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Northern Ireland may claim title over the brightest star in golf today but its courses also have something of a reputation. Mark Alexander takes a look at some of Ulster’s best, both past and present, while Colm Bradley – sports editor for the Fermanagh Herald – provides a local’s verdict on recently opened Lough Erne

When Rory McIlroy sealed his victory at the inaugural Lough Erne Challenge this summer, he did more than just pocket $300,000. His opponent in July was two-times Open winner Padraig Harrington, the affable Irishman with a loping stride and a killer three wood.

In recent years, Harrington had become the figure-head of Irish golf inviting the world to visit the Emerald Isle to test its wonderful links. In a seemingly innocuous head-to head match on the shores of Lough Erne in Fermanagh, all that was swept away. Ireland had a new, curly haired champion with a fearless approach to golf and a youthful grin.

McIlroy’s accession took place on one of Ireland’s newest courses on a stunning site five miles west of Enniskillen. The coup couldn’t have had a better setting. Lough Erne Golf Resort emerged from the embers of Northern Ireland’s turbulent past when Jim Treacy hatched the idea of creating an international golf resort modelled on Loch Lomond. He acquired nearby Castle Hume Golf Club in 1999 and four years later signed up Nick Faldo to design a new championship course at the heart of a world-class resort.

Inspired by Loch Lomond, the brand new Lough Erne Golf Resort is blessed with a stunning location – one Nick Faldo has used to dramatic effect in creating one of Ireland’s most talked-about new layouts

But while Treacy’s determination illustrates what can be done in a decade, the province’s varied golfing heritage is testament to a hundred years of intuition stretching back to the days of Harry Colt, Tom Morris and Alister Mackenzie. In short, this is a destination that offers golfers a real treat in terms of mixing the old with the new.

History in the making

It all kicked off 128 years ago when Thomas Sinclair returned smitten from a summer trip to St Andrews and promptly set about establishing what would become the Royal Belfast Golf Club – dating from 1881, officially the oldest golf club in Ireland. As the popularity of golf – and membership numbers – grew, the club relocated to a number of sites, eventually settling on the grounds of Craigavad House in 140 prime acres on the shores of Belfast Lough. It was here that Harry Colt set about creating a design that has remained true to his vision since it opened in 1926.

As the elder statesman of Irish golf, Royal Belfast Golf Club has earned a reputation for meticulous fairways and impeccable greens that weave through a beautiful parkland setting featuring established trees and the occasional stand of gorse. The par four 9th hole – the most difficult on the course – is the only one that breaks with that convention, playing alongside the shores of the lough.

Not surprisingly, the club has hosted a number of high profile tournaments, including the Irish and Ulster professional championships and is preparing for the British Girls’ Amateur Championship in 2010. But for all its history, Royal Belfast falls short when compared to the drama of some of Northern Ireland’s other tracks.

Take Royal Portrush for example. Founded in 1888, this seaside club has two championship courses – the original Valley Links dating to 1888, to which the Dunluce Links was added in 1926. Both of the courses were created by Harry S Colt, widely regarded as the preeminent golf course architect of the day, and both enjoy the natural rugged dunescape along the Atlantic shore. Since it staged the Open in 1951, the first and only time the event has been held outside mainland UK, the Dunluce Links has celebrity in its favour, but it would be a mistake to visit Portrush and not play the Valley. It is the original hidden gem.

Don’t be deceived by the picturesque setting – Harry Colt-designed Royal Portrush, on the North Antrim Coast, is one of the world’s most challenging natural links. This is the view of the green at the par-three 4th hole on the Dunluce Links

While it shares the same creator as Royal Belfast, Royal Portrush presents a much sterner test, certainly in theatrical terms as it makes a number of twists and turns through a warren of dunes along the North Antrim coast. Indeed, when Harry Colt crafted the Dunluce Links (the original plans date to 1926), he had little need for fairway bunkering as the natural dunescape corridors provided more than enough of a challenge – during the 1951 Open, eventually won my Max Faulkner, only two golfers broke 70 such was the severity of the tournament. [Incidentally, the current course record (61) is held by a certain young professional from Holywood.]

The one and only time the Open was staged outside mainland UK, it was played
here, at Royal Portrush. And conditions like these are rare – unpredictable weather and a roaring North Atlantic typically add zest to the test

Down but not out

Without doubt, Ireland’s old guard is championed by a course that leaves you breathless – not only because of its beauty but also because of the challenge it presents. Described as the King of Irish golf, Royal County Down is blessed with an ethereal aura that lights up your golfing soul.

It’s the kind of place that attracts golfers whatever the weather. In the middle of summer, for example when I strode out on Ireland’s best, the wind was ripping off Dundrum Bay carrying a painful mixture of seawater and sand. Undeterred, we played on allowing the beauty of the opening holes to dull our discomfort.

“Royal County Down is a pure links, in the truest sense of the word,” noted Tom Watson after playing the fabled links. “It is a tremendous test of golf and the outward half especially is as fine a nine holes as I have ever played.” Praise indeed from arguably the finest links golfer there is.

Another exponent of the game, David Wilson, first played the course in 2000. “What struck me was how linksy it was with the ball bouncing down the fairway. You had to manufacture your shots more much than on a parkland course.”

Nine years later, Wilson finds himself in the fortunate position of being able to craft his bump-and-runs more often the most. As secretary of Royal County Down he enjoys the challenge of playing the formidable links but is quick to highlight the stern test it represents. “I make a point of speaking to visitors, many of whom say it’s one of the toughest courses they’ve played, but awesome,” he says. “There’s a challenge to it. Most of the members, including myself, find it difficult, so if you’re not of a reasonable standard, you won’t enjoy it. It’s sometimes a difficult idea to get across to people.”

The Mountains of Mourne are ever present at glorious Royal County Down

Standing on the first tee, you can see his point. When the spray of the surf forms a mist over the tall dunes that bound the fairways, it’s hard not to tighten your grip just a little. And if you nail your drive against the prevailing wind, your second shot will be inevitably as distracting as the first, with wild tossocky faced bunkers guarding smooth and undulating greens.

Playing Royal County Down is a breathtaking experience that can conjure some of the finest golfing memories you could wish for. What’s more, the Old Tom Morris design has been delighting golfers for 120 years and therefore has become the course against which all others are compared.

Something new

If Northern Ireland’s golfing past is embodied in the swathes of heather and gorse that denote Royal County Down, then its future lies in the waters that surround Lough Erne. Decked out with a top-class restaurant, authentic Thai spa and luxurious hotel, few new courses have received as much attention, perhaps because of Faldo but more likely due to the stunning location.

In perfect harmony. Water comes into the equation on no fewer than 14 holes at Lough Erne, nowhere more dramatically than at the par-four 10th,
where there is no bail-out when it comes to firing at the green.

But as Lough Erne’s director of golf explains, the media spotlight hasn’t always shone as brightly on the Fermanagh course. “If you were connected with the development, you knew lots about it, but until recently it wasn’t really out there,” says Andy Campbell, who joined the Lough Erne team last year from the Duke’s Course in St Andrews. “Maybe they were hiding their light under a bushel or were waiting for the course to come to fruition before shouting about it, but that’s certainly been one of my jobs since I started – creating awareness of what we’ve got here.”

And what they have is a course that has raised the standard of golf in Northern Ireland in such a way that comparisons with Loch Lomond will be inevitable, and not simply because of Treacy’s connection with the Scottish gem. Since more than three quarters of the holes are linked to the lough – many with infinity greens – there is a strong likeness to some of the great American courses that influenced Loch Lomond’s design. Even Augusta could be thrown into the mix with deep, undulating tree-lined fairways giving Lough Erne a subtle, southern draw.

Add to that scrupulously groomed fairways, greens and bunkers, and you can see why some are talking about the Irish Open heading there, although Campbell seems more cautious. “Jim’s ambitious and so am I, so we’d love to see a tournament here, but there’s a lot of work to do to make that happen,” says Campbell, who was the first person outside the US to qualify as both a master greenkeeper and a certified golf course superintendent. “It’s early days in terms of infrastructure but also for the local community, but I’m certain it will happen. We’ve just done the Challenge match which was hugely successful so that proves there’s a thirst to see tournament golf. We just need to put all the caravans in a circle and see what happens.”

Campbell’s frontier reference could point to reports that McIlroy’s manager, Chubby Chandler, is looking to locate the British Masters to the Fermanagh course possibly next year. ‘It would be fantastic to see an event like that at Lough Erne,” McIlroy commented recently. “I definitely think Ulster is capable of holding a top-class pro tournament.” There’s no doubt about it. Lough Erne – like the great historied links that attract so many golfers to these parts, is world class.

Lough Erne – a bright new beginning

The most exciting new golf resort in Ireland has signed one of the world’s most exciting talents – local superstar Rory McIlroy – as its touring pro. It’s a match made in heaven, writes Colm Bradley

English poet John Keats wrote; ‘A thing of beauty is a Joy for ever.’ If he was right then the Faldo Course at the Lough Erne Golf Resort is surely set for a place in golfing immortality. Set against the backdrop of the impossibly beautiful Lough Erne and it’s many Islands the course offers breathtaking surprises around every twist, turn, hump, bump and valley.

Located five miles outside Enniskillen, the largest town in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, the course seems certain to take its place among the best in Ireland. With an accompanying five-star hotel, complete with Thai Spa and served by one of Ireland's top celebrity chefs, Noel McMeel, the Lough Erne Golf Resort offers opulence, comfort and quality coupled with eye popping views.

Designed by Sir Nick Faldo the course officially opened on July 1 and later that the month hosted Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington who competed head to head in the inaugural ‘Lough Erne Challenge – Duel on the Lough.’

But it was the resort’s touring professional, the irresistible Rory McIlroy who won the bragging rights with a course record 68 to defeat the two-time Open champion by two shots.

The event was designed to showcase the course to the world and there is no doubt those behind the development have their sights set on attracting a European Tour event in the not too distant future. The course itself is more than ready for the challenge. While not massively long there is danger lurking on every hole and waywardness off the tee will be punished. With water clinging to 13 of the 18 holes a plentiful supply of balls may be needed for the erratic. But any frustration felt as your ball disappears into a watery grave is mitigated by the spectacular canvas upon which the course is set. In fact Mark Twain would no doubt use the course as perfect evidence that the game of golf does indeed ‘spoil a good walk.’

But we know Mr Twain was wrong. The golfer, of any standard, will not so much battle with Faldo’s sublime creation on Lough Erne but rather involve themselves in a pleasant conversation, appreciating each syllable as they make their way around the 18 holes because enjoyment is the key ingredient that this course offers its player.

Each hole is named with the natural environment and surroundings in mind. The course begins with a 367-yard par four, Imleach, with Castle Hume Lough lurking menacingly on your right. The water announces its presence from the first ball struck. The par five 4th takes you back towards the hotel and while it is reachable in two it is also laden with hazards and perils to ensnare those bolstered with bravado. Dovecote Carry is the aptly named short 5th, a demanding par three featuring a carry of 190-odd yards over water – while at the 7th, Devenish Drop, a raised tee offers a sweeping view to the green which, at almost 350 yards away, sits in pocket of water with the surrounding Islands of Lough Erne looking on like giant spectators, awaiting your efforts with silent grace. A solid straight tee shot will leave a short approach shot that will not disappoint.

By the time you make the turn you will have been treated to some of the finest views you will ever witness on a golf course – and yet there’s plenty more to come. For many, the par four 10th hole could be the ‘signature’, a short dogleg par four that demands a well-placed tee shot to set up an approach framed by a picture-perfect backdrop. The green is all but an island, jutting out into the Lough itself, a small target that seems to shrink further as you take aim. For those who take the right club and strike a confident shot, the walk to the green with putter tucked casually under the arm is sweet indeed.

The remaining holes each have their own unique character and quality, but it is the last three holes which perfectly encapsulates the spirit and character of the course.

From the raised tee-box at the 16th it’s worth standing a moment to appreciate the true scenic splendour of the resort as it stretches before you. Castle Hume Lough hugs the right hand side of the fairway at this, the last of the par fives, and one that rewards the long and accurate hitter, while at the 17th, a classic risk/reward par four, the decision is how much of the water you can take out of play with a well-struck drive. The 18th is the longest par three on the course and, at some 225 yards, many will require a wood to get safely home. It’s a climactic finish, but anyone who walks off with a three will do so with a spring in his or her step at a job well done.

Nick Faldo has said that he was ‘overwhelmed by the location and beauty of Lough Erne’ when he first saw the site and without doubt his creation has added to that beauty. As these images reveal, the Lough Erne Golf Resort is a real gem in the Irish golfing crown with a sparkle sure to attract golfers from all over the world in the coming years.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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