Hidden Gem Golf Courses of Northern Ireland

Hidden Gem Golf Courses of Northern Ireland

Many visitors to the UK and Ireland like to play seaside links golf courses. There are about 210 true links courses in the British Isles whereas the rest of the world has only about 36. In the UK and Ireland, many of these links' courses are world-ranked and have an interesting history. The USA has a very large proportion of the world’s golfers, but there are only about 5 true seaside links in North America.

This series concentrates on Gems that are true seaside links courses, but not exclusively as some gems may be interesting clifftop or parkland layouts. The courses in this series will be chosen initially from each significant golfing area in Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Each blog will introduce the area and highlight a selection of its Hidden Gems. Visitors may choose to play these courses exclusively or as an addition or alternative on their chosen tour.

To qualify we believe each course should have many of the following qualities:

  • Not normally a major course such as those we include in our website’s featured tours
  • Of good quality, well up the country's rankings, or of special interest
  • Of good value, typically around half the price or less than their better-known brethren
  • Of interest to golfers who can find some links courses too difficult or long to really enjoy
  • Of interest to golfers working to a budget or returning to an area
  • Courses overlooked because of famous neighbours

Hidden Gem Golf Courses of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has two top 10 World ranked golf courses and the northern coast, known as the ‘Causeway Coast’, is a leading golf hotspot with some fabulous sand dunes supporting several courses. Below we introduce two courses overshadowed by the famous World ranked courses, then a true links ‘Off the beaten track’ and finally, a parkland layout that in no way resembles a typical manicured parkland course.

Northern Ireland Golf Tours

Royal Portrush Valley Course (6346 yards, Par 71)

This course is the ultimate “Gem” in Ireland. It was laid out on the same wonderful links land as Royal Portrush Dunluce, a course that hosted the 2019 Open Championship and is a highly ranked world-class course. Both links at Portrush are attributed to the renowned golf architect Harry Colt. He redesigned the Dunluce in 1932 and three years later designed the Valley.

The Valley is certainly overshadowed in popularity by its eminent neighbour, it is said that 90% of golfers ignore the Valley. However, visiting golfers who play them both inevitably enjoy the shorter Valley course. The “Colt” strategic design offers challenge, the green fee is modest and many golfer reviews found it uncrowded. They are a great pair of courses which are said to complement each other.

The members of the 'town' club known as Rathmore and the ladies and juniors of Royal Portrush are regulars on the course.  Graeme McDowell, the winner of the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 and Ryder Cup player, started playing the game on this course.

The Valley is on a flattish land between the Dunluce course and dunes along the Atlantic seashore known as East Strand. However, it has crisp, rolling, tight fairways with plenty of humps, hollows and undulations. The splendid links greens have tricky runoffs and malicious pot bunkers. The course is full of good golf holes.

Feature holes are difficult to select two were lost to the changes to improve the Dunluce for the 2019 Open Championship, they were in the best part of the Valley dunes.  However, the stretches 6,7,8 are excellent needing good shot-making. The flatter 10th, 11th and 12th holes are a chance to open your shoulders for some big hitting. The biggest gain from the changes was some excellent new holes on the four finishing holes, particularly the 16th and there were some other good improvements.

This was the facelift it needed to emerge the Valley from the shadows and has been recognized by progress in its Irish rankings. The pundits believe that as the word spreads there is more gain to be had. It is now typically number 6 in Northern Ireland rankings, not bad for an overshadowed hidden gem.

Royal County Down Annesley Golf Links (18 holes, 4548 yards, Par 66)

 The Annesley Links benefits from the same outstanding links land as its eminent neighbour. However, with the Championship course being regularly number one in UK and Ireland and challenging for the top spot in the world rankings it needs to be good, so it is not totally overshadowed. Although much shorter than the Championship Links, it has plenty of character and challenge. Its setting is below the towering Mountains of Mourne and running around the shores of Dundrum Bay.

It snakes back and forth opening up different panoramic views and challenges from every hole. The setting and views are inspirational and the terrain is just perfect for golf with backdrops as impressive as they come, combined with the unrelenting challenge. The valleys are lined with towering dunes with many elevation changes, undulating fairways, perfect fairway turf and greens in tricky dells with backdrops as stunning as they come.

You do not need a driver, there are no par fives, only one par 4 over 350 yards and six par threes with the longest 160 yards. The original design was by Donald Steel and more recent changes have been made by MacKenzie and Ebert. The course demands a premium on accuracy over power, the par fours are not typically drivable.

These short par fours are cunningly designed with narrow undulating fairways and pitch shots needing to avoid trouble around the greens. The view beyond the par-four eighth green is amazing. There is great variety among the six par threes.

There are three new excellent holes, all visually pleasing (9, 10, and 11) designed by leading architect Martin Ebert. This change was undertaken to provide space for a new practice facility. The new 10th hole plays closer along the coast than any other hole at Royal County Down. The views around from the elevated tee are unsurpassed on either course as the full length of the beach is in seen. The Annesley links is now one of the best short courses in Ireland and should be played more by golfers visiting Northern Ireland’s south coast.   

Kirkistown Castle County Down (6167 yards, Par 69)

 Kirkistown Castle is a links golf course near the small village of Cloughy on the scenic East coast of the Ards Peninsula, alongside the Irish Sea. The club was formed in 1902 and nine holes were laid out by G.L. Baillie an amateur golfer and schoolteacher at Belfast Academy. He learnt to play as a boy at Musselburgh links in Scotland. It was later extended to 18 holes and then re-designed to the present layout by James Braid in 1934. His course calls for strategic play to get close to the challenging course Par of 69. Wind can be a key influence as Braid laid it out in two loops of nine, the inner nine playing anti-clockwise and the outer nine clockwise.

The course is fair with no blind shots; the fairways are a reasonable width but the rough can be punishing as can the pot bunkers. The club is known for its excellent greens. There are significant elevation changes on many holes with the routing centred mainly around two very large hillocks. This leads to some dramatic drives from high ground and quite a few uphill approaches. The 434-yard 12th links two hills, the tee on one and the green open to the elements on the other.

The signature hole is the Par four 10th; at 435 yards appropriately named “Long Reach”. With a dogleg left, some out of bounds and elusive bunkering on the right your drive needs care. Then, with the approach to its imposing elevated green encircled by gorse and rough, it is a severe challenge. Several more holes have their approach to greens high above and more have downhill drives.

From the elevated 3rd tee you have coastal and countryside views around you and Kirkistown Castle nearby. There is a great variety of holes to test your game, including some good par threes and challenging par fours. The opening and closing holes are the only par fives.

If you chose to travel south to play Ardglass and Royal County Down you can cross from the peninsula via the regular Portaferry to Strangford ferry that runs across the entrance of Strangford Lough.

Scrabo Golf Course County Down (6,227 yards par 71)

In 1907 Scrabo Hill was not a site that most would have considered suitable for a golf course. It was a wild wasteland of rock and gorse, but it was cheap. However, with no known designer but clearly immense energy, by May 1908 it opened with 75 members and an annual fee of £1.

It towers above the town of Newtownards being 500ft above sea level. Today it is a challenging and scenic course in beautiful countryside. The course presents superb views over Strangford Lough and the Mourne Mountains.
The first hole makes a great start. It has been listed in the top 100 ‘best holes in Ireland’.

The famous Irish Professional Christy O’Connor Senior said it was one of the best opening holes in Ireland. On this 464-yard par four, you need accurate driving. Looking down the rumpled fairway it rises between menacing lines of gorse upwards to Scrabo Tower. The tower that dominates the course is a memorial to the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry.

Do not expect manicured parkland fairways as the course has its own personality and charm. It has been described as ‘wild parkland’’, also is has been termed ‘untamed links-style with gorse-bordered fairways. As it winds up and down Scrabo Hill the fairways are bumpy, the greens small, some tee shots are dramatic and the wind can add to the mayhem. It can be an exhilarating round of raw and natural golf, great fun, modest green fee, a real gem, but stay out of the gorse.


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