An American in Belfast: Royal Portrush vs. Royal County Down

A competitive golfer discovers the joys of the links in Northern Ireland


In August 2018, I moved to Northern Ireland. As an American with limited access to true links courses, I was excited to relocate to the Mecca of the golfing world. Great Britain and Ireland contain the majority of the greatest links courses, many of which are old enough to make your local Donald Ross gem seem new. I grew up in Wisconsin and played college golf at the University of Dayton in Ohio, so my upbringing was almost entirely on parkland courses in the Midwest. My only prior links-like experience was caddying and playing at Erin Hills Golf Course. This journey promised to be an awakening for me.

I now live in Belfast, where I coach junior golf on the weekends at Holywood Golf Club, the home course of Rory McIlroy. While working on my Master’s degree and doing volunteer work at Sport Changes Life, I play for the Ulster University golf team, which grants me free membership at Royal Portrush, the site of the 2019 Open Championship. To steal a phrase, my current situation does not stink.

Ironically, the first few courses I played over here were parklands in Belfast. My introduction to links golf came at Ballyliffin Golf Club, host of the 2018 Irish Open. I knew I was in for something different when I stood on the first tee and took what felt like an eternity to decide that I should hit 4-iron even though the hole was over 400 yards.

I’ll spare the gruesome details, but I could not remember a time I hit so many mid and long irons on a golf course that wasn’t especially long. I also couldn’t remember the last time I opened, closed, and reopened my umbrella so many times in one round. From the vibe of the club to the course itself, I knew two things after that first links round: this was a different game, and I was already addicted.

In a nutshell, links courses in Northern Ireland are more accessible to the masses. Living here has changed my perspective on what the costs and accessibility of the game should be. Most clubs seem to follow a semi-private model that subsidizes memberships and allows visitors to play great courses that, in most other parts of the world, would be closed to the public. Even the few that are fully private have far more members than most American clubs, diluting fees drastically. Somehow, none of this seems to result in crowded courses or slow play.

Links vs. “Links-Style”

Returning to Erin Hills as an example, there are good reasons to put quotes around the word “links” when describing it. The distinction has nothing to do with quality. In fact, Erin Hills is one of my favorite courses in the world. The design is spectacular, and whether the conditions are innocuous or impossible, it always provides an honest test. But even if Erin Hills is “linksy,” even if it has sandy soil and fescue turf, it isn’t a links.

As far as I can see, there are two big differences between Erin Hills and the true links of Great Britain and Ireland. The first is location: Erin Hills is obviously not seaside. It’s usually breezy, but the links in Northern Ireland are always windy. The wind never stops, and it is a cold one that roars in from the north Atlantic. Oh, and rain can start falling at any moment. The varied conditions delivered by the sea have a unique character that inland courses rarely match.

The other difference has to do with the intangible elements of the golfing experience. U.S. resorts like Sand Valley are outstanding, but they cannot replicate the sense of maturity and intimacy that the links here possess. Even the biggest-name courses don’t feel like resorts. They are a part of the town, they are old, and they give the impression that the holes were simply found and that the clubhouse was just assembled in a convenient location near the first tee, not scientifically engineered to maximize revenue. Even the best-known links over here, the ones that receive international acclaim, somehow maintain an inherent charm and authenticity.

When I come in from a round at Royal Portrush or Royal County Down or Rosapenna or Ballyliffin, there aren’t four kids at the bag drop rushing over to clean my clubs and feign interest in how my round went. I can simply drop my bag, change my shoes, and go enjoy a Guinness in the clubhouse. I feel more like a regular and less like a guest who needs to be looked after. The longer I am here, the more I appreciate the familiarity of the atmosphere.

The Great Debate

Today, Northern Ireland is in the midst of a great debate. No, not about Brexit (well yeah, that too, but that’s not what I mean)—I am of course referring to the debate over whether Royal County Down or Royal Portrush is the best course in Northern Ireland. The magazines tend to side with Royal County Down, but I have noted that the residents of Northern Ireland are split on which they prefer.

The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush is a true championship test in as beautiful a setting as any course in the world, nestled up against the north coast of Northern Ireland. It is brutally exposed to the wrath of the ocean, with winds often gusting over 35 miles per hour. Just as I used to do with my players at Erin Hills to keep them from cancelling, the guys in the Portrush shop refer to every day as “calmer than usual.”

The green complexes at Royal Portrush, as designed by Harry Colt, are some of the best I’ve seen. Colt touched many of the great links of Great Britain and Ireland, and my regard for him has increased tenfold since I arrived here. The recent changes made to the course—eliminating the old 17th and 18th holes and adding new 7th and 8th holes—were sensitively done, fitting in like original work.

The 5th green at Royal Portrush. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

The old holes that now make up the finishing stretch give plenty of excitement: the brutal, long par-3 16th, the drivable but blind par-4 17th, and the stern par-4 18th.

The 16th, formerly the 14th, is known as “Calamity Corner” and will likely earn its nickname in the Open when the wind picks up and forces players to hit long irons, hybrids, or even woods over an intimidating valley.

The 16th hole at Royal Portrush from the back tee. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

The 17th can be set up for fireworks at distances from 355 to 405 yards. At 405, the green may still be drivable for most the Open field if conditions are right. The hole is straight but surrounded by trouble. It drops severely downhill in its second half, making the tee shot virtually blind. Any score from 2 to 7 is in play.

The current 18th is the least interesting of the finishing stretch but will test the nerves of those in contention on Sunday at the Open. It is a long, dogleg-right par 4 with OB tight on the left side. Players who take the safe line from the tee down the right will leave themselves a blind approach to a narrow green that falls off steeply to the left. If a player takes on the OB, they are rewarded with a flatter lie and an unobstructed view.

Despite its extreme location and typical links wind, Royal Portrush will generally strike competitive golfers as more “fair” than Royal County Down. It is significantly wider off the tee and has fewer blind shots. Certainly there are elements of luck, not to mention plenty of fun shots, at both places, but Portrush is more likely to reward an aggressive, well-placed shot by feeding it towards the hole. At RCD, on the other hand, well-struck shots on good lines can find random bumps and kick into devastating positions. While a completely blind shot can be a good test, RCD has at least 10 of them, which, when paired with the excess of gorse next to the fairways, can be frustrating to those playing for a score.

For these reasons, the competitive golfer in me would rather play a tournament at Royal Portrush. Although it certainly has its own secrets, it does not require nearly as much local knowledge as RCD. Since tournament golfers prefer a “level playing field,” for lack of a better term, they are likely to appreciate the way Portrush seems to allow players to separate themselves from the field with skill alone.

The 15th hole at Royal Portrush. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

However, if I had one more round of golf to play before I died, I would choose Royal County Down even though it beat me to a pulp when I first played it.

Naively thinking it was like many older courses that can be overpowered by the modern game, I dropped my bag at the back tees despite 30-mile-per-hour winds and no warm-up. “When was the last time I didn’t play the tips?” I thought to myself. “No reason to change that today.” After a birdie on the tame par-5 1st seemed to justify my decision, I ended up firing an 83 that may or may not have involved me picking up lying seven on the par-4 8th hole.

Before I came to Northern Ireland, I thought there were two types of good courses: ones that are fun and ones that are tough and thought-provoking. Rarely had I played a course that was both. But Royal County Down is just that. I got exposed my first day there, but I still loved every minute of the experience.

Looking back at the 3rd hole at Royal County Down. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

Royal County Down challenges the mind in a way that other courses don’t—and not only on the blind shots. The 4th hole is iconic: a downhill par 3 with the Mourne Mountains as a backdrop. It is 230 yards from the tips, and the green doesn’t like to hold approaches unless they are brought in high, which is the most uncomfortable thing to do on any windy links course, anywhere. These tests are a constant at Royal County Down.

The 4th hole at Royal County Down. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

The course has its flaws. For example, I wouldn’t consider it a perfect routing. The four par 3s play in only two directions; most holes go either towards or away from the clubhouse; and all three par 5s are about the same length. But Royal County Down overcomes these apparent defects—as you fall for the course, you may even start to call them “quirks”—with a stern test, a heavenly setting, and a design that provokes thought and fosters unease on every shot. Even the most routine holes cause players to second-guess themselves or hit shots they don’t want to, or shouldn’t, hit. It is the most mentally engaging course I have ever played.

These types of courses have forced me to think about golf again. Over the years, as I became a better golfer, I came to enjoy the competitive side of things, but the game lost some of its charm for me. It became automatic. I began to know my percentages and understand how to set a game plan with nothing more than a yardage book. Did that result in better scores? Yes. Did it enhance my love of the game? Not necessarily. I didn’t fall in love with golf when I started breaking par. I loved it long before then, and courses like Royal County Down make my imagination burn as bright as it did when I was 14. True links golf invites you to throw calculations out the window, tap into your inner curious kid, and figure things out on the fly.

The 9th hole at Royal County Down. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

Can the Royal Portrush vs. Royal County Down debate ever be settled? Of course not. But I can say this: if I had to split 10 rounds between them, I’d probably do six at RCD, three at Portrush, and one round of Guinness in the pub across the street from the Portrush train station after getting fish and chips from Chequers.

But if I had only one round? I’m taking RCD. Is it the challenge? Is it the setting? Is it the originality, the bold design, and the variety of holes? Probably a combination of all of those things. Just being at Royal County Down, wedged between the Mourne Mountains and the ocean, is surreal. The feeling transcends golf or competition or anything else going on that day. As I headed to the parking lot (car park—sorry) after my round, I was already grieving at the possibility of not walking those fairways again in the near future.