Golf clubs would be nothing without their members and if someone ever creates an award for the most welcoming, hospitable and generous club member in Ireland then Royal Belfast most certainly has a leading contender.
While Royal Curragh is acknowledged as the oldest golf club in Ireland, its royal counterpart on the outskirts of leafy Holywood on the shores of Belfast Lough is one of the great places of Irish golf.
My accidental host for the day exuded such pride in his club that what might have been a quick-fire round followed by a rapid coffee and exit turned into a voyage of discovery, a gentle history lesson and a quality golfing experience that would be difficult to match at any other parkland course in Northern Ireland.
In short, it was a treat and a golfing pilgrimage every aficionado should make next time they are in Belfast and have a few hours on their hands. The original six-hole course opened at nearby Kinnegar in 1881, sowing the seeds of golf in Northern Ireland with one of the founding members going on to help create new clubs which would, in time, become Royal Portrush and Royal County Down.
Royal Belfast did not stand still, moving to a new nine-hole course in Carnalea, near Bangor in 1892 before settling into its current, magnificent home, the 140-acre estate at Craigavad House, in 1925.
Blue skies and bright autumnal sunshine greeted me as I motored up the avenue that leads from the front gate to Craigavad House, a home originally built in 1852 by Mr John Mulholland, who was later to become the 1st Lord Dunleath.
It wasn’t hard to imagine how Harry Colt might have felt as he made this journey for the first time and admired the rolling parkland, the majestic trees and those breath-taking views of Belfast Lough. That the course he created remains largely unchanged as nearby Samson and Goliath, the giant Harland & Wolff gantry cranes that dominate the city skyline, is a testament to a classic design that has been enhanced in recent years with the restoration of many of the famous Colt bunkers.
Little wonder that Rory McIlroy, who grew up in nearby Holywood and now lives just a five-minute drive away, is a member and a regular on what is a superb, par-70 course tht plays every inch of its 6,300-plus yards.
As bright winter sunshine slanted through the window of the old changing room with its wooden lockers you can almost sense the presence of old Harry Colt himself before heading out to play.
I was a single and there wasn’t a soul in sight until I popped up on the first tee to find Richard Jordan — to be known henceforth as the sweet-swinging, silver fox of Craigavad — warming up merrily with the lithe movements of a man half his age.
Closer to 80 than I am to 40, he turned out to be a former single figure man and while he said he’d only be able to accompany me for nine holes, he generously played all 18, proudly showed me around the magnificent clubhouse and even bought me lunch in the Herdman Room, where you look out on Belfast Lough and imagine the ill-fated Titanic gliding past those sash windows more than 100 years ago.
Having put my game to shame and made me vow to get it up to scratch over the next 25 years so that I too can threaten to break my age, its little wonder Richard’s is in such good shape.
Royal Belfast is a “proper” test of golf and its opening three holes are as stout a trio of par-fours as you are likely to find anywhere. The fourth is a delightful par three, the shortest hole on the course at 137 yards from the medal tees. That I failed utterly to live up to the silken short game skills shown on the hole by the late Billy Casper on his visit in 2012 was no surprise.
In fact, if I hadn’t been so busy drinking in the views and enjoying my host’s anecdotes and those local tales of McIlroy’s exploits on the course, I might have been tempted to lament the state of my game.
“Do you see that pine tree?” Richard asked as we stood on the tee at the drivable 10th. “They say Rory once hit it straight over that onto the green.”
I felt a little more humbled as I surveyed an impossible 280-yard carry over a massive tree, but following a restorative par three at the uphill 11th, a real tester where you are forced to hit a long iron or a wood over a sea of gorse, my mood brightened considerably.
In short, Royal Belfast made me want to be a better player but with good weather, great views and even better company, I felt I had at least done my bit and learned to savour a venue made for connoisseurs of the life’s finer things.