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Northern Ireland is golf's overlooked gem

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland – In 19th holes across the United States are where the seeds normally take root – golf fanatics tinkering with the idea of an old country excursion. From these impromptu conversations come unforgettable trips to Scotland or the Republic of Ireland, even England.

Surprisingly, however, Northern Ireland is often a forgotten extra in this cast of links stars, and that’s too bad.

There are few, if any, Great Britain and Ireland destinations that offer the one-stop-fits-all reality of Belfast. A little more than an hour to the south of the bustling city center sits Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle, while an hour to the north is Royal Portrush, a rugged layout that offers views of the Atlantic Ocean from almost every hole.

It could be the greatest concentration of venerable links outside of St. Andrews and Carnoustie in Scotland, and much more scenic.

“Unfortunately, even though we recommend staying in Belfast, the majority of visitors tend to avoid one of the great cities on the island of Ireland,” said Maura Nolan, the founder and president of Irish Links Tours & Travel.

“This is largely due to the years of hearing about war-torn Belfast and the ‘troubles.’ Their perception hasn't changed. History, fine hotels, great restaurants, many museums, historic pubs, friendly people, it has it all.”

Belfast also offers an endearing alternative to the inevitable links overload. Fifteen minutes east of the tony Europa Hotel in the city center sits Royal Belfast, a sneaky long 6,300-yard parkland course that dates to 1881 with what are arguably the best greens in Ulster. While just down the road is Holywood Golf Club, an unassuming blue-collar club that is still celebrating native-son Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open victory.

Northern Ireland may be golf’s overlooked gem, but it’s a gem nonetheless.

Read the running blog of Jay and Rex's Irish adventures.