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It’s finally about to happen, if it hasn’t already. My lack of expertise in reviewing a golf course will be exposed.
How? I think Castlerock Golf Club is a better golf course, from what I remember, than Royal County Down.
Absurd! Royal County Down may be the best golf course in Northern Ireland if Royal Portrush is not. Both of them could be, from what I’ve heard, in the top 10 of all golf courses in the world.
So on my next trip to Northern Ireland, perhaps in two years, I want to get back to County Down to see what I missed from a trip there seven years ago. Maybe I have a more trained eye -- or more sensitive one -- that better ascertained the features of links golf when I played Castlerock in June 2012.
I stumbled onto Castlerock by studying courses from Northern Ireland on one of the golf travel websites. I first noticed Portstewart because its green fee was discounted close to a third off from the price of Royal Portrush. But I saw just a few miles away that Castlerock was even cheaper, more toward the concept I espouse of “Golf Like You‘re Poor.” The pictures and commentary on the club’s website looked inviting (after the 1908 opening of the 18-hole layout credited to Scottish pro Ben Sayers, it had a touch-up from Harry Colt in the mid-20s), so off I went. It would cost about $105 to play there compared to $210 at Portrush, the Irish Open venue just up the road on the Antrim Coast. Not stuff for the poor, but at least it was a better fit for my budget.
The seaside village at Castlerock has a 6,800-yard course that cards par 73, though the pros would take par-5 holes like the 477-yard fifth and the 490 at No. 17 and cut par to 71. I surmise that’s what holds back Castlerock from anything close to County Down or Portrush consideration -- no championship distance.
To me, it matters not. There’s plenty of challenge here, and fine qualities of links golf, starting not too distant from the elevated fairways at the two opening holes that offer display of the close by North Sea and Ireland’s Inishowen Head. Pin positions cut to the right at the par-5 third hole require approach shots with care, because nicely struck balls to the very firm greens will not hold the ball from rolling toward a 15-foot dropoff down to the fourth tee. Down there you’ll find the start of a par-3 of some 200 yards to a well-bunkered layout surrounding the putting surface.
I quickly noticed the firmness of the greens back on the first hole, when my 7-iron approach rolled 30 feet past the ball mark, and that’s even into an uphill green. In what may be the only divergence from the expected links play, those greens do not roll fast.
The wee bit of water that comes into play at Castlerock makes an appearance at No. 4, but that burn from the sea’s inlet hugs closer to the green at No. 6 -- a gem of a hole even if it’s the shortest par-4 on the property at 347 paces. The green falls sharply back down to that burn, but there’s hardly a chance of spinning one back into it because of the firmness of the greens here.
From here on out as Castlerock bounces rather nicely through the dunes. It’s particularly bumpy when No. 8 doglegs right along them, No. 9 (I think the best par-3 here, better than No. 4) has a green that sits down right in the dunes, No. 13 (“Swallow Hill,” they call it) has a hump dominating the fairway and No. 17 gets the highest point on the course because the tee box is perched right in there on the grassy ridge. As high up as you may be at 17 tee, you still can’t see the pot bunker in the swale plunging down and coming into play for your second. Your approach shot in is ruined if you’re down there. And a big dune rivaling the one at Swallow Hill is blind to the tee shot at No. 18. But, in this one’s case, it’ll not affect you unless you miss the fairway right.
The only thing left to do after the walk up to the elevated final green is to order a pint from the clubhouse’s upstairs bar and drink from it while leaning against the rail from the outdoor perch overlooking the grounds. The only thing better would be to get back down just a few feet away to No. 1 tee and have another go at it.
Maybe you can tell I’m not much of a golf-course reviewer, but also can see I love Castlerock for its sharp little layout. When I leave Texas and go back to Ulster, I will play Royal County Down again. But there’s no way I’ll miss a trip back here. It’ll never be on the Open Championship’s rota, but it’ll always be on mine.
Tim Price is working on his second book covering a facet of sports history. It's due out in Spring 2014. In the meantime, read his blogs and reviews can be read here or at Tim Price Sports Books. You can also follow him on Twitter @golflikeurpoor.