PORTRUSH, Co. Antrim -- The captain of Bushfoot Golf Club, Paul Pentland's eyes light up when showing me the future site of Bushmills Dunes, located just across a small river from his little nine-hole club on the northern coast of Antrim.
'It's the greatest thing that could happen to the area,' said Pentland. His feelings aren't alone. Residents and members at golf clubs throughout County Antrim are excited at the prospect of the proposed golf resort.
Located between the natural wonder of Giant's Causeway and the town of Portrush, Bushmills Dunes, developed by Northern Ireland-born businessman Alistair Hanna, will feature an 18-hole pure links course (the first new links to come to Ireland in over 100 years) a 125-room hotel, conference center and spa. The entire capacity of the 100 million-pound development will be 295-300 rooms and is expected to bring 360 direct jobs to the county.
Hanna and his team have spent 19 years on the project thus far without putting a shovel in the ground. That's the amount of time it's taken to both acquire the land and conduct numerous feasibility and environmental studies. Their due diligence widely appeased country officials, and in February, Northern Ireland's Environment Minister Alex Atwood gave the project the green light. But the support was not enough to satisfy the United Kingdom's National Trust, who in June, announced it's intentions to apply for judicial review of the development. Among the concerns expressed by the National Trust is the resort's environmental impact, as well as the suggestion that building the resort so close to Giant's Causeway could cause UNESCO to reconsider the natural wonder's status as a National Heritage Site.
The decision by the Trust to oppose Bushmills Dunes has most of Ireland's tourism industry in disbelief. Darren Clarke, who lives County Antrim and is a member at Bushfoot, expressed his displeasure with the Trust's holdup prior to last week's Irish Open.
'The National Trust has a huge backing from Northern Ireland,' he said. '9 million pounds, and they're using it to block the new course, which can only enhance the area.'
'Hopefully at some stage they will come to their senses and let the course be built.'
David McLay Kidd lands Bushmills Dunes design job
Hanna selected David McLay Kidd amongst the half dozen designers who visited the site. Hanna is just one of many golfers who adore Bandon Dunes Resort on the northwest coast of the United States and was especially impressed with the work done by Kidd. He wants a similar effort here: a pure links course with wide fairways and large greens that offer great playability to go with tremendous coastal scenery. Kidd's expertise with both natural and manmade links designs will come in handy. At Bushmills Dunes, fourteen holes will laid out in the dunes naturally, similar to his minimalist work at Machrihanish Dunes. The remaining four will be sculpted out of farmland, resemblant of the St. Andrews Castle Course.
Whether or not Bushmills Dunes can finally join Northern Ireland's roster of must-play golf courses as the country enjoys a spotlight in the game as homegrown stars Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Grame McDowell win tournaments all over the world, will be at the hands of the U.K.'s courts.
But Hanna shrugs off the most recent obstacles: a teetering European economy and new opposition from the National Trust. After all, he conceived the idea 19 years ago at the height of 'The Troubles,' when Northern Ireland's tourism industry was virtually non-existent.
'I wasn't so confident [in the project] 19 years ago,' admitted Hanna. 'It was a big leap then.'
In all likelihood, it will be until at least November before the country's judicial review can take place. Until then, Hanna will watch the clock tick on his dream project towards year twenty.
Bushmills Dunes a needed addition to a Northern Ireland golf tour
The proposed hotel at Bushmills Dunes will be a low-lying, eco-friendy building with a green roof in order to blend in with the landscape.
The only real knock on the northern coast of Antrim is the lack of any pure golf resort with first-rate accommodations. But there are some suitable options presently. Off the coast in Limavady, Roe Park Golf Resort offers comfortable, four-star accommodations and dining, plus a full, lighted practice range and golf school with a pleasant and affordable parkland course. Perhaps the country's best stay-and-play option is at the Slieve Donard Hotel, a historic hotel built over a century ago, located steps from Royal County Down. But the two properties are not affiliated, and the hotel can't guarantee tee times on this coveted links, rated by many as the finest in the world.
The addition of a new, luxury hotel and links would enhance the Causeway Coast's claim as one of the best golf tours in the isles. Currently, there are 36 holes at Royal Portrush, plus championship links at nearby Portstewart Golf Club and Castlerock Golf Club, each within a few miles of one another. Also, smaller seaside courses Ballycastle Golf Club and Bushfoot round out Ireland's most compact golf destination.
Groups can also easily include Royal County Down and Ardglass Golf Club, located about two-hour drive to the southeast. In Belfast, enjoyable parkland golf is abundant, highlighted by Malone Golf Club and Belvoir Park Golf Club, as well as Ireland's oldest golf club, Royal Belfast. And to the southwest, 36-hole Lough Erne Resort is the best stay-and-play golf resort in the country.