Two Slieves and a Woolly Jumper
few weeks to go to the Open Championship at Royal Portrush and we’re flying into Belfast then driving south through via the rolling, leafy lanes of Northern Ireland to the seaside town of Newcastle.
Slieve Donard Resort & Spa has a pretty much perfect location wedged between the magnificent Mountains of Mourne, the mouth of the Shimna River where it meets the Irish Sea and its coup d'œil, Royal County Down Golf Club at its rear! This red-faced, Victoria edifice is owned by the Hastings family and I had the pleasure of having lunch with …. on my last visit so I can confirm it is very much a ‘family-run’ affair.
This time we were given the runaround by General Manager, Michael Weston who was keen to show us some of the improvements and additions. I had met Michael previously in the Glasgow Hilton sometime ago when he was commander-in-chief there. In spite of its sprawling nature and Victorian vintage, Slieve Donard does a fantastic job of staying ‘ahead of the curve’. Little wonder! With one of the most famous links courses in the world in its very backyard, there are no end of intercontinental visitors coming through the door so it’s mandatory that they stay relevant. And thanks to Michael and his team, they do! It’s a 4-star facility for sure but one with such character and atmosphere, we have little hesitation in recommending a night or two here.
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN GOLF CLUB
Meanwhile, it’s nextdoor neighbour, literally, Royal County Down doesn’t need much of an intro. It’s regularly voted the best links course in all of Ireland, north or south (although Royal Portrush at No 2 strongly disputes this) and probably among the top 10 links on the planet. We weren’t playing this time but I was still up at 5am to take the camera for a stroll on a gorgeous, late spring morning.
A Scottish schoolteacher is largely credited for establishing the first 9-holes at RCD in 1889 but Old Tom Morris came across from St Andrews soon after to extend the scholarly work to18. I don’t think these gentlemen would have had a terrible amount to worry about in terms of sand shifting and shaping. The rich, rolling links terrain simply had to be cleared of gorse bushes to reveal some magnificent playing surfaces. And once again, that’s the mark of many of these elegant, original, stalwart courses - they’re 100% as God intended.
Admittedly, the £250 green fee they now charge here goes a long way to keeping Royal County Down pristine. We arrived on the day the phone lines opened to take booking for 2020 and our chance to meet David was dashed. Kevan the ex-East Lothian club pro brought us up to date.
What you have today is an amalgam of nature’s finest conditions, expert up-to-date links greenkeeping and from the RCD staff and caddies, exemplary service. This course offers everything I love about links, a magnificent layout that rises up onto the dunes to give you spectacular vistas to the sea and mountains, a fair few blind shots and stand-offish greens that can be devilish to hit and hold. Miss the right spot and you’re off into a grassy grave with safe resurrection never certain. The front nine is by far the main act but by any other standard, the back
There is a second course occupying the same track of land that I hadn’t quite appreciated on previous visits. I don’t imagine the Annesley Links gets a lot of play with visitors clamoring to get on the Championship course but I could see during my early morning photo expedition that this must be an exciting test, much shorter and tighter with an almost infinite shot-making possibility and perhaps equally exciting views of the sea, mountains and lofty dunes. I’ll give it a go next time!
At the advise of the concierge, from the charming little town of Newcastle, we drove south towards Carlingford. That took us across the border into the Republic, the Carlingford Ferry only taking a few minutes. The perceived wisdom from our advisor was this would save us some 35-minutes on our journey to our next resort. I don’t think that was quite the case.