Thrills and spills abound at stunning Ardglass

Thrills and spills abound at stunning Ardglass
 Ardglass Golf Club

Ardglass Golf Club

The 180-yard drive is rarely a cause for celebration in an era when the tour tigers are capable of blasting the ball 400 yards into the wide blue yonder.

But at Ardglass Golf Club in County Down, visitors can be seen quaking in their spikes as they stand on the first tee in front of Ardglass Castle — the world's oldest clubhouse dating to 1405— praying that their Sunday best will be enough to make what looks like an impossible carry over a rocky cliffside to the billowing fairway beyond.

It's only 160 yards to safety but when a stiff south-west wind is screeching into your face, it's a white-knuckle tee shot of such tension that many a visitor is left with that sinking feeling as his ungrateful white pill snaps left, plummeting to a watery grave in foaming green sea below.

"Lamb's Lough" might measure just 335-yards from a tee situated just in front of a quartet of ancient cannons, which are a reminder of the club's historic origins on the site of a strategic, medieval trading post. 

But if the wind is into your face, many a visitor has gone like a lamb to the slaughter on the first of four cliffside opening holes at a club that was founded 121 years ago.

The scorecard proudly declares that Ardglass is stunningly natural and naturally stunning and it's no idle boast at a welcoming club on the Down coast that is a wonderful complement to nearby St Patrick's Golf Club in Downpatrick and world famous Royal County Down, just a few miles further south.

"They are blown away from the moment they arrive at the car park," says Director of Golf and resident PGA professional Paul Vaughan of the typical reaction of newcomers to Ardglass. 

 The 4th

The 4th

He wasn't talking about the wind that makes this links course a true hidden gem but the sheer beauty of the setting which is surrounded on three sides by water.

Heading away from the village's small fishing harbour, it takes the intrepid golfer on a voyage of discovery towards a craggy headland overlooking Killough and Coney Island, where a spectacular stretch from the 10th to the 12th begins the homeward run towards the safety of "port" and a warm welcome in what is arguably Ireland's friendliest clubhouse.

Sea views abound — keep a weather-eye peeled for the Isle of Man (it's just 30 miles away) — and while the scorecard says that the par-70-course measures just 6,268 yards from the tips, the almost ever-present breeze can make it a far more daunting test than its yardage suggests.

While the first is a favourite for many, the signature hole is arguably the par-three second, a 167-yard terror named "Howd’s Hole" after the yawning chasm that separates the tee from the well-protected green.

 An aerial view of the first and 18th

An aerial view of the first and 18th

The chasm is theoretically "in play" which led a local surgeon to become somewhat ambitious in his efforts to retrieve his ball some years ago, leading to his eventual rescue by ship!

Indeed, the second is now an even tougher prospect following the first phase of a course renovation project that began over the winter under the watchful eye of golf architect Ken Kearney, the former international and four-time Championship winner.

While there is no definitive end date for a project that is expected to cost in excess of £700,000, the members will get to absorb the changes as they are carried out in stages and mould them to their liking.

However, we do know that nearly all the bunkers will be rebuilt in the revetted style and the first phase is already complete with one greenside bunker revetted and another added at the par-three second.

 The 18th with the club's historic clubhouse as its backdrop

The 18th with the club's historic clubhouse as its backdrop

Two new fairway bunkers have been added at the third, giving the low-men pause for thought on the tee, while two greenside bunkers add to the difficulty of this short but delightful 334-yard par-four.

Phase two of the renovation will see the green at the 220-yard, par-three seventh shifted to the right towards the cottage.

The bank at the back of the green will also be removed, giving the hole an "infinity" look and helping to create a new pathway to the eighth tee.

With plans in place to create a nine-hole academy course, there is a chance that Ardglass could bring back the famous "Wall Hole" par-five, which was one of three holes eliminated when David Jones added three new holes in 2002.

 The 11th and 12th

The 11th and 12th

There were originally just seven holes, shoehorned into the area currently occupied by the first and 18th.

Jones' loop added the "new" par-five ninth, the 205-yard downhill 10th and the short but spectacular, par-five 11th, where the drive must be threaded between water on the right and jungle country on the left.

From there, it's on to what many consider the true signature hole at Ardglass, the 198-yard, par-three 12th, "Cathlin", which can require anything from a nine-iron to a driver depending on the wind.

Considered Ireland's answer to the famous seventh at Pebble Beach, it's possibly an even better hole when played at 128 yards from the front tee.

When the course changes are complete, the "new" holes will surely be as well-loved as those created in 1971 when the club bought 52 acres and extended the course from nine to 18 holes, coinciding with its 75th anniversary,

"Ken Kearney came in a year ago and put a five-year plan together," explains club professional Vaughan, a local man with a deep love of the links. "We realised that the course needed some work but we are not the professionals and we are delighted that we called in Ken."

 The 7th green

The 7th green

Revetting the bunkers is just part of the plan and while a little extra yardage would not go amiss, it's not a must when holes measuring 390 yards can play like 590-yard monsters on a windy day.

"The great thing is that the members will drive the changes," adds Paul, who hopes to attract more of the estimated 10,000 visitors who make the pilgrimage to Royal County Down every year.

"Not many of the overseas visitors have heard of us before, but they are always blown away by the view down the first from the moment they pull up in the car park.

"You can see the coast and the ocean from every hole, and after getting severely tested at Royal County Down, they love the playability of the course.

"Coming to Ardglass is more of an experience, than just a visit to a great golf course.

"We are renowned as one of the most welcoming golf clubs in Ireland and you are treated as a member of the club when you come to play here."

For many years, the club's claim to fame was that Alfie Lowe, playing out of Malone, won the 1922 Irish Amateur Close Championship. 

Since then the club has produced many fine players from Gary Hamill, Michael Curran, Brian Martin Jnr and Oonagh McClure in the 1980s and 90s to current Challenge Tour player Cormac Sharvin, who won the Irish Close in 2013 and went on playing a leadign role in a winning Walker Cup side in 2015.

 The narrow first green looking back towards the tee and the clubhouse

The narrow first green looking back towards the tee and the clubhouse

Sharvin's achievements are a great source of pride to the club which has named a corner of the members' bar in its 600-year old clubhouse the "Cormac Sharvin Lounge" in his honour. 

There's no more spectacular place for a post-round bite, nor a shortage of sympathetic ears, eager to hear your tales of derring-do.

Factfile - Ardglass

  • Club: Ardglass Golf Club
  • Address: Castle Place, Ardglass, County Down, BT30 7TP
  • Email:  golf@ardglassgolfclub.com
  • Tel:  +44 28 44 841022 or 048 44841022
  • Green fees: £80 midweek; £105 weekend. GUI rate: £50.
  • Society Rates: Up to £39 with meal (min. group size 12).
  • Buggy hire: £30
  • Club hire: £25
  • Electric trolley hire: £10
  • Range Balls: No, but there is a practice ground.

Signature hole: 1st, Par 4, 335 yards

A spectacular par-four played across the rocks and the foaming Irish Sea to a sloping fairway requiring an accurate short iron to a narrow, elevated green.

Pro tip

The whole of Ireland is on your right so don't be afraid to hit a driver off the tee to the right-hand side of the fairway. With the flag generally in the middle or at the back of the green, make sure you carry the front bunker if you are to open your round with a par.

Nearby clubs

  • Bright Castle
  • Crossgar
  • Kilkeel
  • Royal County Down
  • St Patrick's 
  • Spa

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's weekly Tee to Green golf supplement on 4 May 2017