The 1st tee of Ardglass Golf Club backs up the clubhouse, a nearly 700-year-old castle, and points the golfer toward a prospect as exhilarating as it is dangerous: a drive over 40 feet of imposing black cliff bordered by the Irish Sea on the left. Add first-tee jitters and loitering spectators to this mix and the scene is unforgettable.
Set on a thumb-shaped peninsula 35 miles south of Belfast, Ardglass would surely be better known if not for its proximity to Royal County Down, just a few miles away across the bowl of Dundrum Bay. Especially for visitors intent on making a beeline between County Down and Royal Portrush to the north, Ardglass is off the main-traveled road, and therefore off the itinerary.
In 1896 the Reverand Thomas Macafee, who served as Ardglass’ Presbyterian minister and appointed himself its one-man chamber of commerce, saw that Portrush and Newcastle had benefited from their association with golf. He oversaw the steering committee that brought Ardglass Golf Club into existence that same year.
The club began with seven holes that turned the geography to good advantage, leapfrogging their way southward from the castle. By the turn of the century, two holes were added, but it was not until 1970 that the second nine was built.
Tony Jacklin and Christy O’Connor Jr. were among the luminaries who helped christen the modern incarnation of this links. O’Connor, after playing the 397-yard 13th into a brisk wind, said the combination of weather and No. 13’s compact green made it one of the most difficult and memorable two-shotters he had ever experienced.After skirting the water for five holes, the course moves inland along slightly rising ground for a time, though the sea remains clearly visible throughout. The 488-yard 11th hugs the scimitar curve of the beach from tee to green on the right, with a hillside of gorse and whin left. The 11th, along with the two holes preceding it, is the result of architectural changes made over the last several years. A local, David Jones, helped with the most recent changes, but the layout has been shaped largely by its members.
Ardglass presents little frightening length, no blind shots and no brooding dunes oppressively thick with the hopelessness of gorse. Its defenses come instead from wind, which howls regularly across this exposed tract. If the magic of Royal County Down lies in the feeling of stepping off the 1st tee into a world unto itself, the charm of Ardglass flows from its acting as an observation deck onto the unending beauties of Northern Ireland’s eastern coast.
After the pulse-raising 1st, the 167-yard 2nd, requiring a carry over a dent in the coastline called Howd’s Hole, keeps it pounding. Between the tee and green are black rock, roiling green sea and golf balls, scores of them, cupped in tidal pools and washed by foam, never to be struck again. One brazen member, the story goes, attempted to rescue a stray ball—and required rescue himself, via boat.
Much of the course thereafter combines a crisp examination of skills with enough rumpled space around the greens for good recovery chances. The only noticeable departure from what one might expect of a links layout is the absence of truly long par 4s. However, a couple of par 3s in excess of 200 yards call for the otherwise missing long iron/fairway wood shot into a green.
The most beguiling shot on the course just may be the approach to the par-4 17th, a short iron down a gentle slope to a slender green. Before hitting, take a look around; the view captures for a last time the look and character of the entire course. An enormous sweep of sky pulls itself taut against the Irish Sea, clutches of sea pinks festoon the rough, and runs of whin the color of buttered toast offset the sleek green of the fairways. The air itself gleams silver with spindrift from the surf.