Anyone who plays golf has a goal. Some will be modest… some will be aspirational. Play the best courses in the country/world. Win the Captain’s Prize. Reach single figures. Beat par.
When I first played Galgorm Castle on my travels more than a decade ago, I’d set one target for my campervan adventure: I wanted to go around a course in level par. I’d come close a few times but by the time I reached Ballymena, I had only a few rounds left. I won’t say I’d given up hope – even if hope had long been squeezed out of the campervan by the rainwater leaking in – but expectations were low.
Galgorm Castle fulfilled me on many fronts. It reignited the joy of playing a parkland I didn’t know, it was pretty and peaceful and charming, and I coasted around with a spring in my step. It had its challenges (water on 11 holes most notably) but it was accessible to all. Embracing two rivers, it was laid out on level terrain and it had that relaxing air that makes parkland golf feel so effortless… almost like you’re on cruise control.
All of these things are still true today even if the golf course has changed. The evolution of the course is one of the most impressive things here. There is a constant drive to transform and improve and present an ever more enjoyable test. I have been visiting every year for the past eight years and the changes keep coming. From re-bunkering programmes, to new rough grasses that glow purple and gold, to rock-facing on the wall fronting the 7th green, to tree/scrub clearing on river holes, to new tee boxes… and, in 2021, the dramatic new water feature that now squeezes ever so tightly to the left side of the par-5 18th green.
What particularly caught my attention is that this is all part of a Strategic Plan set in motion 25 years ago, when Simon Gidman first designed the course. The year 2022 will see Galgorm’s Castle championship course celebrate its 25th anniversary. And it has been changing steadily and relentlessly all that time. This was always the intention but you still have to admire the tenacity and ambition to keep making the investments and improvements that have brought the club to where it is today. Interestingly, the same is true for the hotel a couple of miles away which opened the year after the golf course.
You might have noticed the name change from ‘Galgorm Castle’ to ‘Galgorm’s Castle championship course’ or simply the Castle course at Galgorm. ‘Galgorm’ is now the top-level brand encompassing not just the golf club but the resort and spa, the 17th century Jacobean castle, a garden centre (on the same grounds as the castle and golf course), and more. Galgorm has become a destination in its own right and the popularity of the hotel is a clear indication of that.
Named Galgorm, the quality of the place is immediately on show and its increasing popularity is unlikely to abate any time
soon. In 2019, the R&A booked the entire hotel (125 rooms) for the Open Championship, and with the Open set to return in 2025, who’s to say that won’t happen again. But the place is buzzing all the time.
The Spa and especially the Thermal Village have set a new benchmark when it comes to the ‘relaxation’ experience. The Thermal Village is unique in Europe, spread over gardens alongside the River Maine, which also cosies up to the hotel. It then flows on to the golf course where it comes into play on two holes (11 and 13) before it merges with the River Braid, which affects four further holes.
The Village deserves a review all of its own (and has received several glowing ones in recent years) and people come from far and wide to experience it. Where there was once one large area, there are now three, including an infinity pool, saunas, a snow cabin, Celtic Sauna, riverside hot tubs, indoor and outdoor pools, the famed Vitality Pool, cabanas, Salt Cave and experience showers. Hot tubs now sit right next to the waterfall that cascades past the hotel. Newest of all (opening October) is a collection of five-star Shepherd’s Huts, set beside the river, where couples can enjoy a very different style of luxury. There will be tree houses, too, while the hotel’s selection of self-catering cottages is set to be doubled in number. These offer all the facilities of the hotel while adding the ease of coming-and-going into the mix – very useful for an early tee time!
There’s a theme to this… and it promises good things with the steady drip-feed of improvements and additions. It’s no wonder that it is seen as Northern Ireland’s ultimate resort destination. So much is happening that guests keep coming back for more and, when I visited, there were numerous cars with southern number plates. Word is spreading fast.
The changes across the entirety of the Galgorm offering reinforce the Castle course’s reputation as well as its ambition to be seen as a tournament venue. Here is a championship golf course with all the facilities, within easy reach of the coastline’s famous links and the country’s main airport and port, and a luxury hotel alongside.
That tournament reputation has been strengthened in recent years. The Northern Ireland Open was held here for over a decade but in the past year alone there has been a major step up: first came the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in August 2020, followed in 2021 by the ISPS HANDA World Invitational, a fully sanctioned European Tour, LET and LPGA event where men and women shared the same field and the same prize fund.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, in September 2020, may not have had the cache of a Rolex Series event but it still showed the Castle course’s credentials on a European Tour main event stage:
“A lot of people thought the golf course was open and pretty average [before they got here]. They couldn’t be more wrong, this golf course is magnificent, it truly is. If you haven’t been here, it’s a must. Fitting for an Irish Open. Full credit to everyone involved.” – Wayne Riley.
“This might be the toughest course I’ve played on the European Tour.” – Shane Lowry.
“Through the years I have been coming up to Northern Ireland. You always get a great welcome and you know the courses are as good as anywhere. I was impressed with the course at Galgorm and the hotel is super as well.” – Padraig Harrington.
“It’s a real test throughout the game, from driver you have to make good opportunities with your irons and the greens are very quick as well. The course is in amazing shape, it’s a great test.” – Aaron Rai.
The Irish Open was followed in July this year by the World Invitational, which saw a field of 288 players (144 men and 144 women) competing for a $3m million purse. The 2021 event also staged the first ISPS HANDA World Disability Invitational, hosted by Brendan Lawlor. Brendan went on to win the event and moved to number one in the EDGA World Rankings. The Invitational will return to Galgorm in 2022, and the ambition and foresight of both events fits neatly with those of Galgorm itself.
Back in 2008, I fulfilled my own ambition of beating par. Cockily no doubt, I felt the course was a relatively easy affair – if you hit fairways and greens in regulation that will always seem to be the case – but I have been humbled many times since. The work being done here has raised the club’s profile (and ranking) as well as making it a more interesting, attractive and testing course. In my mind that makes Galgorm a golf destination that ticks all the boxes and many more besides.
Finally, a personal favourite: the upstairs of the clubhouse has been completely transformed into a funky bar and restaurant: The Castle Kitchen & Bar. I highly recommend the Half Back of Ribs. Perhaps it is in keeping with everything else here that despite the successful upstairs renovation, there are plans for still more additions… specifically for golfers, I might add.
- Ongoing Evolution
The list of recent and future changes could stretch for this entire article. Every hole would have to be included so I won’t attempt to list them all here.
It is fair to say that many of the ongoing changes are with the ‘tournament’ tag in mind and yet the Castle course remains accessible for all golfers. Several greenside bunkers – all of them big – will move closer to the greens placing a premium on accuracy and testing the best in the game. Yes that makes it more challenging but the average amateur golfer may actually benefit from this as there will be more room to miss the green left and/or right.
New fairway bunkers will be added which will help to define holes (3, 16 and 17, for example) – and add to the aesthetics, no doubt – but they will be placed beyond the reach of most amateurs.
New tees have and will be added. The new raised back tee on the par-3 7th was in play this year at the World Invitational and another new tee box, to the right, will mean there is more of the large pond to play over which will add significantly to one of the course’s signature holes. The green will also be extended, taking it even closer to the water’s edge.
The 14th will have a new tee which will change the angle of the hole and provide a view of Slemish Mountain. The par-4 15th will have a new back tee which will be in play for next year. It will add close to 100 yards in length (from 384 to 480) and will drive over the ox-bow in the river. It will be a 220 yard carry to clear the water.
Another new tee on 13 will add 20-30 yards to the length and it will sit right above the river. The members’ tees will also be pushed to the river’s edge, making for a more dramatic and intimidating drive. The new tournament tee on the short par-4 4th will also add 30 yards. Consider that this is already a 7,100 yard par-70 course and you can tell just how much muscle is being added.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on the par-5 10th. It measures 575 yards from tournament tees. A new tee will push that to well over 600 yards, making it a true ‘three-shotter’ doglegging around a lake.
In places, greens are being extended and reshaped. There will be more testing run-offs, too. Trees are being thinned and cut back… the result of 25 years of growth. It will help the estate’s towering mature specimens stand out further.
The most dramatic change – in my opinion – will be on the par-5 9th where some major earthworks will expand the lake located between holes 8 and 9. The lake will push further into the 9th fairway, becoming much more prominent from the tee, and it will extend down the left side of the fairway to intimidate off the tee (for the Pros) and on second shots (for the rest of us).
Much of the above is a simplistic description and only touches on the changes, but it shows how this course continues to evolve and how it is reinforcing its tournament status while remaining playable for all standards of golfer.
- To find out more about Galgorm, click HERE