Record crowds and a global TV audience of 600 million will watch the world’s top golf stars vie for the final Major of 2019 over the coming days, when the Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush Golf Club for the first time in almost 70 years.
This beautiful corner of the UK is not only packed with superb golf courses, it is a great holiday destination too, offering everything from sandy beaches to the UNESCO-listed Giant’s Causeway, and Game of Thrones filming locations.
Golf’s most famous trophy, the Claret Jug, has been fought over since The Open was first held at Scotland’s Prestwick Golf Club in 1860, making it the oldest golf tournament in the world.
The winner of the 148th Open Championship will pocket a handy £1.5 million for four days’ work on the revamped, historic Dunluce Links course at Royal Portrush from 18-21 July.
Scotland’s St Andrews is regarded as the home of golf. The game has been played there for more than 600 years and its venerable Old Course, where golf was first documented to have been played in 1552.
However, Edinburgh is where the rules of golf that form the basis of the modern game were first introduced. In 1744, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s oldest golf club and then known as the Gentlemen Golfers, organised the first-ever 'open' golf tournament using 13 hand-written rules, played over the five-hole Leith Links course. Today, 275 years later, a stone cairn in what is now a public city park marks the historic location.
A golfer for almost 30 years, I've been fortunate to have teed off on six continents and played many of the planet’s finest courses, among them Royal Portrush and St Andrews’ Old Course. Here are four of my favourite holiday golf destinations where you can have as much fun off, as well as on, the fairways:
Portugal’s southernmost region, the Algarve, is nirvana for golfers and non-golfers alike.
Besides offering more than 40 golf courses, its 125-mile-long Atlantic coastline encompasses sweeping bays, stunning beaches and secluded coves, many nestled below distinctive red cliffs. Add attractions galore, bustling holiday towns, chic marina resorts, historic ports and quaint fishing villages to the mix and it’s hardly surprising that it welcomes more than four million holidaymakers every year.
The golf is mainly concentrated between Faro, the Algarve’s gateway with its international airport, and Lagos, an hour’s drive to the west.
San Lorenzo, one of Portugal’s top-rated courses, has several holes that run alongside the beautiful Ria Formosa estuary. Quinta do Lago has the only Paul McGinley Academy in the world and its North course was recently redesigned by the victorious 2014 Europe Ryder Cup captain, while its 10-year-old Laranjal course features umbrella pines, cork-oaks and orange trees on a challenging layout that was originally an orange grove.
Also in this area is Portugal’s most photographed golf hole - the par-3 16th of Vale do Lobo’s Royal course, where golfers tee off from a cliff high above a beach over ravines to a clifftop green. That is one hole where you don’t want to hook your shot!
Stay in Vilamoura and you have several excellent courses right on your doorstep, the pick of them being the Arnold Palmer-designed Victoria, an American-style course with several lakes, and its stately Old Course, lined by majestic pines. They are just a short drive from Albufeira, the Algarve’s main resort town, where you can play golf and explore the region’s beaches and other off-course delights.
It may only be nine holes but the spectacular, forested Pine Cliffs course will make you want to play again and again. Pine Cliffs’ Golf Academy is one of the Algarve’s best for children to learn to play.
Stay just steps away from the fairways of the Ron Fream-designed Gramacho course close to Portimão. Nearby Penina is where golf began on the Algarve, its Championship course designed by Sir Henry Cotton opening in 1966. I dined with the great man at Penina when I first visited the Algarve 23 years later as a then non-golfer - a memorable trip that inspired me to take up golf.
The pick of courses close to Lagos is Onyria Palmares, with three nine-hole loops providing different experiences.
Don’t leave the Algarve without playing what many regard as Portugal’s best course. Located in rolling hills between Tavira and the Spanish border, stylish Monte Rei Golf & Country Club’s exquisite signature Jack Nicklaus-designed North course is enhanced by an elegant Spanish hacienda-style clubhouse.
Spain’s Mediterranean coast
Another long-time favourite with golfers, Spain has a plethora of golf to enjoy along its Mediterranean coast. From Catalonia in the far north, where the Costa Brava possesses Spain’s top-rated PGA Catalunya Stadium course, to the sun-soaked Costa del Sol, where there are plenty of activities for non-golfers.
Tarragona and neighbouring Cambrils make perfect bases for the whole family. Golfers can test their mettle on the two 18-hole championship courses of the 45-hole Lumine Mediterránea Beach & Golf Community, with tree-lined fairways and elevation changes on the Hills course and water, water everywhere on the technically-tougher, Greg Norman-designed Lakes course as it winds around the Sèquia Major wetlands area.
Little ones can enjoy the rides and attractions of the adjacent PortAventura World and Caribe Aquatic Park while you play. After visiting Tarragona’s numerous Roman ruins and ancient monuments, chill out on Cambrils’ wide beaches.
Stay in the province of Castellón and you can play Spanish golf star Sergio García's home course of Mediterraneo, which has fast and tricky greens as you might expect.
One of the Valencia region’s best courses, El Saler is just south of the historic capital city of Valencia, famous for its paella, and is a combination of links-style, coastal holes and ones that weave through umbrella pines. Oliva Nova Golf Club’s course was designed by the late, great Seve Ballesteros and is regularly used for European Tour qualifying events.
The Costa Blanca spans 125 miles of Alicante province and incorporates the vibrant resort of Benidorm, with its buzzing nightlife and family-friendly beaches and attractions. Close to Benidorm, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Levante course at Villaitana Golf lies at the foot of the Finestrat Mountains. South of Alicante, Las Colinas opened in 2010 and is ranked among Spain’s top 20 courses.
Neighbouring Murcia has a trio of golf courses at La Manga Club - it is a family favourite with its host of activities, restaurants, a 28-court tennis centre and other facilities set on 1,400 acres. Boasting 70 golf courses along 100 miles of coastline, the Costa del Sol proudly proclaims itself as the Costa del Golf, with the highest concentration of golf between Málaga and Estepona.
Take your pick from the likes of La Cala Resort, where three golf courses and a six-hole academy make it Spain’s largest golf complex, former World Cup host Las Brisas and another three courses at Villa Padierna that are augmented by the Michael Campbell Golf Academy, overseen by New Zealand’s 2005 US Open winner.
Away from the fairways, there’s history and culture in Málaga's centre, shopping and restaurants in Marbella, and nightclubs in marina town Puerto Banus. For day trips, visit the wonderfully-preserved Moorish palace of Alhambra in Granada and the region’s famous white villages, or Pueblos Blancos, with Ronda the loveliest of all and impossibly perched atop towering cliffs.
If you enjoy sea views with your golf, the Dominican Republic is the place for you. On its 26 golf courses, 86 holes are sea-facing and 39 of those are right on the ocean.
Comprising the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, it truly is golf’s Caribbean queen and features high-quality designs by some of the world’s top golf architects that have earned it international recognition. The International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO), voted it the 2019 Golf Destination of the Year for Latin America and the Caribbean in their annual awards for the fourth time.
Its easternmost coastline includes the lively beach resorts of Punta Cana and Bávaro - which together are known as La Costa del Coco, or Coconut Coast, for the palm trees that line its white-sand beaches - as well as the exclusive and more laid-back Cap Cana resort area.
Here you can find a dozen golf courses. Eight holes of the Jack Nicklaus signature Punta Espada course in Cap Cana play next to the sea, the azure blue of the sea contrasting the lush fairways and greens, while 13 of its 18 holes have ocean views. Tom Fazio-designed Corales has 12 with Caribbean views, four of them oceanside. Its finish is also one of golf’s most magnificent; the last three holes are called the Devil’s Elbow and end in a U-shaped 18th hole that plays around a narrow, rocky bay. On neighbouring La Cana, golfers can see the ocean from 14 of its 27 holes with four also playing right by the water.
Other east coast courses include The Lake Barceló course, an inland layout with 25 lakes set within a mangrove forest, and another Nicklaus design at the Hard Rock Golf Club at Cana Bay, where each hole is named after a famous rock song and where pink flamingos are resident on a lake by its 18th hole.
The adventurous can try zip-lining, diving or deep-sea fishing in the area. More sedate options include shopping for local handicrafts and cigars (the Dominican Republic is the world’s largest cigar producer, and you can watch them being hand-rolled), or just relaxing on the sugar-soft sands and swimming in the warm Caribbean.
Puerta Plata in the north offers lots of activities, white-sand beaches and golf. The Playa Dorada course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr and has one hole right by the Atlantic. Less than two hours east, the recently-renovated Playa Grande course is another Trent Jones course that is laid out on high cliffs. After going for birdies on the course, take a whale-watching tour to see humpback whales in the Samana sanctuary, off the north-east tip of the Dominican Republic.
In La Romana, on the south coast, visiting golfers can play three Pete Dye courses including the Teeth of the Dog, the course that launched the Dominican Republic onto the global golf stage over 40 years ago. It's named for the rocky seashore promontories where Dye placed tees and greens.
Thailand has come to the fore for golf in recent years and is now Asia’s leading golf holiday destination, with over 250 courses. In the south it offers golfing holidaymakers a mix of experiences, from manicured country clubs near its capital to coastal resort courses and tropical island golf.
Among the highlights of playing golf in Thailand are its friendly caddies, decked out in smart uniforms and epitomising the country’s Land of Smiles tagline. Caddies are compulsory in Thailand and are very knowledgeable and a great help when you play.
If staying in Bangkok, allow some time for golf as well as seeing its opulent Grand Palace and ornate temples, shopping, boat trips and using tuk-tuk taxis.
On the eastern outskirts of Bangkok, the Thai Country Club opened in 1996 and the following year hosted the Asian Honda Classic that was won by Tiger Woods. Immaculately presented with an abundance of flora and fauna, it is also playable for the average golfer although still a tough challenge with its many water hazards.
Other courses near Bangkok include Riverdale Golf Club, originally designed by Gary Player but reworked in 2010, and tranquil Muang Kaew Golf Club.
Popular with Thailand’s royal family as a summer escape since the 1920s, the beach resort of Hua Hin on the Malay Peninsula is great for golf.
The standout Black Mountain Golf Club is laid out below forest-clad peaks and slopes, with lakes and streams woven through and around its fairways. Black Mountain frequently tops lists of Thailand’s best courses and in 2016 it was expanded to 27 holes.
Springfield Royal Country is an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary course with another 27 holes, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Also in the Hua Hin area is Banyan Golf Club, draped over verdant hills giving views of the Gulf of Thailand and with a traditional Thai-style clubhouse.
Apart from golf, visitors to Hua Hin can shop for bargains in its weekend night markets, cool off at Black Mountain Water Park, see the monkeys and hilltop temple of Khao Takiab, and hike through Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park to see a golden temple built inside Phraya Nakhon Cave.
The island of Phuket features its own award-winning golf course, with the lush Laguna Golf Phuket course named Thailand’s best course in the 2015 World Golf Awards. Others include Red Mountain Golf Club, where fairways are set between rocks, trees and lakes, and the Mission Hills Phuket Golf Club Resort & Spa course, yet another Nicklaus design that is set alongside mangroves.
Phuket’s non-golf highlights include the Las Vegas-style Phuket FantaSea Show, several night markets, Patong’s buzzing nightlife and boat trips to the iconic limestone rock formations of Phang Nga Bay, including James Bond Island, made famous in the Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.
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