The North Atlantic is as calm as a duckpond as I meander my way through the village streets en route to Castlerock Golf Club.
The sun has only been up for an hour or two and I think I might be able to make out the distant, looming presence of Islay on the horizon – it’s a perfect summer’s morning. The car park is empty but the putting green features two young, keen golfers warming up ahead of the junior competition which I soon learn begins in an hour or so. But otherwise I have the place to myself.
Castlerock Golf Club is yet another unmissable stop on Northern Ireland’s spectacular Causeway Coast. To the west are the rolling hills of Donegal, to the east the towering dunes of Portstewart Golf Club, separated only by the mouth of the river Bann. It’s a wonderful setting for two beautiful golf courses, which each offer something quite different: the charming 9-hole Bann Course and the reason most flock here – the 18-hole Mussenden Course, which carries the name of the nearby 18th century temple perched on the clifftops.
Locals will tell you could once drive a carriage around the temple, but no longer. The relentlessness of the North Atlantic has meant the cliffs have gradually eroded away, bringing the temple ever closer to the edge.
You might read that Castlerock sits in the shadow of Portstewart Golf Club and Royal Portrush, just along the coast, but there is no feeling of inferiority on the day I visit. The Mussenden Course may not be as vast or grand as either of its near neighbours, but boy it packs a punch, particularly in the wind, and although I set off in almost total silence, the car park is crammed with touring golfers from all corners of the planet as I walk off the 18th green, which says everything about Castlerock’s enduring appeal around the golf world.
What’s all the fuss about? Well, it was time to find out with a 1st tee shot which demands your A-game right from the off. With the conditions firm and fast, I find the left side of the fairway with an iron to open up the green on this dogleg right. Away to the left the sand dunes loom large and in among them, there are greens, fairways and tees just waiting to be discovered.
What’s immediately obvious is the need to find the fairways at Castlerock Golf Club. The rough is pretty penal and so it should be with both of the opening two holes, relatively short par-4s which turn from left to right. The view from the 1st green and the 2nd fairway looking out over the dunes to sea is one to truly savour. There was a part of me which didn’t want to leave it behind, with the 3rd hole taking me away to a different section of the golf course, which looks and feels a little more inland and a little less dramatic. I would, however, come back this way later in my round with the 7th, 8th, 9th providing a stunning end to the front 9. And the 17th and 18th also bringing you back through this wonderful linksland.
Castlerock Golf Club dates back to 1901 but it wasn’t until the Scotsman Ben Sayers arrived in 1908 that it was extended to 18 holes. Harry Colt is rumoured to have made further alterations in 1925 before, in 2017, Martin Hawtree redesigned 8 holes to future-proof the layout. It’s a golf club that’s also associated with the great Fred Daly, who won The Open Championship in 1947 at Hoylake, and was head professional here in the 1950s. In those days, the railways played a huge part in helping golfers reach courses and there is a reminder of that at the par-3 4th, named Leg O’Mutton. It’s a fearsome hole at more than 200 yards with the train-line out of bounds on the right, a burn short and four bunkers protecting a raised putting green. Did we mention it’s primarily played into the breeze? Hit the green and it’s a pretty straightforward hole. But if you don’t it has all the potential to wreck your card. Trust me on that one.
The wind will impact your round at Castlerock Golf Club more than most. In 2001 it played host to the Irish PGA Championship, where Ryder Cup stalwart Paul McGinley shot a course record round of 64 in benign conditions. A day earlier, one player broke par. The dunes provide some shelter, and it was there on my way along the stunning 17th that I started to look longingly across to the Bann Course, which although smaller is just so beguiling.
I watch one golfer find the tiny green on the par-3 9th and just feel I can’t leave Castlerock Golf Club without sneaking a few holes in on the Bann Course – so I do just that, and I am glad I did, because it is brilliant and a fantastic place to introduce those new to the game to links golf, with power taking second place to precision. These 9 holes meander through the dunes so beautifully that it really shouldn’t be missed, there are some fantastic sea views to boot. I finished back up on the 9th green after four holes on the Bann Course and then stepped onto the 18th tee of the Mussenden with the clubhouse in the distance. The final hole is another left to right par-4 to a raised green, which is tucked right under the clubhouse windows.
My ball came up short of the flag, as I suspect many do here. I putted out and walked across to talk to course manager Charlie, who is built like a tree but passionate about the golf course he and his team do such a brilliant job looking after. I popped my head in to ask for Bert McKay, general manager at Castlerock Golf Club. He was not in the office, however. Bert was, as he tends to be, in the thick of the action. I found him on the practice putting green, overseeing one of the many golf introduction sessions they host here for local schoolchildren, who are made to feel as welcome as any member. It was a moment which explained so much about Castlerock’s success to me.
The people who run this place really care about what they do, not only the course but the community around it. It’s where they live, where they work and there is an obvious and tangible pride in making Castlerock Golf Club such a welcoming place for everyone. Me included and that, as much as the wonderful golf courses here, is will be why I will be back. The golf will be brilliant and great fun but a place which looks after people like they do at Castlerock Golf Club is something you don’t find everywhere. Come and see for yourselves.