highway is the work of Finn McCool, an Irish giant who was bent on building a road to reach his love, a lady giant who lived on the Scottish isle of Staffa. Finn never completed the project, encountering a rival and apparently equally giant suitor, at whom he hurled a mighty rock that missed its target and landed in the sea. Thus was born the Isle of Man.

The golf course at Portrush is the work of a different sort of giant, Harry S. Colt, one of the titans of golf course architecture. While golf has been played at Portrush since 1888, Colt laid out the present-day course in 1932. Portrush is links golf in its most blissfully intense and elemental state. The championship course at Portrush is named Dunluce, and another 18-hole course, Valley Course, is a fine old links as well.            

The Dunluce course is set on high ground so that, unlike many links courses, there is a constant awareness of the sea and exhilarating vistas at every turn. Portrush has few bunkers and no holes of unusual length, and the members are proud of the almost complete absence of blind shots. The challenge is posed not by artifice but by the fresh, constant Atlantic winds and the certainty that any ball that strays from the tossing fairways will find itself in the tall, clingy sea grasses that eddy around banks of red-berried sea buckthorn, wild rose bushes with lavender blooms and forests of ferns.

Portrush has the great distinction of being the only course outside England and Scotland to host the British Open, which was played there in 1951. The winner was Max Faulkner, at the time famed for his canary-yellow plus-fours and collection of 300 putters, one of which had a head made of driftwood and a billiard cue for a shaft.

The late Fred Daly was born in Portrush and learned the game as a caddie there. Daly went on to win the British Open in 1947, becoming the only Irishman to have his name engraved on the Claret Jug. He later donated his championship medal to the club.          

The first four holes of the course all run along the coast road, away from the attractive town of Portrush, which flourished as a Victorian seaside resort where Ulster’s well-to-do came to take the sea air. The 5th hole, known as White Rocks, twists and tumbles down to a green perched on the chalky cliffs above the sea. It is one of the most famous holes in golf. From the tee, the fairway swoops to the right and the golfer must pick out a white marker in the dunes over which to drive.

Another celebrated hole at Portrush is the 14th, fittingly named Calamity Corner. It is a 213-yard par 3 that into the wind requires all of driver. If the Causeway Coast is Northern Ireland’s 17-Mile Drive, the 14th is Portrush’s version of the 16th hole at Cypress Point. From the tee looking out toward the green is the backdrop of the handsome white and gray row houses of Portrush, with their steeply pitched roofs overlooking the harbor.

The 14th is the centerpiece of a wonderful three-hole loop that begins with the 13th hole, which climbs uphill as it doglegs from right to left to a green that overlooks the Skerries, and finishes with the 15th, which swings from left to right as it skitters downhill.

With its unabashedly natural links and rich history, Royal Portrush is a true goliath of a golf course on the Giant’s Causeway Coast.

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