Golf in County Down
County Down is located immediately to the east of Belfast and I was fortunate to be invited over by the County Down Tourist Board to take a look at the golf courses that make up this attractive area of Northern Ireland.
Whilst it may not be the first area that people have in mind when thinking of golf in Ireland the local tourist board and golf courses are working hard to raise the profile of the area and highlight the advantages to visitors from the United Kingdom, Ireland and further afield. To this end they are running a scheme whereby visitors are offered a 20% discount off the already reasonable green fees (no coupons are required for this, just mention you are visiting when booking).
There are several advantages when considering the area for your next golfing trip away or golf society trip.
1) It's nearby. I was on the 8.55 flight from London Gatwick to Belfast City Airport and on the first tee before 11.00.
2) It's both different, and yet the same. There are no issues with language, currency or driving, so that's all very straightforward but it's also different enough from home that it feels like you're "away."
3) Low cost. Compared to many areas in Europe the accommodation, green fees and food are all very competitively priced. No need to worry about poor value at the moment with the Euro zone countries.
4) Irish hospitality. It's cliche, but true.
5) Everything is close together. All of these courses are within 30 minutes of Belfast and you can easily play two different courses in a day with time for a leisurely lunch in between.
Founded in 1881, is the oldest club in Ireland and one of the four ‘Royal’ courses. The clubhouse is very impressive having once been the residence of the Lord Mayor of Belfast. Certainly the marquee course of the area which is reflected in the green fees, which at around £60 are about double/treble the costs of the other courses in the area. In return though you do get an immaculately presented course, beautiful greens and a tough challenge.
Not that I personally did them much justice but there are some wonderfully inviting drives on the Royal Belfast course, the holes opening up below you with the most tempting invitation to get out the driver and open your shoulders. Well worth a visit and for most would be the highlight of a trip to the area.
Situated just outside the main town of the area this was the first port of call on my tour. A rolling parkland course overlooking the Belfast Lough opened in 1903. On a clear day you can see Scotland across the Irish Sea from here, only about 15 miles away.
At 6400 yards from the back tees it'll present a decent challenge to most golfers and is slightly more open than many courses for those slightly wayward off the tee, additionally there is little low level shrubbery making finding golf balls easier as well as playing out from under or around the trees that line many of the fairways.
A very pleasant course, quite straightforward with generally easy walking though with a couple of inclines to stretch the legs on.
Perhaps the most modern looking of the courses in the area Blackwood has two 18 hole courses, the Hamilton being the full length 6392 yard course and a full 18 hole par-3 Temple Course coming in 2492 yards. There is also a flood lit driving range and a junior golf academy.
They've also just opened up an extensive spa facility named the Luxe, somewhere perhaps to occupy non playing members of your golfing party.
Water comes in to play on a number of holes, together with a fair amount of woodland and gorse makes accuracy off the tee a plus. The par 3's on the Hamilton course are a real test.
Once the Royal Belfast Club before it moved Carnalea is divided up in to two nines divided by the Belfast to Bangor railway line. Nestled in alongside the Belfast Lough it's quiet exposed to any off shore breezes which adds to the challenge of this quite short 5716 yard layout.
Don't let the shorter than average yardage fool you though, the fairways are quite tight and there are some blind shots to contend with. Not to mention the signature par-3 9th, two alternative elevated greens, whilst although only a firm 9 iron or so, if you're short or long you're looking at a devilish recovery shot. I'm pleased to say that I hit a green with my first effort, sadly that day the flag was on the other one!
Clandeboye was probably my favourite courses that we visited, in fact two courses, the "wee course" Ava at 5755 yards and the 6559 yard Dufferin course.
Ava is certainly the more straightforward of the courses tight off the tees with fairways lined with trees and gorse but not too many bunkers. Though short, its full of subtleties. One interesting comment that the Club Secretary made was that when he plays for money he plays this course, not to be underestimated!
Dufferin feels longer than its actual yardage if you've just left the Ava course. The fairways are more generous and there is more room off the tee in general, though its more than just length that adds to the challenge with more bunkering and slopes than the Ava and a water hazard for good measure.
Both courses though were very well presented and in excellent condition, certainly rivaling Royal Belfast in that respect.
Situated five miles down the coast from Bangor this is mainly a parkland type course though open to the Irish Sea and the soil has a very sandy feel. Something to bear in mind if the rain hits, this course more likely to be playable sooner than others in the area.
At 6160 yards its not a long course, though there are a number of water hazards and thick gorse to catch the slightly wayward shots and some potential scorecard ruining out of bounds down the edge of some drives.
Was made to feel most welcome whilst we waited for the course to dry out a little following overnight rain and my playing partner blitzed the front nine that proved the course is very scorable on.
A short (2672 yards par 34) nine hole course that sits on a slight hill down to the Irish Lough which perhaps is the most straightforward of the courses in the area. There aren't too many trees lining the fairways though the greens are small so you'd have to be accurate to score well here.
A challenging, undulating parkland course set five miles outside Belfast city centre in the Holywood Hills of County Down is the only course in the area which we didn't physically visit as the greens were being worked on ahead of the winter. (Wisely the local clubs work together with this so they don't all close at the same time!).
Holywood has recently become better known for it's famous son, Rory McIlroy, who learnt his golf here.
Founded in 1907 Scrabo is a somewhat hilly course dominated by the tall Scrabo Tower that looms over the first few holes of the course. The fairways are tight and in many places fringed with thick ball eating gorse bushes so you'll need to be accurate off the tee.
With more ups and downs than most of the courses in the area it's one to work the heart a little more than usual, though the reward is in some very pleasant views across the surrounding countryside.
I had the pleasure of staying at The Old Inn (4-Star) in the small village of Crawfordsburn, a 4 star hotel. The village is between Belfast and Bangor, just off the A2, about 7 miles from Belfast City Airport, 3 miles from the main town in the area, Bangor.
The Inn is almost 400 years old and retains much of an "Olde Worlde" feel whilst still being having modern facilities like wireless internet and modern and spacious bathrooms.
The bedrooms are all individually styled and many have four poster bed beds and all are decorated with numerous paintings, a small desk and a couple of comfortable chairs. In addition the hotel has four suites and for those who want even more peace and quiet a Garden Cottage which is located away slightly from the hotel in the garden.
I was especially fond of the generous breakfasts, untypically for a 4 star hotel the buffet breakfast was under £10 and the full breakfast little more than this. All the staff I met were very friendly and welcoming, and whilst "full of Irish Charm" perhaps is a bit of a cliche it really was present in the staff here.
As a base for a visit to the region it really is ideally located and can't be faulted, highly recommended for visitors to the area.
The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn +44 (0)28 9185 3255