PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush Golf Club and Royal County Down Golf Club are undoubtedly the top two reasons any links enthusiast has Ulster on its wish list.
Both are often rated among the top 10 in the world and make for arguably the finest one-two punch of any golf destination.
The Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush is the only course in Ireland that has hosted the Open Championship and may get another one soon. Royal County Down is lauded as perhaps the greatest mix of scenery and difficulty of any golf course anywhere.
The two famous links, less than 90 miles from one another, were originally connected by the rail line that extended up the coast toward the end of the 19th century, when golf clubs began sprouting up all over this corner of Ireland.
Today, several other links in the shadow of the royals shouldn't be passed up.
And when you also consider such attractions as Giant's Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle ruins and Bushmills Distillery, as well as the capital city of Belfast nearby, a golf trip to Northern Ireland is fulfilling beyond the famous one-two combination.
Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club
The Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club features one of the best opening tee shots in Ireland, an elevated shot overlooking the beach and town to a fairway tucked behind a sand wall. Only after you turn the corner, about 240 yards out, is the green finally revealed to the right.
Portstewart, consisting of 54 holes (not to mention a magnificent clubhouse overlooking the links and the sea), took bold steps in becoming a must-play links. The club added seven new holes in 1992 (nos. 2-8) set along some of the Causeway Coast's most stunning dunesland. The fourth hole is one of the purest links par 5s in existence, and it took nearly a century after the club was founded for it to finally be revealed.
Mussenden Course at Castlerock Golf Club
On the other side of the Bann River from Portstewart is the scenic little holiday village of Castlerock, home to the Mussenden Course at Castlerock Golf Club. It was named after a temple that was built on cliffs just outside of town in 1785 and is visible throughout the round.
The golf course boasts greens that are among Ireland's best. While many 19th-century links are short on par 5s, Castlerock has five. The best is the 17th hole, which plays from an elevated tee. You must avoid four penal bunkers along the way.
Next door, the nine-hole, par-34 Bann Course plays closer to the sea and within some striking dunes. It's suitable for a warm-up or to settle any pending bets made on the Mussenden.
Ardglass Golf Club in County Down
Ardglass Golf Club may be in the shadow of its County Down neighbor in nearby Newcastle, but perhaps that makes up for the fact that there are virtually no shadows on this cliff-top links that glimmers on a long, Irish summer day.
Ardglass' claim to fame is one of the greatest opening tee shots you'll ever play -- beside the seaside clubhouse, set in a 13th-century ruin. The shot is played uphill over black, jagged cliffs. Members will assure guests by saying, "You've got the sea to the left and the whole of Ireland to the right," but still chuckle when all-too-many balls find their demise into the sea.
Several other holes tiptoe along the black rocks with waves crashing below, where many ships have met their end in centuries past. While mayhem of water crashing against the sea is often happening below you, the course is shorter and forgiving compared to sinister Royal County Down. Ardglass is a more relaxed round, and for many touring golfers that's exactly the point.
More golf in Northern Ireland
Royal Portrush's Valley Course is one of Ireland's better "secondary" club courses. The Harry Colt design plays 6,304 yards and features plenty of humps and bumps to produce a pure links test.
Ballycastle Golf Club rounds out a foursome that hosts the Causeway Coast Golf Tournament each summer (along with Castlerock, the Valley Course at Portrush and Portstewart) and features a collection of holes overlooking the sea.
Finally, there is little Bushfoot Golf Club, set minutes east of Portrush next to Bushmills along the Causeway Coastal Route. Composed of 10 greens and 17 sets of tees, this small club boasts some tough holes and plenty of great seaside scenery. Darren Clarke, who lives up the road, is a member here and plays in weekly casual games when in town.
Ballyliffin Golf Club in Ireland
Accessible via the Lough Foyle Ferry between Greencastle and Magilligan, the 36-hole Ballyliffin Golf Club is Ireland's northernmost golf club, home to the Old Course and new Glashedy Links. Each plays in the shadow of the Glashedy Rock in a similar mold to the Ailsa Craig or Bass Rock in Scotland, and each presents an unforgettably remote links test, certainly worth switching out your Pounds into Euros for a day or two.
Coming soon: Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort & Spa
Located between Bushfoot Golf Club and Giant's Causeway, a new proposed links golf resort is almost ready to break ground. Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort & Spa will feature an 18-hole links course designed by David McLay Kidd, plus an eco-friendly resort, cottages, spa and conference center. Click here to learn more about Bushmills Dunes.
Northern Ireland is short speedboat to Ayrshire
If you only have one agenda on your links vacation, and that is to play the top Open Championship and medal courses of Great Britain and Ireland, you can actually include Northern Ireland and Scotland's southwest coast, home to Open Championship hosts Turnberry, Prestwick and Royal Troon, quite easily. Speedboats, taking about one hour to traverse from Portrush to Prestwick or Turnberry, can be booked. Go to Carr Golf Travel for details.