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Championship Shores: The Spirit of Golf at Royal Portrush

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In County Antrim, on the rugged Northern Irish coast, the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club is among the most beautiful settings for links golf. Routed through sprawling dunes and rumpled terrain along the sea, it lies in the shadow of Dunluce Castle along the Antrim coast road, one of the most scenic in all of Britain.

Royal Portrush remains the only Irish links to host The Open Championship. Its notoriety soared as it hosted the event in 1951 and again in 2019, with a return engagement set for 2025. These events have showcased the course’s exceptional layout and design, earning it top rankings among the greatest courses in the world.

Today, Royal Portrush continues to captivate golfers with its blend of historical significance and contemporary challenge. In this post, we will delve into Royal Portrush’s origins, the course itself, and some further reading and videos to bring the setting to life. As always, images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Royal Portrush – Origins

Royal Portrush Golf Club has a rich and fascinating history that dates back to the late 19th century. The club was founded in 1888, originally known as The County Club. The club’s inception was closely tied to the local railway company, which brought people from various cities to the fishing village of Portrush, marking the beginning of the club’s journey.

In 1892, just four years after its establishment, the club ascended to royal status, becoming The Royal County Club under the patronage of the Duke of York. This was a significant achievement, as most clubs typically had to wait a quarter century or longer to obtain the ‘Royal’ seal of approval.

In 1895, the club’s name was changed to Royal Portrush Golf Club, with patronage passing to HRH The Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. The club opened with a 9-hole golf course, which was soon extended to an 18-hole layout by Old Tom Morris.

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Harry Colt

Harry Colt, responsible for gems like Swinley Forest, had a significant role in shaping Royal Portrush. He was commissioned by the club in 1929 to design a pair of courses, the Dunluce Links and the Valley Links. Colt’s design of the Dunluce Links (the Championship course), which opened for play in July 1933, is particularly noteworthy. He masterfully utilized the natural contours of the land to create a course that combines breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean with an equally challenging layout. Many of the greens Colt designed at Dunluce Links in 1929 remain intact today.

Colt’s original design of the Dunluce Course underwent two major changes after his time. In 1946, the 1st and 18th holes were lost when the lease on which they stood was not extended. Two new holes (the current 10th and 11th) replaced Colt’s opening and home holes, laid out by P.G. Stevenson and Sir Anthony Babington. Despite these changes, the course remains a testament to Colt’s genius and continues to be recognized as one of the finest courses in the world. When Bernard Darwin first saw the Dunluce course, he wrote that Colt had “built a monument more enduring than brass.”

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Notable Events

The club has hosted many of the game’s great champions and Championships, playing a major role in the growth of golf in Ireland. The Irish Amateur Championships were inaugurated here in 1892, and the first professional event on Irish soil was also hosted at Portrush in 1895. The club has also welcomed three Amateur Championships in 1960, 1993, and 2014.

The club’s global profile soared when it hosted The Open Championship in 1951, becoming the first Open not held on the island of Great Britain. The Open returned to Royal Portrush in 2019 and is set to host again in 2025. Max Faulkner lifted the Claret Jug in 1951, and Irishman Shane Lowry (who shot a new course record 63) triumphed in 2019, winning his first major title by six strokes over Tommy Fleetwood.

In addition to The Open, Royal Portrush has been the setting for six Senior Open Championships between 1955 and 1999 and again in 2004, attracting legends such as Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Bob Charles, Hale Irwin, and Tom Kite. The club was also host to the 2010 Palmer Cup.

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Did You Know?

The Dunluce Links are named after the nearby ruins of Dunluce Castle, a 13th-century castle that sits dramatically perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. According to local legend, a portion of the castle’s kitchen once collapsed into the ocean during a storm in the 17th century. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the castle was abandoned and fell into ruins over subsequent centuries.

This striking image of a castle partly fallen into the sea may have partly inspired C.S. Lewis when he wrote his fictional Chronicles of Narnia series. In the books, the Pevensie children’s castle, “Cair Paravel,” suffers similar damage from the sea. The castle appeared in Game of Thrones as the Greyjoy castle Pyke.

Dunluce Castle

The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club is a par-71 at 7,337 yards, offering a demanding test against the backdrop of the North Atlantic Ocean. The opening nine gradually works towards the sea and begins with the “Hughies,” a 421-yard par-4 that requires a precise drive to avoid two bunkers and sets up an uphill approach to an elevated, two-tier green. The 2nd, “Giant’s Grave,” is a downhill par-5 playing through the dunes.

The 4th hole, “Fred Daly’s,” is a 479-yard par-4 named after the local 1947 champion golfer. This hole is characterized by its out-of-bounds area running down the right side and a stream that must be carried requiring a well-placed tee shot to thread the left fairway bunkers.

The 5th hole, “White Rocks,” is a 374-yard par-4 that might be the stand out of the first nine. A risk/reward dogleg right that provides a heroic option over mounds on the right, which shortens the hole. The green teeters on the edge of the cliffs high above the beach and offers breathtaking views. The 6th, “Harry Colt’s,” is a long-ish par-3 played through the dunes to a long, narrow, elevated green on a severe upslope that favors a left-to-right approach.

The par-5 7th is a true three-shotter known for the fairway bunker guarding the right side of the fairway, which should be avoided at all costs. On the par-4 8th, the real trouble is down the left side and the green is defended only by a lone bunker short and right. The opening nine closes with “Tavern,” a par-4 with bunkers in play off the tee and short of the long, narrow green.

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Second Nine

The second nine offers a mix of daunting challenges and stunning scenery. The 10th hole, “Himalayas,” is a 447-yard par-4 that requires a tee shot over a large dune known as “Big Nellie” to a fairway that doglegs right to the green. Hitting the left of the white stone will put you in good shape for the approach. 

The 13th hole, “Feather Bed,” is a 194-yard par-3 that demands accuracy to a green protected by deep bunkers and undulating terrain. The 15th, “Skerries,” named after the offshore islands, plays towards the sea. Formerly the 13th, it is well-bunkered down the right and plays to a rumpled fairway with an elevated green.

Trouble is up next, with “Calamity Corner” followed by “Purgatory.” The former, the 16th is an infamous 236-yard par-3 with a tee shot that must carry a deep chasm, with anything short or right likely to end in disaster. The 17th brings in the opposite problem, with trouble left. A short-ish downhill par-4, it features a black and white pole behind the green that serves as an aim point.

The 18th hole, “Babington’s,” is a strong finishing 474-yard par-4 that requires a forced carry over dunes and bunkers to set up an approach to a well-defended green, providing a fitting end to the round.

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Royal Portrush Today

Today, Royal Portrush Golf Club continues to be a beacon of world-class golf, attracting visitors from all over the globe. The club is continuously striving for improvement and development, as outlined in its Vision 2030 Strategic Plan, which aims to build on the club’s accomplishments and establish it as one of the world’s leading golf clubs.

Portrush native Graeme McDowell, 2011 US Open champion, calls Royal Portrush his home course. Fellow Major winners Rory McIlroy (who shot an old course record of 61 at age 16), Darren Clarke, and Padraig Harrington are also honorary members.

In preparation for The Open in 2025, the club is undergoing modifications to both its Dunluce Links and Valley Links courses. These changes include new holes, greens, and tee boxes, as well as fairway realignments and enhancements to the spectator area. The club is also investing in its infrastructure, with a £16.5 million hotel overlooking the course set to open before the 2025 Open Championship.

Visit Royal Portrush online at https://www.royalportrushgolfclub.com

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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Some Essays on Golf Course Architecture
by H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison

Summary: Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture features selected writings from prominent architects of the early 20th century, H.S. Colt, C.H. Alison, and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. Written in 1920 during the height of their careers, this collaborative guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies they used to design and construct the world’s most renowned golf courses.

Inside this classic of golf literature, the authors detail how they approach each element of golf course design, from placing hazards to utilizing a site’s natural beauty. Along with their first-hand narrative, all of the original photos and sketches have been included, ensuring that every element of the first edition has been carefully preserved. 

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The 150th Open
by Iain Carter

Summary: The 150th Open is the official book celebrating the sesquicentennial (seriously, that’s a thing) of golf’s oldest major championship, produced in partnership with The R&A and capturing the history and stories that make The Open unique.  From its 1860 origins in Prestwick to today’s iconic venues, the book chronicles The Open through archival images and interviews with past champions, reflecting on characters, courses, and moments that have defined this revered event over 150 years. The comprehensive narrative and visual history in The 150th Open commemorates The Open Championship’s illustrious past and enduring prestige as golf’s most beloved tournament.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Shane Lowry Wins at Portrush 2019
Royal Portrush – Course Guide
Portrush Course Overview
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