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Irish N.E. finest

All founded around the 1890s
All five courses reviewed are 'Running-Golf' links courses.

North & East coast of Ireland
Green Keeper

Reviews of the 5 finest Irish courses north of Portmarnock.

Royal Portrush, The Island, County Louth, Portstewart, Royal County Down.

royal county down golf club,
royal county down golf club,
county louth golf club,
the island golf club, eddie hackett
Access Policy:
Dog Policy:
Dogs are not welcome on most Irish courses
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today


This is a review of the five finest Irish courses north of Portmarnock. Is it possible to have five days of more enjoyable golf than at these Clubs?

The Island at Donabate, Dublin and County Louth at Baltray, where I last played both fifty years ago in 1965, and the other three are Royal County Down, Portstewart and Royal Portrush, that I last visited twenty-five years ago.

All five courses are rated as offering a ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ 5-star FineGolf feeling in their own different ways and all five are committed to and being successful in presenting running-golf on fescue/browntop bent fine grasses, while each has improvements they are working towards.

Which of the above presented the finest greens and fairway agronomy?

Undoubtedly Royal Portrush, and CLICK HERE for the full FineGolf review of Royal Portrush.

county louth golf club,The course managers Paul Malone at County Louth and David Edmondson at The Island are both pressing on with lots of fescue over-seeding, while Paul (like Paul Larsen at Royal St George’s) is also taking out the weed grasses of Yorkshire Fog and Ryegrass from greens and fairways. They look patchy and brown after the ‘Rescue’ application but if the slit-seeded fescues become established with a natural rather than chemical soil biology underneath, the improvement in the running-surfaces all year round will attract golfers in large numbers.

The County Louth course was re-designed by the brilliant Tom Simpson in the 1930s and with Cruden Bay is his very best work. He used only fifty bunkers (Royal Lytham and St Annes for example has over 200), the natural movement in the ground giving sufficient hazard.

It has hosted Amateur, Ladies and professional tournaments,  is the home to the East of Ireland Championship and again was used for the Irish Open in 2004 and in 2009 when Shane Lowry won while still an amateur.

County Louth Golf Club

The thirteenth inside the high dunes alongside the beach.

Sited on rolling links land inside the high dunes along the beach, it misses having the Wow! Factor of the views of each of the other four courses. Nevertheless the creativity of the green complexes and strategic bunkering here are quite exceptional. There are so many wonderful holes, so, as I don’t like sloggy par fives, I pick out the 540 yard third hole as an outstanding three shotter where your second is best placed to the left to give an easier pitch to a delightful plateau green.

Similarly, although the 440 yard par fours are usually the finest holes and there are plenty here, I loved the two short par fours neither needing a bunker and each driveable by the tiger, where the straight fourth’s fairway, resembles a choppy, thunderous sea and demands creativity if one is going to have a chance of a birdie. On the fourteenth, a big drive from a panoramic high tee is needed to set-up an exacting pitch to the tiny green, falling-off in three directions, and this short dogleg can only be called a masterpiece.

The weakish short par three seventeenth is being replaced to a new setting with some magnificent cedar trees as a backdrop with advice from the Dane Philip Spogard.

Both clubs have impressive new clubhouses since my last visit in 1965, County Louth having acquired a nearby small hotel and now provides a traditional, good value, twelve-room Dormy House within its clubhouse, that can be highly recommended.


the island golf club, eddie hackettThe Island, which actually is on a peninsula that gives handsome views of the Broad Meadow estuary on one side and across salt-marsh to the Irish Sea on the other, has been drastically re-routed and no longer requires an approach via a six-seater ‘phut-phut’ ferry across the water from Malahide!

There are courses like Lahinch on the Irish west coast that are known for their quirkiness and The Island is similar. Some of the old quirkiness has gone, for example The Sahara, a par three blind shot straight over a high dune, which is the one hole I distinctly remembered, is no longer here.

Frank Pennink described The Island in 1962 “as too short for championships, its charm undeniable and conforming to the earliest traditions of golf, the conflict between men and nature”.

Hole two ‘Caul’s view’ is one of only three holes in GB&I named after a greenkeeper (the others being Carnoustie’s eleventh named after John Philp who led the renaissance of that course and the 18th of the Old course St Andrews after Tom Morris). Paddy Caul, here for some forty years was heavily involved in all the major re-developments of the course from the 1970s to 2000, that brought it up to true championship standard. Eddie Hackett, Ireland’s greatest course architect was involved and later Fred and Martin Hawtree, though the Club’s many distinguished members understood how best to blend the high dune terrain, now with few actual blind shots but nevertheless not losing its quirky feel and charm.

the island golf club,

The thirteenth green with Malahide behind

The drive at the fourteenth must be one of the most terrifyingly narrow in golf with a prevailing breeze over one’s left shoulder and salt-marsh all the way up the right. The bumpy left-hand rough is well trodden and to think it used to be the opening hole!

I was invited to join up with three members at the sixteenth green and immediately I played a raking, fading one iron that never got higher into the wind than six foot off the ground, to the seventeenth green to give me a ten foot birdie putt that happily dropped. Following this shot, I shall never forget Hugh Duffy’s comment, after reminding us of Trevino’s view that only god can hit a one iron, he was pleased to have now discovered what God looks like!

My second outstanding shot of the week was with the same one iron at Portstewart’s strong, dogleg, par five seventh hole, where I pierced a tunnel of uphill narrowing fairway to give a five foot eagle putt that also dropped. The enjoyment of playing at Portstewart was certainly a factor in getting my head in focus that allowed me to accomplish that shot.

Portstewart golf clubPortstewart was never in the old guide books of the very finest courses, though founded soon after its next-door neighbour Royal Portrush in the early 1890s and despite having hosted numerous professional and amateur tournaments. It was not until 1991 when the new seven holes of the Strand course opened among the valleys of the high dunes and buck-thorn that Portstewart really came of age. Not only is its agronomy of the finest fescue order but the design is now up among the very finest, with the buck-thorn thankfully gone.

The par five fourth, called ‘Thistly Hollow’ is quite outstanding as a risk/reward par four for the long hitter. From a high tee, across a dogleg, to threading through a valley with a plateau green with a false front, there are many ways of playing it.

The new holes were designed, constructed and managed by the present secretary Michael Moss, the present course manager Bernard Findlay and the then green convenor Des Griffin. The whole course is breathtaking both in its golf challenge and in the beauty of the views and scenery.

portstewart golf club

Portstewart’s clubhouse

Its first hole, one of the originals, competes with Machrahanish Old for the accolade of the best opening hole in world golf. On the high first tee there is an experiment where a new variety of dwarf ryegrass has been used mixed with fescue grasses and with its paler colour than older, tufty ryegrass it is hoped this will protect the fescues and allow greater wear.

When one has taken in the panorama of the enormous dunescape and the long Portstewart strand beach, one plays down to a strong right hand dogleg with a flat fairway and green, giving what actually is a gentle opener if one avoids the temptation of the risk/reward across the corner.

We stayed in a new, high quality, modern-design B&B on the seafront, called ‘On the beach’, where Glenda’s personal attention to detail has already gained her awards.

Finally but of course not least we come to Royal County Down, a course viewed by some review sites as the finest course in GB&I. The American Golf Digest has it as the greatest in the world, with Dornoch as 2nd, St Andrews Old 8th and Muirfield as 9th.

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It does have almost everything. The scenery is to die for under the shadow of Slieve Donard the highest of the dominating Mourne Mountains and a wide long beach seen from half a dozen tees. Whereas blind drives have been extinguished at many of the finest courses and particularly at the Open Championship venues, RCD which has continuously hosted from its beginnings in the 1890s, all the top amateur and professional tournaments except The Open Championship, continues to embrace them with numerous blind drives over white stones on high dunes and with often daunting carries. It is not until the seventeenth that one has a seemingly more simple open drive but even then beware the pond!

The pressure for accuracy is continuous not just in driving (although the rough is beautifully wispy and fine if you are not in the plentiful gorse and heather) but in playing to the small greens often with profound, well mown fall-offs.

The adjectives lovely and gorgeous are more often used about RCD than anywhere else. Its history, its design, its environment and scenery, the quality of its membership and the challenge of its golf put it on a pinnacle. Nevertheless there is a flaw.

The agronomy of the greens here unfortunately is annual meadow grass (Poa annua)/Browntop Bent. One wag thought this was lucky, as they being more receptive than the other courses we played, it made it easier to hold one’s ball on them! This was a regrettable remark from somebody more focused on maintaining a handicap than the competitive match-play fun to be had from needing to use one’s imagination in creating interesting shots across firm surfaces rather than yardage calculations, even if he was correct.

royal county down

The famous par three fourth hole, in god-like sunshine.

The late Brian Coburn, the founder of the increasingly successful Irish Links Initiative, was Greens Convenor here and initiated a fescues/browntop bent overseeding programme that I am told is similar to the Royal Birkdale 15 year strategy to improve the botanical nature of their greens while minimising disruption to the members and visitors.

The fact that three different golf clubs play over the links may create a somewhat more complicated structure for communication to members and the tradition of most clubs is to duck any attempt at agronomic explanation to visitors.

Nevertheless my experience of talking to those who have achieved species change from weed to fine grasses successfully, the club leadership giving clear communication of the future vision for the club is as important as the actual technical greenkeeping issues involved, as sensible people put up with some disruption in the short term if they know it is for a good reason, which in turn will make them even more proud of their club in the longer term.

Everything about RCD is of exceptional ‘laid-back’ quality (apart from the tepid showers that evening!) and in a similar way to the MCC deciding to invest heavily to maintain Lord’s as the one ground that everybody wants to visit and play at in the Cricketing world, so I am assured, RCD is investing heavily in the greenkeeping machinery to help take this world-class course forward into the ‘Running-golf’ future.

The fact that I could not find a mention of greenkeeping in its magnificent 214 page, recently published 125 year anniversary history book, though perhaps hints that part of the culture is a taking for granted rather than a recognition of the importance of greenkeeping.

RCD is crucial in attracting golf tourism to Northern Ireland. Many of the American visitors are daily coached-in from Belfast while the economy of the town of Newcastle gains from the average of some 90 to 100 visiting golfers per day during the season. We stayed with Eileen at The Golf Links Hotel, and we have seldom come across better quality value.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2015

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