Royal County Down

Royal County Down Golf Club History

The Royal County Down Golf Club was founded in 1889 by a group of business and professional men from Belfast. It was the development of a railway line from Belfast to Newcastle in Victorian times which provided the impetus for the first formal golf course.

George L. Baillie, a Scottish schoolteacher from Dundee who had learnt his golf at Musselburgh came to Belfast and started a crusade to establish golf courses.

He laid out the original nine holes that opened in 1889. The club then engaged Old Tom Morris to advise on a second nine. Nine more holes were added by 1890.

The Championship course was fashioned on the wonderful natural dune-land without major earth shifting. Various leading players advised on the development of the course over time..

In 1908 the club gained its Royal Title when King Edward VII granted the club his honourable Royal patronage. Also in this year Harry Vardon who would be six-time Open Champion in 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, and 1914, made some alterations.

Harry Colt, the world-famous golf architect, was asked to advise on further improvements to the course in 1925. His alterations included the present 4th and 9th holes, which are now two of the most photographed holes in world golf.

His work also included reducing the number of blind holes but he clearly did not consider that they should all be removed. The finest of all links courses, it offers a stern challenge from the championship tees.

The following years saw little change to the course until Donald Steel in 1997 strengthened the 17th and 18th holes considerably. Then in 2004, a new par four 16th hole was created.

It is not long but difficult, a great matchplay hole with a  backdrop of the Mourne Mountains.


The Championship Course at Royal County Down

Royal County Down has been ranked from various sources as the number one golf course in Ireland and is always high in the world rankings. Whether Royal County Down or the other prominent Northern Ireland course Royal Portrush is the best is often debated.

The course location is in the Murlough Nature Reserve. The links stretch along the shores of Dundrum Bay with the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains.

At the northeast end of the mountains is Slievbe Donard (in Irish Donairt’s Mountain) at 3000 feet the highest peak in Northern Ireland, towering over the Town and Bay.

In 1939 Cork Golf Club’s Jimmy Bruen, a powerful player with a good short game set the course record at Royal County Down posting a score of 66. This has not been beaten to date.

Jimmy was an Amateur just 19 years of age and born in Northern Ireland. He qualified for the 1939 Open and won the Amateur medal.  He played in the British Walker cup team in 1938, 49 and 51 and won the British Amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1946.

There are stunning views from almost every hole. The conditioning is excellent for a links course. The routing is exceptional throughout, ideal links terrain.

Narrow fairways lined by heather and gorse thread their way through impressive high sand dunes ready to punish errant shots. Whereas the course has natural defences the varied bunkering adds to the challenge.

There are downhill shots to the green, uphill tee shots, blind shots and great doglegs. The green complexes are excellent, quite exacting, many are raised, some are domed and they are all fast.

It is a difficult course to play in bad weather or high winds. Keeping your ball low is the recommended way to play many shots as on any links.

Some golfers are critical of the number of blind shots. However, there is a strategy to play them well. It is a course where you need to learn the routing. Playing the course for the first time it is best to have a caddy for guidance.


Royal County Down Golf Course Highlights

Hole 4

229 yards, Par 3

The fourth is a long par three (229 yards) with much gorse.

You need to carry the gorse before reaching the sloping well-bunkered green.

It is an extremely scenic hole with the Mourne Mountains in the background.

Hole 7

144 yards, Par 3

The short seventh is a 144-yard par three that is blind from the tee and has a very tricky green.

If you find the wrong half of the green the slope can take your ball to a deep bunker.

Hole 9

483 yards, Par 4, Index 5

From an elevated tee, you drive over a large dune with a huge drop in elevation to a split fairway.

The approach is challenging to a green set between two dunes.

Hole 13

443 yards, Par 4

The thirteenth doglegs left to right between the dunes.

A straight tee shot is required as anything off line is likely to leave a blind shot to the green.

Hole 15

468 yards, Par 4

The fifteenth is a long uphill par four with a wide fairway.

However, from the top of the hill, you are faced with a long approach shot avoiding many hazards.


Tom Coyne in his book ‘A Course Called Ireland’ wrote:

“I had teed it up all over the globe, taken on more than half the links in Ireland, yet I went around Royal County Down counting nine, maybe ten holes where I thought to myself, I have never played a golf hole like this before”.

He went on to say that it was one of those rare courses where you could feel a perfect handshake between the hand that created the land and the hand that shaped it into a golf course.


The Irish Open at Royal County Down

The Irish Open is the major golf tournament in Ireland except for the ‘Open’ that has only been held twice in Northern Ireland. The tournament has been held at Royal County Down four times.

In 1928 it was the second year of the tournament when the event was first held at Royal County Down. It was won by the Englishman Ernest Whitcombe who scored 68 and 69 for the first two rounds building up a seven-shot lead.

Rounds of 73 and 78 on the final day were enough to give him a four-stroke victory.

In 1935 Ernest Whitcombe tied with his brother Reg after four rounds. In the playoff Reg had a bad start, taking 7 at the first hole. He recovered to level the scores but then had another 7 early in the second round allowing Ernest to win by three strokes.

In 1939 Jimmy Bruen a 19 year old Amateur set the course record of 66 in the opening round. This is covered above. Arthur Lees won the tournament with a total of 287 with Reg Whitcombe two behind.

Royal County Down hosted the 2015 Irish Open. It was the first time in 75 years that the famous Newcastle links had played host to an Irish Open.

It was a bad week for Irish hopefuls with McIlroy shooting a first-round 80. However, he had done excellent work in helping to organise the tournament.

Michael Hoey failed to make the cut, along with 14 others of the 22 home competitors.

The organisers were able to announce a sell-out of tickets so the players would not be lacking support from the crowd.

The result was a three-way tie at 282 followed by a sudden death playoff. It was won by 40 year old Soren Kjeldsen from Denmark playing Eddie Pepperell from England and Bernd Weisberger from Austria.


Leading Visitor Attractions in County Down

St Patricks Trail

St Patrick spent a great deal of time in Northern Ireland and the Trail is a 92 mile driving route from Armagh to Bangor. There is much of interest along this trail.

An alternative to following the whole trail is to start at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in  Downpatrick where the Saint was buried and work out from there. Many St. Patrick related attractions can be found within a small area around Downpatrick ( in Irish Dún Pádraig means Patrick’s stronghold or fort).

There is a St Patrick centre where you can have a guided tour. The Cathedral is built on the Hill of Down, the site of the ancient fort from which the town gets its name.

A high cross replica stands at the front of the cathedral.

There are three saints buried at this site, St Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columban.  A large slab of stone covers the grave, with the word “Patric” and a cross carved into the stone. 

A few miles out of town is Saul Church where St. Patrick landed upon his return to Ireland and built a church The present church is built on the site of St. Patrick’s 5th century church. Visitors to County Down will find a great deal of information about St Patrick.

Game of Thrones Shooting Locations

This award-winning TV series was filmed in locations near Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. This is the hotel alongside Royal County Down Golf Course.

In County Down, you can visit some of the best scene locations such as Winterfell Castle, Winterfell Forest and the Riverlands.

Hillsborough Castle

Northern Irelands' only Royal residence. Here you can explore 100 acres of splendid gardens and the  Georgian period house.

To find out more about our bespoke Ireland golf holiday packages, contact us today.

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