Malone Golf Club, Northern Ireland

Malone Golf Club is that rarest of creatures in Irish golf—the fine inland course. Only four miles from the center of Belfast, Malone is an idyll of old oaks, lofty sycamores and riotous rhododendrons in a parkland setting in the valley of the Lagan River, which flows into Belfast Lough. To one side of the course is the small village of Drumbeg, and on the other side is Dunmurry, not far from where John DeLorean built his gull-wing sports car.

In Irish golfing circles, Malone is whispered of as the “Augusta National of Northern Ireland.” The comparisons are understandable, beginning with the drive up to the clubhouse along Lime Avenue, which is bordered on both sides by towering, century-old lime trees. To the left is Ballydrain Lake, the 27-acre pond that dominates the back nine of the golf course. The clubhouse itself is a slightly Byronic and impressive structure of brooding brown stone with steep gables that was built in 1835. It looks like the type of place where Jane Eyre would feel at home.

Like all parkland courses, the look and character of Malone is dictated by the changing seasons. In the first week of March, there was a patina of snow on the Antrim hills on the drive down to the course and the landscape seemed lifted right out of an old Currier & Ives print. The course itself was frost free and quite busy, with sprigs of lilies pushing their way out from beneath the lime trees. In May and June the rhododendrons come into flower and tint the banks of Lake Ballydrain red and pink, while in October the course is ablaze with fall foliage.

Malone is an old and well-established club, having been founded in 1895. The present course is actually on Malone’s fourth site, since the club has had to move over the years with the expansion of Belfast. In February 1900, the Irish Golfer compared Malone’s first course with Ganton, stating: “The putting greens on both links are kept in apple-pie order. In 1907, the club moved to a new, longer course, which was opened for play by Harry Vardon and James Braid, the Nicklaus and Palmer of their day.

The next course in Malone’s history opened in 1919, and was designed by none other than the great Alister MacKenzie, who went on to design Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. Surprisingly, the members were dissatisfied with the condition of the course after it opened and threatened legal action against MacKenzie, asking if he would agree to arbitration with Sir Dunbar Plunkett, president of the Golfing Union of Ireland, serving as arbitrator. MacKenzie’s representative wrote back offering to repay £200 of his £300 design fee and the matter was apparently settled.

The present-day course was opened in 1962 and was designed by Commander John Harris of the firm of C.K. Cotton & Associates. The entrance to the club is on the Upper Malone Road, directly across from Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, which is the site of the international rose competition. The rustic stone wall that runs along the road is a “famine wall,” having been built during the potato famine of the 1840s as an early social works program. The workers were paid a penny a day for their labors plus a small portion of potatoes or porridge. On the entry gate to the club is painted a white “V” for victory, put there by the American troops stationed near Malone during World War II and still very visible today.

Malone begins with a shortish par-4 from an elevated tee, followed by a brace of par-5s. The third is a handsome hole with oaks and pines down the right side and a cluster of silver birch to the left before the green. The fourth is a secluded par-3 to a green that is backed by par-3 to a green that is backed by the overgrown brick walls of Malone’s lawn bowling court.

The seventh is the most demanding hole on the course, a 470-yard par-4 with a fairway that cants from right to left and a row of bunkers running down the left side. The eighth hole bends from left to right with the oaks guarding the left side of the green. The ninth is an uphill par-4 back to the clubhouse presenting an alpine montage of Scotch pines, cypress skyrockets and a Chinese monkey puzzle tree.

The back nine starts on the front side of the clubhouse, facing Lake Ballydrain (or Bailie Draihean in gaelic, the land of the Blackthorn). To the right of the 10th tee is Black Mountain and the quilted fields of the Antrim plateau. The lake is stocked each year with 2,000 brown and rainbow trout, fished by Malone’s angling club, which keeps three boats behind the 18th hole.

Malone’s version of Amen Corner is the 13th through 15th holes. The 13th swings past the corner of the lake off the tee shot and climbs from left to right. The 14th fairway runs out straightaway before the downhill second shot to a green that is framed by the lake behind, its banks lined with yellow flag, reed mace, rushes and water lilies. The 15th, Malone’s signature hole, is a short but testing one-shotter over the water with the rhododendrons massed in back of the green.

The 18th is a fine finishing hole, with a drive over the lake to a raised fairway, the green guarded on the right by a majestic oak, beyond which is the view out over the water. Each group rings a bell after hitting its approach shots to let the group behind know it is safe to tee off.

Malone is a course that is well-known to European pros, having hosted a number of tour events over the years. Tony Jacklin won his first professional tournament at Malone in 1966. In the 1990s Malone hosted the Irish Senior Masters, a regular event on the European Senior Tour. Gary Player was the victor in 1993 and Tommy Horton in 1994.

Given its proximity to Belfast, in the 1970s Malone was not immune to the violence and disturbances that shook Northern Ireland. In 1972, terrorists set off a bomb in the front of the clubhouse, which caused considerable damage to the building but no injuries. The political climate in Northern Ireland has improved gradually but steadily since the 1970s and with the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement and recent elections, Northern Ireland  is poised for a new era of prosperity and peace.

Any golfer who visits Northern Ireland must play those twin paragons of seaside golf, Royal Portrush on the northern Antrim coast and Royal County Down in Newcastle to the south. But Malone, so close to Belfast, embodies all the virtues of parkland golf. As John Redmond summed it up so well in “Great Golf Courses of Ireland”: “In any 19th whole discussion attempting to determine the accolade of supreme inland course in Ireland, it is perfectly understandable that there will be a case for the claims of Malone Golf Club. Not much agreement is really required for, truth to tell, the gently rolling summertime tapestry of mature wood, restful lake and blaze of flowers sets it quite apart.”