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  • Neil White

Royal Portrush

The sun has never shone quite as brightly, the sea has never been quite as blue and golf has never been quite as awesome as on the Dunluce Links on March 28, 2022.

I had played Royal Portrush twice before and was in attendance for two days of the Open’s return to Northern Ireland three years ago.

But I have to confess that it had previously not conjured the same magical spell as it had done over some of my pals.

That changed today. It was as if I had been struck by a bolt from the golfing gods and I suddenly had a heightened appreciation for every bump and hollow of these fantastic links and their stupendous views.

Indeed, it was that rare moment that a course was so good that it FORCED me to lift my game in an attempt to match the surroundings.

I played with one of my best friends who is Northern Irish and adores Portrush and with PGA Professional, Charlene Reid, whose sage advice helped me understand the nuances of the Dunluce.

It had not begun well.

The last time I was at Portrush, I played what I thought was the greatest bunker shot in my life from the deep trap in front of the first green only for the ball to re-emerge at my feet as I was diligently raking the sand.

This time, the green’s slope held more terrors even though I had played safely to the back of it.

My putt required a fine touch so the ball could go over a hump and slide gracefully towards the hole. However, just as I was sensing satisfaction, it rolled on and on and on - 20 yards down the fairway.

If Rory can score an eight on the first, so can I.

At this point, Charlene’s comment that Portrush is much fairer than many Championship links didn’t quite resonate.

However, she was right. After early huffing and puffing, I found my inner zen and previously impenetrable mysteries were suddenly resolvable.

The sight of White Rocks, the dogleg fifth hole, was my inspiration. With the azure sea providing the backdrop, my drive flew over the marker giving me a clear shot into one of the most famous greens in the world.

As my compadre discovered, an overly aggressive approach can result in the ball disappearing over the back of the hole and down onto the beach.

The last time we were putting out here a ball arrived at our feet from the tee. The chap who came to apologise in his buggy was none other than Darren Clarke.

On that day, Portrush fazed me but by now I was at one with my magnificent surroundings. Indeed, I reckon even Clarke would have been happy with my run between holes seven and 12.

The par-five seventh had intimated the bejesus out of me on my last visit but this time I avoided the cavernous Big Nelly bunker and crashed a fairway wood to within a few yards of the temporary green (they are ironing out a few undulations in the usual putting surface to make it fairer).

The curving 8th was a very special par. The draw from the tee took it over the rough and away from the far-side bunkers and a crisp five-iron strike saw the ball curl around towards the flag.

Portrush’s wonderfully complex greens and run-offs baffle many and can even repel good shots such as this one.

Often players will find themselves putting from dips at the side of the target as in this case. I was, therefore, thrilled, to knock the ball to the cup-side and claim my four.

I could happily write an essay about each hole on this glorious day when even failures were memorable.

For example, having run six pars together, I sent a heavenly seven-iron tee shot towards the par-three 13th.

I thought it was destined for flag-side but, even on the stroke index 18 surprises await and the ball dropped a foot short into the bunker protecting the hole.

And then there is the 16th – another of Portrush’s classics – a 200+ yard par three at the side of a grassy abyss.

Even my shot down the left-hand side nearly ended up down into the horrors of the right after the undulations grabbed hold of it.

Nevertheless, both my pal and I were close enough to par Calamity – only for the subtleties of the green to defeat us and force us to settle for fours.

The condition of the Dunluce course was remarkable for the end of March. The fairways were super-tight and the greens, although slower than in summer, were great.

Of course, this was Portrush on the most benign of days. The sun shone, the wind was gentle, the rough was very low (last time I lost eight balls, this time none).

Our rich entertainment was enhanced by Charlene telling us stories of her 10-year career at the club (especially anecdotes around the Open) and when former secretary Wilma Erskine joined us for the final few holes and lunch.

Wilma is a friend of my mate and entranced us with tales of her time when she and a small group of committee members transformed Portrush into one of the world’s very best courses and an Open rota links.

Listening to her after I had just had my Portrush epiphany added to one of the greatest days in my golfing life so far.

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