Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy are Northern Ireland's one-two punch on the golf course.
Similarly, the country's Royal Portrush and Royal County Down are arguably the best combination of championship links in any golf destination. Both have an illustrious history dating back to the 19th century as well as some of the world's most spectacular links holes.
Both are no-brainers as far as what to base your Northern Ireland golf holiday around. But beyond them, a full week of golf can be had. Many 19th-century clubs were founded in succession as the railway extended up north along the coast from Belfast, and there is a wealth of spectacular links land right in the heart of the towns at their disposal.
Nowadays, you'll drive the coast, not take the train, and it's one of golf's great road trips. The A2 Causeway Coastal Route is home to Giant's Causeway, Dunluce Castle, and even Bushmills Whiskey distillery, among other landmarks, so be sure to save enough time on the voyage to make a few pit stops.
Once you've booked your rounds at Portrush and Royal County Down, here are the rest of the golf courses to fill out your trip.
Founded in 1894, Portstewart Golf Club now features three 18-hole golf courses. The original par-64 Old Course at Portstewart is a step back in time, but it's the Strand Course that is the must-play here. Practically 100 years in the making, the Strand is a mix of older holes from 1908, redesigned holes by Willie Park in the 1920s and seven new holes built in the most striking dunes in 1986. The links are now worthy of hosting some of the country's top competitions.
Just west of Portrush, Castlerock Golf Club may play second fiddle to the royals, but the greens sure don't. Kept in phenomenal shape year round, this links course rewards good putters as well as those with big tee shots, thanks to five par 5s on the par-73 layout. The golf course is 6,700 yards and is set right in the heart of the town, which is where author C.S. Lewis spent many of his summers.
The closest golf course to Royal County Down, Ardglass Golf Club is an entirely different kind of experience, playing on cliffs above the sea. The opening holes all hug the coastline, including a spectacular opening hole played from the foot of the 13th century castle that is now the clubhouse, over crashing waves and uphill to the green.
On the way to Portrush, Ballycastle Golf Club is a lesser-known course by the sea. The view of the golf course from the A2 Causeway Coastal Route, which has some severe ridges next to the coast, may spark your curiosity to squeeze it in on your golf trip. Its part links, part parkland design is worthy enough each year to be included in the Tullamore Dew Causeway Coast Golf Tournament, which is said to be Europe's largest amateur tournament.
When playing the famous Dunluce links at Royal Portrush, you'll notice the Valley links. Set below most of the Dunluce and shielded from a massive dune protecting the course from the East Strand beach, the Valley plays through some spectacular dunes in its own right. While many never even hear of the Valley links at Royal Portrush until they see it with their own eyes, it's no slouch of a play at more than 6,300 yards.
Belfast is a good base to stay during your Northern Ireland golf vacation. Parkland courses near the city's center make for a good option if you're not looking to drive too far from your hotel.
Belvoir Park Golf Club is a historic parkland course designed by Harry Colt, while Royal Belfast has laid along the shores of Belfast Lough since 1881. Further east, Holywood Golf Club is a short parkland test that is the home club of McIlroy, should you be curious to see his humble beginnings.
While northwest Ireland is back in the republic of Ireland and into the Euro zone again, it's popular to combine the two destinations. Ireland's northwest is rural and developing, and the golf courses are all much more affordable compared to Northern Ireland, which charges premium prices.
From Portrush, it's a two-hour drive (with a ferry across Lough Foyle) to Ballyliffin. With 36 raw links holes, there's no reason to leave in a hurry, so get off the grid and enjoy Ireland's northernmost links for a few days.
October 18, 2010