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It's Easy to be Awed - and Humbled - by Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush

By: Steve Habel


Just getting a chance to test your golf game at the famed Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Now imagine playing the course under championship conditions, and with a gallery of more than 15,000 fans watching your every waggle, drive and tenuous putt.

No. 5 Green at Royal Portrush GC's Dunluce Links

Such was my "honor" last summer when I was among the fortunate few to participate in the pro-am portion of the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush. It is a round that I can replay shot by shot in my mind even now, seven months removed from that June afternoon.

Most golfers know at least a little about Royal Portrush from the spotlight it has received due to the success of three of its members, chaps named Rory McElroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, major champions all. The 36-hole club has two links courses, Dunluce Links and Valley Links.

Dunluce Links is the only course in Ireland to have hosted the British Open (in 1951), and a great push is underway by the movers and shakers in Northern Ireland to have it return to Royal Portrush.

My visit coincided with the first time a European Tour event had been played in Northern Ireland and the first time since 1953 that the Irish Open was played in the country; it last took place at Royal Portrush in 1947.

No. 8 at Royal Portrush GC's Dunluce Links

The overflow galleries all four days of the tournament (as well as the 15,000-plus for the pro-am) and the slam-bang job done by the club for the 2012 Irish Open have assured Royal Portrush officials that the club is on the short list to host a future British Open.

Dunluce Links, a masterpiece of golf course architecture by the legendary Harry S. Colt, is ranked among the world's greatest courses. Lined with treacherous out-of-bounds and thick rough, its holes end at some of the most challenging greens anywhere.

Colt used the natural contours and dunes to create a links that attracts the best players - pros and amateurs - around the world. The terrain, combined with the always unpredictable weather of a site along the North Atlantic, asks golfers for the best he or she has and an ability to rebound when the wheels fall off during a round, which they invariably will.

Located on a particularly beautiful stretch of the North Antrim Causeway Coast, Dunluce Links is constructed on an area of natural dunelands with limestone cliffs on its eastern side. Occupying a triangle of giant sand hills, the place offers distant western views of the hills of Donegal, with the Isle of Islay, the Southern Hebrides and, on a really clear day, the coast of Scotland up north.

The 2nd Green at Dunluce Links

Dunluce Links is just down the coast from the ruins of the 13th-century Dunluce Castle, for which the course is named. Royal Portrush Golf Club was founded in 1888 as "The County Club" and became "The Royal County Club" in 1892 under the patronage of the Duke of York. It received its "Royal" moniker in 1895 under the patronage of the Prince of Wales.

So Many Great Holes

Colt designed Dunluce Links in 1929 and renovated it in 1947 in preparation for the 1951 Open. There have been championship tees built over the past few years to bring its length up to modern professional standards, with changes also made to a dozen holes over the decades.

Dunluce Links now plays at an all-you-can-handle-and-more 7,143 yards. Strangely enough, it has two par-5s (the 475-yard ninth and 478-yard 10th) that play shorter than two par-4s (the 479-yard fourth and 484-yard 18th).

The 11th Hole at Dunluce Links is Called 'Feather Bed

The course occupies rugged links land and involves frequent changes of directions and elevations. The property consists of parallel sets of dune. Little fairway bunkering was needed as Colt utilized the curvature of the fairways between the dunes to put accuracy off the tee at a premium. From the second through the 16th, all the two- and three-shot holes bend one way or another.

Off the tee, miss-hit balls plunge into thick fairway-side grasses. Because the dunes sit mostly back from fairways and the terrain doesn't appear too intimidating, the landing areas are smaller than one might think. Shots routinely bounce unpredictably off these mounded surfaces, and the deep rough is punishing.

Gary McNeill, the Irish Amateur champion in 1991 before he turned pro in 1993, is the head professional at Royal Portrush. "The Dunluce Links course will test every club in your bag, and each hole will present you with its own unique challenges," says McNeill. "It remains the fairest links I have ever played. Sacrificing a little distance for accuracy, particularly if the wind blows, will give you every chance of playing to your handicap. That is, if you can keep your eyes off the majestic scenery."

The 13th Green at Dunluce Links

There are so many holes that are so strong it's tough to highlight just a few. The opener, a 416-yard par-4, epitomizes the Dunluce Links' experience. Off a slightly raised tee, the tee ball must find the fairway between out-of-bounds on both sides and the approach must avoid a terrifyingly deep bunker at the green's front-left.

The 479-yard par-4 fourth pushes uphill off the tee past OB right and thick rough left. There are several bunkers in the wavy fairway and the putting surface is partially hidden behind two small knolls.

Dunluce Links' fifth is widely considered one of the most stunning par-4s in all of golf. Playing at a manageable 411 yards, the hole involves a drive that can be played over a series of mounds at the elbow of the dogleg-right. It has no bunkers, but the heaving green perches on the edge of a steep declivity above the beach (don't be long). After putting out, stop and enjoy the stunning views towards Dunluce Castle and wave at the surfers braving the swells below.

'White Rocks' - No. 5 Green at Dunluce - as Seen from the Beach

No. 14 is called "Calamity Corner" and for good reason. Stretching 210 yards uphill and usually into the wind, this is one of the meanest par-3s anywhere. Between the tee and green lurk a yawning chasm and no bailout area. Mounds and hollows back and left of the green await the overaggressive. It's hard to describe the feeling as you stand on this tee, knowing it will take a fantastic shot to hit the small target on the far side of the void.

A poor drive to the right of the optimal landing area at the 581-yard par-5 17th will bring the 20-foot-deep "Big Nellie" bunker into play, so attack this hole with a shot down the left. The approach must avoid six smaller bunkers.

The 484-yard par-4 closer always plays longer than it looks from the fairway and can be easy (with the wind behind you) or hard (into a facing wind). The breezes changed direction several times each day at the 2012 Irish Open, making this hole about a stroke harder when going into the headwind. Colt's 11 bunkers (nearly 20 percent of the bunkers on the entire course!) make the finishing hole a real bear.

Dunluce Links is ranked No. 4 by Golf World in its list of "The 100 Greatest Courses in the British Isles," and Golf Magazine puts it at 12th in their "Top 100 Courses in the World." Golf Digest considers it the fourth-best course outside the U.S.

Skilled golfers relish the chance to not only control the flight of the ball but also shape it either way off the tee, depending on the route of the hole and the day's wind. Royal Portrush's Dunluce Links offers such challenges in spades, and is one of the world's truly great golf courses.

For more information, visit www.royalportrushgolfclub.com.

Steve Habel is a freelance writer contributing Cybergolf news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, and is a contributing writer for Golfers' Guide and Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com) features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) chronicles his many travels, including playing more than 600 golf courses since 2008. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.