PORTRUSH, CO. ANTRIM, Northern Ireland -- The Open Championship (aka the British Open) is the oldest championship in golf. Only once, in 1951, has it been played outside Scotland or England. That Open, the 80th, was held on the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush Golf Club.
In 2019, the 148th Open Championship will finally return to Harry Colt's masterpiece links on the Northern Ireland coast.
And if the wind howls, few players may wish to return any time soon, because Royal Portrush will be a monster.
Golf in the seaside village of Portrush dates back to at least 1888, when the first golf club was founded. In 1929, Harry Colt laid out today's Dunluce links, and a few years later its sister Valley Course. Ever since, Royal Portrush has been a touchstone for golfers from the UK, Ireland and around the world.
The Dunluce links feel larger and longer than the 7,143 yards written on the scorecard. Perhaps this is due to the heaving dunes or the vistas over the sea and down the shoreline. (Maybe it had something to do with the 40F-degree weather I played in, too -- the ball went nowhere, especially into the wind.) There were concerns about accommodating Open Championship galleries, but the grounds appear to be quite spacious. The single road into and out of the course, however, might be a very different story. On the other hand, the course has hosted several Irish Opens with galleries of 100,000, so they probably have the logistics all worked out.
Once inside the gates, it's all marram grass and dunes, all big drives and wicked putts -- a veritable amusement park of golf. After you finish your round, head inside and marvel at the scorecard of the course record holder, a 16-year-old Rory McIlroy, whose score of 61 seems nothing short of superhuman.
Playing the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush
From the very first breath of the salty Portrush air, you get butterflies of excitement -- and maybe a cold chill of trepidation. This feeling was reinforced in me by one of the course stewards, who disapproved of me quite deeply for slipping my golf shoes on in the parking lot.
On the first hole, the fairway pot bunkers made me feel about as welcome as the gentleman in the parking lot, gobbling up my well-struck drive and forcing me to hit a sand wedge out into the fairway on the way to an opening double-bogey.
No matter how your day has gone up to that point, you'll forget everything when you hit the 479-yard, par-5 fourth hole, whose green is guarded by two dunes like a giant castle gate. From this point on, Royal Portrush lives up to its reputation as one of the top 20 courses in the entire world.
One of the most heralded holes is the 411-yard fifth, dubbed White Rocks for the breathtaking view of the pale cliffs up and down the coast that awaits you at the green. Sadly, this view may be the last thing your golf ball ever sees if your approach is even a few yards too long, as the back of the green tumbles a hundred feet down to the sea.
The green of the uphill, 433-yard eighth hole (Himalayas) also offers spectacular views, and on your approach, you'll appreciate the giant barber pole behind the putting surface that shows you where to aim.
When the Open comes to Royal Portrush, two of the most exciting driving holes will be the 478-yard 10th and the 412-yard 12th. Whereas we mere mortals are happy just to find the fairways, the pros will launch their drives for miles. If the weather cooperates, expect some dramatic approaches.
The 418-yard 13th features a green that was, until 2015, surrounded by trees, which had been ill advisedly planted many decades ago. Now that the pines are gone, nothing stands between the putting surface and the North Sea winds but the hairy dunes tumbling down toward the waves.
Calamity Corner is the moniker bestowed upon the 210-yard 14th hole. This uphill par 3 has more room left than you think, which is a good thing, because there is no room at all to the right, where the green falls off some 50 feet into an abyss of sorrow and woe.
The 442-yard 16th will be the closing hole for the Open in 2019. The revetted bunkers about 40 yards short of the green will make it a classic strategic closer. Tee shots that land in the evil rough will force players to lay up short of the bunkers to an awkward distance.
The current 17th and 18th holes are the only real weak links. Some holes from the Valley Course will be reworked to fit into the Dunluce links to bolster the difficulty and beauty of the back nine. One feature of the current 17th hole, a crater-like 20-foot high bunker called Big Nelly, will be recreated on the new 17th hole, according to my caddie. This is a good thing, because if any pro hits his ball into Nelly, it'll be mighty entertaining watching him try to hit back out again.
Final thoughts on the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush
One recent major magazine currently ranks the Dunluce links as the 12th best course in the world. If you are fortunate enough to play here yourself, you'll not regret spending the 160- to 180-pound green fee. Royal Portrush may beat up duffers like you and me, but it's still an experience with few rivals. It is a major championship course in every sense of the term.
Back inside, staring at McIlroy's scorecard from the 2005 North of Ireland Championship, it is almost unfathomable how a 16-year-old amateur could go so low here. All I can think is that the wind must have been lying down.
Who knows what will happen in 2019? But perhaps young Rory was giving us a hint of things to come.
Just down the coastal road from Portrush is the town of Bushmills -- yes, where the iconic Irish single-malt whiskey is distilled. A block away from the distillery is the Bushmills Inn, a boutique hotel catering to golfers, tourists and tipplers alike.
The inn's winding hallways, cozy nooks and singular guest rooms feel both traditional and chic at the same time. It's a great home-base for golfing all the courses in County Antrim.
For more information, visit discovernorthernireland.com.