Castlerock Golf Club has long resided in the shadow of its illustrious neighbors along Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast— Portstewart and Royal Portrush—but it would be a mistake to overlook this gem, which embodies all the essential charms of links golf. Its fine points include a pure seaside routing, firm greens, ferocious rough and an unmistakable intimacy with the lyrical landscape surrounding it.
Castlerock’s Mussenden course and takes its name from Mussenden Temple, part of the 18th-century estate of Frederick Augustus Hervey, the fourth Earl of Bristol and later the Anglican Bishop of Derry. The Bishop built his estate, the centerpiece of which was Downhill Castle, on the vast green headland that overlooks the Atlantic and sweeps down to Castlerock.
The club was founded in 1901. In 1908 Ben Sayers, the famed professional and clubmaker at North Berwick, Scotland, was engaged to lay out a new 18-hole course. Sayers was a colorful and engaging figure who played in every British Open from 1880 to 1923. A small, dapper man who always wore a bow tie, Sayers was reputed to have been a circus acrobat before taking up golf. He was known to perform cartwheels on the green after holing an important putt.
The Mussenden Course has undergone substantial alterations over the years, but its great vitality and outlandish features still bear the stamp of Sayers’ design. In the 1920s Harry S. Colt proposed changes that resulted in the creation of four new holes and additional bunkering. Following World War II, two holes were lost to housing. Meanwhile, financial difficulties forced the club to sell sand from several fairways and neighboring dunes for use in housing construction. This led to the building in the 1950s of the current 8th, 9th and 10th holes and a new green site on No. 7, followed by further modifications in the late 1960s.
One of the club’s many charms is the location of the 1st tee, comfortably ensconced in the quaint seaside town of Castlerock. The first five holes head away from town and the gray rectangular tower of the Presbyterian Church, toward the patchwork fields of the Bann River Valley, with the town of Portstewart and its golf links lying in the distance. Looking back from the front nine toward town, a player enjoys clear views of the abandoned walls of Downhill Castle and the adjoining mausoleum, which, like
Castlerock’s most famous hole is the 200-yard 4th, named “Leg O’Mutton” for its distinctive configuration, but also referred to by locals as the “Infernal Triangle.” Played in typically swirling winds, the hole demands a strong, accurate strike to a shallow green.
The 6th through 9th holes make up a superlative scenic stretch that’s nestled in sand dunes close by where the river flows into the sea. The back nine is equally testing, highlighted by three distinctive par 5s and the 420-yard 12th, named Spion Kop, where two great mounds sit smack in the center of the fairway.
From the tee on the18th hole, a short par 4 with an enormous hump of dune on the right side that blocks the approach to the high plateau green, there is a clear view of Mussenden Temple.