CASTLEROCK, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland -- If lightning striking twice in the same place is extremely unlikely, how about three times in the space of a couple of years? Surely there has to be a plausible explanation for Northern Ireland's three recent major successes -- Graeme McDowell (pronounced Mc-Doo-All by his compatriots), Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke. Is there something in the water perhaps?
The smart people at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board have not been slow to exploit their considerable good fortune in having three current heroes and have been inviting the world's golfing press to examine the evidence. Such is the global interest and universal curiosity in this formerly unhappy quarter of the United Kingdom that there has been a succession of organized trips over the last few months.
As well as the usual suspects -- the simply spectacular courses at Royal County Down Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club -- another majestic links called Castlerock Golf Club has been added to the itinerary. Situated on the banks of the River Bann, on the northern Atlantic coast and about five miles west of Coleraine, it's an absolute beauty. Like so many of the great links courses, it even has a little railway line running alongside.
Castlerock's original nine holes were opened in 1901, but the rapidly swelling membership soon began pressing for enlargement and it was expanded to 18 in 1908.
Ben Sayers, the famous Scottish professional from North Berwick who was twice runner-up in the British Open, produced the layout. So happy was he with his design that he described Castlerock as the equal of Royal Troon and Sandwich, an assessment with which not many would disagree. Because it's such a friendly and welcoming club, it could be argued that Castlerock is even more appealing than that famous pair of Open venues.
During the mid-1920s another legendary course architect, Harry Colt, was invited to make a few improvements, which he duly did. And the wonderful links -- now known as the Mussenden Course to distinguish it from the adjoining nine-hole Bann Course -- remained unaltered until this year when the ninth, 10th and 11th were together lengthened by a total of about 200 yards. The five par 5s, nine par 4s and four gorgeous par 3s now total 6,805 yards from the back tees.
The Castlerock golf course is simply beautiful. Weaving through the dunes with a sprinkling of energetic climbs to some gloriously elevated tees, it epitomizes everything that's special about links golf. Although there are some seriously tough holes that will test the best, especially in the wind, it's not a beast and the fairways are delightfully inviting.
The greens are superb, the views across to Donegal and even Scotland on a clear day are spectacular and the whole experience is exhilarating. The only thing that could possibly spoil your round is the pretty tough rough.
"You simply must keep out of the rough," said Thomas Johnston, the professional at Castlerock. One of his predecessors was Fred Daly, who was appointed club pro in 1952. Until Padraig Harrington came along, Daly had the distinction of being the only Irishmen to win the British Open.
"The fairways are generous ... so there's really no excuse for tangling with the thick stuff," Johnston added. "Keep it straight and you'll be all right."
Ryder Cup star Paul McGinley must certainly have done that when he shot a record-breaking 64 in the second round of the Irish PGA Championship. After his round McGinley stated, "The greens out there were as good as, if not better, than the ones we played on at the Open at Royal Lytham."
Held in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of the club, the Irish PGA was eventually won by another famous Ryder Cup veteran, Des Smyth, while McGinley had to settle for the runner-up slot.
Actor Michael Douglas said, "This course is pure heaven."
Kevin Nash, a high-handicapper from Bournemouth in England, agreed.
"It's breathtakingly beautiful and a joy from start to finish," Nash said. "I struggled on a few holes, but you can't help but fall in love with the course. It's magnificent."
Since I was once told to avoid cliches "like the plague," I shouldn't describe Castlerock as a "hidden gem" even though that's precisely what it is. As well as a spectacular course that can comfortably compete with the very best, it's a wonderfully welcoming and friendly club that wants you to enjoy its marvelous course. One last piece of advice; if you have the time, try and squeeze in the enchanting nine-hole Bann Course.
November 7, 2011