Royal County Down
When Irish Open golfers teeing off here in 2015, they were driving head-first into a 100-year-old golfing adventure in ‘a place of breathtaking natural beauty’. The bunkers here, Golf Digest’s David Owen once wrote, ‘could be portals to another dimension’. You’ve been warned.
The Royal County Down Golf Club was founded in 1889 by a group of influential business and professional men from Belfast. There is some evidence to suggest that even before then a rudimentary form of golf was being played by the townsfolk on the rabbit warren at Newcastle. However, it was the development of a railway line from Belfast to Newcastle by the Belfast & County Down Railway and the emergence of Newcastle as a desirable seaside resort in Victorian times which provided the impetus for the first formal golf course.
The development of the course is described in fascinating detail in Richard A. Latham’s excellent book, “The Evolution of the Links at Royal County Down Golf Club” (Radial Sports Publishing Limited, 2006). George L. Baillie, a Scottish schoolteacher who came to Belfast and quickly embarked on a personal crusade to establish golf courses, was mainly responsible for the original nine-hole layout. That course was opened on 23rd March 1889, and almost immediately the newly-formed council of the club, in a mixture of enthusiasm and parsimony, commissioned Old Tom Morris to travel over from St. Andrews “for a sum not to exceed £4” to inspect what existed and advise on a second nine. The outcome of this munificence was that Old Tom spent two days at Royal County Down in July 1889; three new holes were added immediately and a further six between the autumn of 1889 and the spring of 1890. The fact that the full course was ready for play in July 1890 is proof that golf course design in those days was most unlike the modern methodology and that, like most great links courses, Royal County Down was created from the wonderful natural dune-land which was already there, without the need to indulge in any major earth-moving.
The next important figure in the evolution of the links was George Combe, Captain in 1896 and Convenor of the Green from 1900 to 1913. During this period, apart from Combe’s own alterations, some very famous golfers of the time, including James Braid, J. H. Taylor, Harry Vardon and Ben Sayers, visited the course and made recommendations, many of which were adopted. This was arguably the most important phase in the evolution of the links. By its end, the present configuration of the course in two nine-hole loops, each beginning and ending at the clubhouse (the advantages of which, as an early golfing journal noted, are “apparent to golfers without enumeration”), had been established.
In 1925, Harry Colt was asked to advise on further improvements to the course, and the alterations which ensued were notable particularly for the creation of the present 4th and 9th holes, which were to become two of the most photographed holes in world golf.
In comparison with the first forty-two years of the Club’s existence, the next sixty–six years saw relatively little change to the course. Then, under the supervision of Donald Steel, there were two further important developments. First, in 1997, the 17th and 18th holes were strengthened considerably, the latter becoming one of the most challenging finishing holes anywhere. Secondly, in 2004, an entirely new 16th hole was created; a short but extremely tricky par 4, it is played into the magnificent backdrop of the Mourne Mountains and has proved to be a superb matchplay hole.
The clubhouse, too, has evolved from the original building of 1894 (which still survives as an integral part of today’s clubhouse) through a number of later extensions and culminating in the extensive refurbishment and extension of 2005. The Club now possesses a magnificent building, still very much in the style of the original, which caters in its different sections for all the needs of members and visitors.