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With one golfing season drawing to a close, it’s not too early to start planning a golf trip for the new year. ROB PERKINS looks at a world-class destination close to home.

Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast is finally receiving the recognition it serves as it is named as Lonely Planet’s top region to visit in 2018.

The region has as its centerpiece the magnificent Giant’s Causeway, the basalt columns where Irish mythology has it that Finn MacCool defeated Scottish giant Benandonner.

In less than two years, giants of the golfing world will be heading to the region as The Open bandwagon rolls into Royal Portrush – only the second time that it has been held outside of England and Scotland in the competition’s history.

And what awaits the world’s greatest golfers is a true test of links golf which has been improved immeasurably by the opening of two new holes – the 7th and 8th.

These holes replace the less than spectacular finishing two holes while the 17th and 18th holes will be the site for the Open Village.

Former Open champion Darren Clarke is Portrush’s favourite son and he will certainly have local knowledge on his side as he welcomes stars such as Jordan Speith and Dustin Johnson to the County Antrim coast to rub shoulders with the world heritage site of Giant’s Causeway.

In 2012, the Irish Open came to Royal Portrush, the first time the tournament was played in Northern Ireland in 59 year. And by that time, the club had their sights set on the ultimate prize: bringing The Open back to Royal Portrush and Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

While security concerns have eased, doubts remained as to whether Northern Ireland had the infrastructure and financial support to host big tournaments.

Given less than a year to prepare for that Irish Open, Royal Portrush welcomed more than 130,000 spectators over four days, easing concerns about getting people to the course on the winding, two-lane roads from town.

The only remaining hurdle was the course. There was a strong feeling among the R&A ranks that the final two holes were anticlimactic, at best. The R&A wanted the first and 18th holes to merge in an amphitheater setting.

The answer was to build two new holes and make the old 16th into the amphitheatre where the climax of the competition will play out.

The Dunluce’s new seventh and eighth holes opened for play in late June 2017. They siton or near land from the club’s Valley Course, and they are entirely new designs.

What’s striking, given all of the work, is the new holes seem to rest as comfortably on the land as the other 16.

And visitors can experience the new layout at Royal Portrush for what will be a truly memorable test of a golfer’s ability.

If you’re lucky and the sun shines and your game is just as radiant, then Royal Portrush is a heaven on earth, if either the weather or your game are not playing ball then just enjoy the surroundings and languish in some of the worlds’ most spectacular views.

But this area of the Northern Ireland coastline is blessed with several world-class courses and if you’re in the area a trip to Portstewart Golf Club must be on the itinerary.

The stunning Portstewart Strand course, with its awe-inspiring front nine and much improved back nine helps make for an incredible double – two magnificent courses less than four miles apart.

As soon as you stand on the first tee of the Strand course your eyes are drawn to the almost mountainous sand dunes which dominate this part of the Antrim coast.

It’s like entering another world as tee shot after tee shot needs to be strategically placed between the dunes with a second shot also having to negotiate some imposing dunes.

The first is a memorable par four – regularly voted as one of the great opening holes in Europe – with the nervous golfer eyeing an opening shot from an elevated tee down into a valley among the dunes.

Links golf depends on the weather. If it is relatively calm, with light winds, it will play into your hands but it is a different story if the wind gets up.

In that case, it will be about plotting your way around and not necessarily hitting drives everywhere.  It will put a premium on hitting the fairway and taking your chances from there.

Less than an hour’s drive from the coast is one of Northern Ireland’s premier luxury hotel and spa at Galgorm, Ballymena. Midway between Belfast and the coast, the hotel is set within 163 acres of parkland with the River Maine running through the estate.

Last year, Galgorm Castle Golf Club played host to the European Challenge Tour’s Northern Ireland Open.

 

FACTFILE: Getting there, staying there, playing there

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