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HOORAY FOR HOLYWOOD; Nic Brook takes a swing at three of Northern Ireland's A-list golf courses.

There's a child in all of us sports lovers that makes trophies somehow irresistible. The FA Cup tours the country and we all want to touch it, hold it aloft, pretend for a moment that we are the champions! So it is with golf.

If, like me, you'd love to raise the Claret Jug and have dreamed of being the "Champion Golfer of The Year" then get your niblicks over to the home club of current Open Champion Rory McIlroy at Holywood on the outskirts of Belfast.

Some of your dreams might just come true.

The trophy cabinet in the little clubhouse at the suburban Holywood club (holywoodgolf club.co.uk) boasts a little tribute to "Rors", their most famous son. He's donated lots of souvenirs of his meteoric career, among them replicas of the three trophies from his four Major triumphs - the Open, US Open and two USPGAs.

Surely it's only a matter of time before he completes the Grand Slam and a US Masters green jacket hangs there? Northern Ireland is a fantastic golfing destination. Nowhere else in the world boasts as strong a triumvirate of current golfing talent as Rory, Graeme McDowell and Ryder Cup 2016 Captain Darren Clarke.

They've won six Majors between them so far, and will surely triumph in a few more.

The Irish Open (irishopen.ie) is currently being played for only the second time in the province and the event at Royal County Down in Newcastle is a sell-out.

"Norn Irn" is the current hot ticket for anyone seeking the most enthusiastic of golfing welcomes.

My own pilgrimage started with a stay at The Holiday Inn (hibel fasthotel.co.uk) and a great night out with pals in Belfast. I worked in the city a few years ago, but the atmosphere has been transformed in the years since The Troubles have been calmed. You can have the most wonderful night out in the vibrant and confident streets.

Before, the ring of steel and history of violence made the city forlorn and empty after office hours.

Nowadays there's plenty of craic to enjoy in Belfast. Book a table at Deanes Meat Locker (michaeldeane.co.uk/meat-locker) or The Bar & Grill at James Street South (belfastbargrill.co.uk). You will not be disappointed.

The youngsters in our gathering find their way to the lively University Quarter and Filthy McNastys bar for a "quiet" evening, while a few of us explore the Cathedral Quarter, ending up at the vibrant Maddens Bar, home to the finest impromptu Irish music.

Golf teams the following morning are easily decided. The McNastys against The Maddens at majestic Malone (malone golfclub.co.uk) beside the River Lagan and just 10 minutes from the city centre.

Malone is too good a course to play with a hangover, so the front nine over the Drumbridge (the parkland course boasts three nines) prove a bit sobering.

My partner has broad enough shoulders to carry me but fortunately I help him out after the turn. Our final nine is played over the Ballydrain - where my game had been heading earlier - and we put the McNastys to flight over this beautiful parkland layout at the 17th.

A golf tour of Northern Ireland just has to include either a trip to the Antrim coast (Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock all absolutely stunning) or a pilgrimage to breathtaking links at Royal County Down (royalcounty down.org).

This latter regularly features in golfing polls as the No1 track in the world... and for good reason. The views and backdrop of 2,790ft-high Slieve Donard alone makes it worth the journey while the tough, natural layout winds between dunes, heather and gorse to make it one of the most idyllic settings ever.

Except on the day we were there. Driving rain and 50mph gusts make it absolutely brutal. It's is a day when even the forecasters shout "Fore!" Luckily the clubhouse is also one of the most comfortable in the world, the delights of Slieve Donard Hotel are less than a pitching wedge away, and Brunel's (brunels restaurant.co.uk) restaurant offers sensational regional fare for any tired golfers beaten up by the elements.

But for pure fun, little Holywood strangely makes the biggest and best impression, punching far above its weight.

Its easy to see how young "Rors" remains a good and grounded kid. The members here are unpretentious, honest and generous but not the types to take any bull.

Where else in the world is there a trophy cabinet like theirs? Where else in the world are the members happy to find the key and let the likes of us have a closer look? I'm thrilled to lift the Claret Jug, US Open Trophy and try not to drop the weighty Wanamaker (USPGA) pot.

It matters not that it'll never happen for real - this is the one Holywood where those dreams are inspired rather than broken.

Get there | Rooms at the Holiday Inn Belfast start at PS177pn B&B. hibelfasthotel.co.uk Rooms at the Slieve Donard Resort & Spa start at PS130pn B&B. hastingshotels.com Green fees at Holywood Golf Club (holywoodgolfclub.co.uk) from PS15, M-F Sunriser round before 9.30am; Malone Golf Club (malonegolfclub.co.uk) from PS15, Third Nine on Edenderry Course; Royal County Down Golf Club (royalcountydown.org) from PS22, Annesley Links winter. Championship Links from PS50, winter.

Tourist info: ireland.com/golf discovernorthernireland.com BEST TIME TO GO Frankly, go to Holywood at any time if you're a golfer

Belfast has been transformed in the years since The TroublesCourse boasts worth the. Driving rain and 50mph gusts make it absolutely brutal

CAPTION(S):

CHALLENGE Ballydrain lake at Malone Golf Course

CHAMP The Trophy Room at Holywood and Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug after winning The Open (right)

BRACING Nic wraps up warm for his foray on to the fairways
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 30, 2015
Words:979
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