Ardglass, Northern Ireland – My foursome is warming up, making small talk before heading to the first tee of the Ardglass Golf Club in County Down, Northern Ireland. Matt, the local in our group, drifts away from the conversation, his eyes locking onto the horizon, following a fishing trawler being swallowed up, then spit out again by the swells of the Irish Sea. “No, no, I don’t miss being out there anymore,” Matt assures us as he tugs his golf glove over a hand thickened by years of heavy weather. The one-time skipper is now a trawler owner and spends his days on solid ground, frequently at Ardglass. (Van Morrison fans will recognize the name from his Avalon Sunset album where he sings about spending a lazy day driving through County Down, including a stop at the fishing village of Ardglass for, “a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner.”)
The course, which is over a century old, runs along a southeastern spit of headland once conquered by the Vikings and on a breezy day, it requires the strength of Thor to conquer its cliff-side holes. Unfortunately, I’m no Scandinavian superman and I struggle. My approach at 18 nearly bounds into the castle ruins that edge the green and snuggles down by the stone clubhouse, a former fortress whose roots stretch back to the 14th century.
After the round, we have our picture taken with the club’s 21st century camera and then we march back, seemingly a couple of centuries, into the clubhouse for a plate of chips and a pint. Our conversation is mostly about all the good golf in County Down – nearly 20 courses which range from gems like Ardglass, to the magisterial Royal County Down which is frequently ranked as one of the top ten courses on the entire planet.
Royal County Down is located just 20 minutes south from Ardglass and about a two hour drive from both Belfast and Dublin. Serious golfers come from around the globe to tee it up here. (In 2000 alone, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Hollywood power couple Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones all made the pilgrimage to Royal County Down.) The course was laid out in 1888 by Old Tom Morris and since then has hosted some of golf’s top tournaments including the British Amateur, the Walker Cup and the British Senior Open.
Tucked next to Dundrum Bay and the seaside town of Newcastle and framed by the muscular Mountains of Mourne which sweep down to the Irish Sea, the course is both beauty and beast. In the springtime, this rolling duneland is ablaze in the yellow flower of the gorse bush and by late summer, the folds of the Mourne are carpeted with purple heather. Don’t be lulled by the pretty picture though. County Down is not for the faint hearted. The wind can howl with the fierceness of a banshee and the course features five blind tee shots. Modern designers have more or less banned the blind tee shot and that’s a shame. One of the great thrills in golf is launching a drive into the unknown, a combination of skill and leap of faith that your ball will catch a tiny patch of fairway. Fairness is not necessarily part of the game here.
When you get to County Down, try to book at least one night at the adjoining Slieve Donard hotel. The century old redstone, rises straight up from the beach in Newcastle and is just a two minute walk through a wooded path from the first tee at Royal County Down. The guest list at the Slieve Donard has ranged from Tiger Woods and his buddy Michael Jordan to such earlier icons as Charlie Chaplin, whose name can still be seen in the hotel registry. Not sure if the little tramp ever played golf.
While in the north, also make time for the drive up the coast to Royal Portrush, another one of the golfing kingdom’s top rated links layouts. Royal Portrush is the only course outside of mainland Britain to have hosted the British Open and its members include US Open winner Graeme McDowell and British Open winner Darren Clarke. The club boasts 45 holes although my favourite is the fifth on the Dunluce Course. It’s a shortish par 4 where the green seems to teeter on the crumbling cliffs of chalk. In the distance are the ruins of Dunluce Castle from where Sorley Boy MacDonnell once ruled the countryside. Further along the ragged coastline there are a number of other terrific courses including Portstewart, Castlerock, Ballycastle and Ballyliffin in Dongegal.
So much good golf in such a small place!
By: Ian Cruickshank