Was This the Model for the Bunkers at Royal County Down?

The bunkers at Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland, are famous for their ball-devouring overhangs, which are savagely rimmed with marram grass and may serve as portals to another dimension. I once wrote that their densely tangled upper margins resembled the eyebrows of old men. I thought I was kidding, but maybe not.

The upper image is of one of those bunkers; the lower is of the eyebrows of William Hugh Griffiths, a.k.a. the Lord Griffiths, a past captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who died on Sunday at the age of 91.


Jerry Tarde, the editor-in-chief of Golf Digest, describes Griffiths as “my favorite R & A captain.” David Fay, a former executive director of the U.S.G.A., agrees, and writes, “I will never forget his speech at the U.K. Golf Writers dinner, where he summarized his judicial philosophy: ‘Always rule against the shits.'” (Griffiths was also a judge.)


Is This the World’s Greatest Golf Course?


On Memorial Day weekend, I played Friday afternoon (lost five dollars), Saturday morning (came in third in a two-man scramble, playing with Tim), Saturday afternoon (advanced to the final in the member-member, also playing with Tim), Sunday morning (won six dollars), Monday morning (won low gross in the nine-hole Memorial Day mixed shamble, playing with Madeline—my golf wife—and an actually married couple), and Monday afternoon (lost five dollars). Then I played again on Friday (lost five dollars) and Saturday morning (won the member-member, one-up, playing with Tim.) That was a pretty good eight-day run, so I wasn’t totally bummed when we had thunder, lightning, and heavy rain just before 7:00 the following morning.

I sent an email to the Sunday Morning Group saying I’d bring a couple of decks of playing cards, and Hacker (real name) suggested that we eat our cheeseburgers and hot dogs (supplied by Barney) for breakfast, instead of lunch. But the lightning had stopped by 7:30, so we played golf instead of setback. One very good thing about rain is that it scares away slackers: twenty regulars showed up, and we had the course to ourselves.


Getting soaked was better than inhaling pine pollen—something we’ve done a lot of this spring:

P1150687Because I was up early on both Saturday and Sunday, before I left for the club I watched some of the Irish Open — by which, of course, I mean the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation. The D.D.F.I.O.H.R.F. was held this year on a course that many golfers would pick as the best in the world: Royal County Down, in Newcastle, Northern Ireland.

Among its many memorable features are its bunkers, which are maintained by vengeful demons:


During a round at Royal County Down in 2013, my playing partner and I waded into a jungle of whins and briers near the eleventh tee to look for a century-old relic that a caddie had told me about two years before: the remains of a small stone building, which the maintenance crew had uncovered during an aggressive gorse-removal project. We found it, at some risk to our clothing, although it was so overgrown that we couldn’t see much more than one corner.


Later that day, Harry McCaw—a past captain of both Royal County Down and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews—told me that he thought the structure might once have served as the literal “club house”: the place where early players stored their clubs.


I had driven to Newcastle from Dublin, a hundred miles to the south, and during part of the trip I followed Mourne Coastal Route, a scenic highway. Irish roads are narrow under any circumstances; they become narrower if your eyes are repeatedly drawn to the hills and out to sea—a danger that day, because the sky was so clear that I could see the Isle of Man, halfway to the English mainland.


My parents once visited Ireland with another couple, and on an especially harrowing stretch of road my mother, who was sitting in the back seat with the other wife, yelled at my father to stop steering so close to the edge. He innocently raised both hands, to remind her that, in Ireland and the U.K., the driver sits on the right, not the left. During my own trip, I knocked the cowling off the passenger-side mirror of my rental car. I told the clerk at Avis when I returned the car, but she said it happened all the time, and not to worry about it.


Will the Open Championship ever be held at Royal County Down? Fingers crossed.

Let’s Check in With That Guy Who Has Played Every Golf Course in Ireland


Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every eighteen-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the seven-thousand-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married:


I’ve had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:


And here he is at Portstewart:


Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club—which I’ve played, though not with him—has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club’s profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will “move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf.” One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.



Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham’s photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit—the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members —but David O’Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn’t mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I’d be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O’Donovan.
Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O’Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart—an Irish first for me. When you’re in a cart, it’s hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff—on a par 5 called the Jump—and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here’s the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we played the club’s third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for twenty years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). “My game is coming back,” he said—a man at peace.

The Other Golf Course at Royal County Down


A little over a year ago, I traveled to Northern Ireland on assignment for Golf Digest. My account of that trip, called The Adventure of a Lifetime, was mostly about Royal County Down, in Newcastle—the golf course that, if I really and truly had to pick just one, would probably get my vote as the world’s greatest. (That’s the view from the ninth tee in the photo above.) As terrific as R.C.D. is, though, it’s not the only golf course in County Down, or even in Newcastle. There’s a second course on the same property, called Annesley Links, and, although visiting Americans seldom play it, it has plenty of charms. It’s only 4,500 yards from the men’s medal tees, but if you can play it without losing more balls than you did on the championship course you’ll have something to brag about.annesleygc

I played the Annesley with Shaun Killough and Andy Murphy, whom I met on the first tee. Killough is a retired bank manager, and Murphy is a retired electrician. Murphy was a good friend of Killough’s predecessor at the bank, and, when Killough got the job, Murphy, in effect, came with it. They’ve been golf buddies ever since. That’s Murphy on the left in the photo below, and Killough on the right.


Killough is a member and a past president of Mourne Golf Club, whose clubhouse stands between the Slieve Donard Hotel (whose spire you see in the distance in the first photo in this post) and the first tee of the championship course.

mourneclubhouseMourne was established in the nineteen-forties for residents of Newcastle, whom Royal County Down members generally consider to be less clubbable than residents of Belfast. It has three hundred and fifty members, who can play the Annesley course whenever they like and the championship course on any day but Saturday—and all for a little over eight hundred pounds a year. “It’s the best golf deal in the world,” Killough told me.


Killough, Murphy, and I spent most of our round debating our wager. Murphy got so far ahead that on the tenth tee Killough ruled that the first nine holes had been practice only, and that the real match would begin now. But then he and I both lost our tee shots on the tenth, so that hole became a practice hole, too. Murphy got far ahead again. Then I made a birdie on a hole where Killough and Murphy both made net birdies, and I said, “That squares the match, I believe.” Killough agreed, so he and I kept our losses to a minimum.


Mourne, like Royal County Down, is men only. They had advertised a Ladies’ Night not long before, but only nine people signed up so they canceled it.


Killough told me that during his presidency he established a mixed foursomes tournament, which was called the Sorry Trophy because foursomes partners are always apologizing to each other. I saw the trophy, in a case in the clubhouse, where we stopped for a beer after our round. The tournament lasted just a couple of years, he said, but someone, somewhere, should revive the name.


There’s also a Royal County Down Ladies Golf Club, which has a small clubhouse of its own, near the first tee of the Annesley course.


Women are welcome on the championship course, but even from the forward tees some of the carries and elevations can be daunting for shorter hitters, and members of the ladies’ club, Killough said, play the Annesley course almost exclusively. He also told me, with incredulity, that the women’s clubhouse is alcohol-free.


Forty or fifty years ago, there was talk at Mourne of acquiring land north of Newcastle, in Dundrum, and building a golf course that would belong exclusively to Mourne Golf Club. In the end, though, only three members subscribed. After all, who in his right mind would give up the best golf deal in the world?


The Adventure of a Lifetime, and My Golf Buddy Johnny Browne

Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, November 11, 2013.

Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, November 11, 2013.

I have an article in the February issue of Golf Digest called The Adventure of a Lifetime, about Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland. In it, I mention that, before teeing off on the eleventh hole one day, my playing partner and I climbed into a jungle of of whins and briars to look for a century-old relic that a caddie had told me about in 2011: the remains of a small stone building, which the maintenance crew had uncovered during an aggressive gorse-removal project. We found it, at some risk to our clothing, although it was so overgrown that we couldn’t see much more than one corner:


The caddie’s theory was that the structure had been the house of the original greenkeeper, but Harry McCaw—a past captain of both Royal County Down and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews—told me this past November that he thought it might once have served as the literal “club house”: the place where early players stored their clubs. When he said this, we were standing in the current R.C.D. clubhouse in front of a glass case that contained, among other mementos, the red coat that was McCaw’s official uniform during his captaincy of the R. & A.

A past R. & A. captain (not McCaw), playing the Old Course. That's the R. & A. clubhouse in the background.

A past R. & A. captain (not McCaw), playing the Old Course. That’s the R. & A. clubhouse in the background.

Captains of the R. & A. begin their term by “driving in” from the first tee of the Old Course. That is, they hit a ceremonial tee shot, accompanied by a cannon, in front of a large crowd of club members, townspeople, and miscellaneous onlookers. I asked McCaw whether driving in had made him nervous, and he said that it had and that he’d had plenty of time to brood about it because new captains are tapped roughly nine months before they take office. I don’t have a photograph of McCaw’s driving-in, but here’s a video of the ceremony in 2012:

The playing partner who accompanied me into the jungle to find that old stone building was Johnny Browne, a Belfast physician and a three-time R.C.D. club champion. Johnny played his first round of golf at Ormeau Golf Club, a muny in Belfast, where his father was a regular. He said that, during and after the Second World War, golf balls were so precious that boys at Ormeau would look for them by lying down in the rough and rolling around. Johnny has two brothers, both of whom also play golf. His younger brother, Tim, is a past R.C.D. champion as well, and Johnny said that, of the three, Tim is the most obsessed. “His wife is a Presbyterian minister,” he said. “She gives the same sermon three times every Sunday, and Tim is such a good husband that he sits through all three—although during the second and third he’s probably mentally reviewing golf holes and golf courses.” When Tim and Johnny attend church together, they pass ball markers back and forth. Johnny has a large collection, and Tim has a huge one. (Their older brother, Connor, “has a more balanced view of the game,” Johnny said.) Here’s Johnny during one of our rounds at R.C.D.:


Johnny’s earliest memory is of the 1953 Irish Open, which was held at Belvoir Park Golf Club, in a suburb on Belfast’s south side. (“Belvoir” is pronounced “Beaver.”) “What I remember is Dai Rees getting on his knees to talk to me,” Johnny said. “No wonder I’m a golf nut.” Johnny is a member of Belvoir Park, which was designed by Harry S. Colt, and he once jointly held the course record there (66) with a good local amateur and Peter Alliss. He lives in an apartment overlooking the eighteenth hole. He is the honorary secretary of the club, and he runs the youth group at his church, and he is deeply involved in a non-profit organization called Macmillan Cancer Support, which he began working for when his wife, Linda, was dying of ovarian cancer, two years ago. Here’s Johnny talking about Linda and cancer care in a video he made for Macmillan last year:

Reader’s Trip Report: Ballybunion on New Year’s Eve Eve

Seventh hole, Old Course, Ballybunion Golf Club, Ireland.

Seventh hole, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland.

American golfers often speak of the Old Course at Ballybunion as though it were the only golf course in Ireland, so when I first visited, in 2006, I was predisposed to be underwhelmed. After actually playing it, though, I realized that it belongs right where it’s always listed, with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush and, therefore, with the greatest golf courses not only in Ireland but also in the world. At least half the holes would stand as the best hole on any number of very good courses. I could have played Ballybunion until immigration officials (or my wife) came to drag me away.

Dan Tani, seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Dan Tani, seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013. That’s Jeremy and Anthony on the bench. (Dara took the photo.) Rainbows are officially disallowed in golf-course photos published on this website, but every once in a while one slips past the censors.

Dan Tani, an American reader (photo above), joined Ballybunion as an overseas member in 1998, when the cost was next to nothing. Two years later, he married a woman from Cork, and so now is obliged to visit twice a year. (He proposed at the stroke of the millennium, after playing Ballybunion in the afternoon and rehearsing his lines on the drive home.) Ever since, he’s made a point of playing at least one round very late in the year. This past December, he played on New Year’s Eve Eve—December 30, 2013—with three Irish guys whose fourth had exceeded the legal limit on showing up late.

Seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Highlights from Tani’s trip report:

Golf in Ireland in December can be wet and cold, but it can also be surprisingly mild. I’ve played in short sleeves and in full winter rain gear. This year, it was cool—about forty degrees, but dry, clear, and sunny—and the wind was only about ten miles an hour. I joined Anthony, a local publican, hotelier, and landscaping-company owner; Dara, a former assistant pro at Ballybunion, now an accountant in Dublin; and Jeremy, a greenkeeper currently working on a new course in Finland. They were old friends from years ago, getting together over the holidays. Dara is from Newcastle, Northern Ireland, and he grew up as a member of Royal County Down. He had a beaten-up golf bag with the R.C.D. logo on it.

Dara, seventh tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Dara and his R.C.D. golf bag, seventh tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

One thing I have noticed when I play Ballybunion is that I am always the oddly dressed golfer on the course. If I  wear beaten-up clothing with various golf clubs’ logos, I end up playing with three guys in full Ballybunion gear: jackets, hats, etc. This time, I wore my Ballybunion sweater, and, of course, the other guys were dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed: tattered pullover sweatshirts, Converse sneakers, jeans. I envied them and wished I could be cool enough to shoot even par in sneakers and pub wear, too. 

Eighteenth tee, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland, December 30, 2013.

Eighteenth tee, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland, December 30, 2013. That’s the seventeenth green in the foreground. The eighteenth fairway is at the far right, receding into the distance, toward the clubhouse.

After the round, we went to the clubhouse for a lunch of “toasted specials,” which are the real national dish of Ireland. We finished at three. I had about ninety minutes of sunlight left, so I went out on the Cashen Course [which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., in 1984]. I played the first seven holes, teed off on the eighth (a six-hundred-yard par 5), then picked up my ball and went to the fifteenth tee and played in from there: eleven bonus holes. I saw only an occasional golfer, on a distant hole. My only regret is that I didn’t have any light-up balls, as I did in 2010. That year, after thirty-six holes and a full dinner in the clubhouse, we went out again, at eleven p.m.:

Tani indirectly makes a point that I myself have made before: rather than going to Myrtle Beach for winter golf, why not go to Scotland or Ireland? The weather is often worse in Myrtle Beach. Anyway, here’s one more rainbow shot, as long as we’ve broken the rule. Tani took this one from his car on the way to the course.


November Golf in Northern Ireland

P1100471The mystery golf course in my previous entry is Kirkistown Castle, on the Ards Peninsula, in Northern Ireland. (Adam Heyes, who also identified Ardglass Golf Club, from photographs of some cannons and a life preserver, got Kirkistown right, too, but he let me know by email so that others would have a chance. Tralee wasn’t a terrible guess, but it credited me with the ability to teletransport myself and my golf clubs to the other side of Ireland and back.) I played Kirkistown last week with Kevin Gallagher and Jonny Breen, both members, shown above. You can see the ruins of the eponymous castle in the distance, between their heads. The structure on the right is the remains not of a castle but of an old tower windmill. It stands on one of the two sand hills that are the most conspicuous topographical features of Kirkistown:


Kirkistown was founded in 1902, and the modern routing was created by James Braid in 1934. Among the few significant changes since then has been the sod-revetting of quite a few of the bunkers, a project undertaken with enthusiasm by the current greenkeeper, shown here in one of his ongoing creations:


To get to Kirkistown, I drove from Newcastle to Strangford, through an area that a road sign identified, correctly, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (A.O.N.B). There was also quite a lot of unnatural beauty, including this row of houses along the Strangford wharf:


I then had to cross Strangford Lough on a small ferry—which, naturally, was pulling away as I arrived:

P1100403Small ferries are one of my favorite things in the world. I wrote about some even smaller ones in the Atlantic Monthly a long time ago. The Strangford ferry runs every thirty minutes, so I didn’t have to wait long for the next one. Here we are arriving at Portaferry, on the other side:

P1100435Kirkistown is just a few miles up the road from the ferry landing, on the other side of the peninsula. Rory McIlroy—who would have arrived from the opposite direction, since he grew up in a suburb of Belfast—played at Kirkistown often as a junior. A recent golf bag of his is displayed in the trophy case in the lobby of the clubhouse:


I intentionally took an unnessarily long way home, by doing a sort of figure-eight loop around the entire peninsula. The sun was gone by the time I got back to Portaferry—where, once again, I just missed the boat:

P1100499I was in Northern Ireland mainly to write about Royal County Down for an upcoming issue of Golf Digest. The weather during my rounds there was mostly spectacular, too—much better than the weather at home:



P1100228On my first day at Royal County Down, I played with Kevin Markham, who has played every eighteen-hole golf course in Ireland:


We were accompanied for nine holes by Kevan Whitson, the club’s longtime professional. (Nearly everyone I played golf with on this trip was named either Kevin, Kevan, or Johnny.)


I’ll have more to say about Royal County Down in the magazine—and here, too, probably. Toward the end of our round, I told Kevin I was never going to take another picture of a rainbow on a golf course, or anywhere else. But then I did.


New Golf Challenge: Name That Other Course


Adam Heyes is right. The golf course shown in the two photos in my previous post is Ardglass Golf Club, in County Down, Northern Ireland. In the photo above, Ian Duff, a longtime member, is looking for my ball to the left of the green on the second hole, a par 3 that plays over a chasm. The photo below shows a less perilous part of the same course.

P1100342The course I played yesterday may not be easy for even Adam to identify. Here’s the second green:


And here’s something I saw on my way home:


Today, I’m going back to the course I played the first day I was here. You can get to it by following signs in the lobby of my hotel: