Royal County Down Golf Club

Championship Links History


The Royal County Down Golf Club was founded in 1889 by a group of influential business and professional men from Belfast. There is some evidence to suggest that even before then a rudimentary form of golf was being played by the townsfolk on the rabbit warren at Newcastle. However, it was the development of a railway line from Belfast to Newcastle by the Belfast & County Down Railway and the emergence of Newcastle as a desirable seaside resort in Victorian times which provided the impetus for the first formal golf course.

The development of the course is described in fascinating detail in Richard A. Latham's excellent book, "The Evolution of the Links at Royal County Down Golf Club" (Radial Sports Publishing Limited, 2006). George L. Baillie, a Scottish schoolteacher who came to Belfast and quickly embarked on a personal crusade to establish golf courses, was mainly responsible for the original nine-hole layout. That course was opened on 23rd March 1889, and almost immediately the newly-formed council of the club, in a mixture of enthusiasm and parsimony, commissioned Old Tom Morris to travel over from St. Andrews “for a sum not to exceed £4” to inspect what existed and advise on a second nine. 

1889 Onwards

The outcome of this munificence was that Old Tom spent two days at Royal County Down in July 1889; three new holes were added immediately and a further six between the autumn of 1889 and the spring of 1890. The fact that the full course was ready for play in July 1890 is proof that golf course design in those days was most unlike the modern methodology and that, like most great links courses, Royal County Down was created from the wonderful natural dune-land which was already there, without the need to indulge in any major earth-moving.

1900 - 1913

The next important figure in the evolution of the links was George Combe, Captain in 1896 and Convenor of the Green from 1900 to 1913. During this period, apart from Combe’s own alterations, some very famous golfers of the time, including James Braid, J. H. Taylor, Harry Vardon and Ben Sayers, visited the course and made recommendations, many of which were adopted.  This was arguably the most important phase in the evolution of the links. By its end, the present configuration of the course in two nine-hole loops, each beginning and ending at the clubhouse (the advantages of which, as an early golfing journal noted, are “apparent to golfers without enumeration”), had been established.

1925 Onwards

In 1925, Harry Colt was asked to advise on further improvements to the course, and the alterations which ensued were notable particularly for the creation of the present 4th and 9th holes, which were to become two of the most photographed holes in world golf.

In comparison with the first forty-two years of the Club’s existence, the next sixty–six years saw relatively little change to the course.  Then, under the supervision of Donald Steel, there were two further important developments. First, in 1997, the 17th and 18th holes were strengthened considerably, the latter becoming one of the most challenging finishing holes anywhere. 

Secondly, in 2004, an entirely new 16th hole was created; a short but extremely tricky par 4, it is played into the magnificent backdrop of the Mourne Mountains and has proved to be a superb matchplay hole.

The clubhouse, too, has evolved from the original building of 1894 (which still survives as an integral part of today’s clubhouse) through a number of later extensions and culminating in the extensive refurbishment and extension of 2005. The Club now possesses a magnificent building, still very much in the style of the original, which caters in its different sections for all the needs of members and visitors.

Championship History

The course has witnessed many wonderful championships.  From 1893, when the second Irish Open Amateur Championship was held, until the present time, Royal County Down has been synonymous with the best in amateur golf.  It has been the venue for the Walker Cup (2007), the Curtis Cup (1968), the Amateur Championship (twice), the Home Internationals (three times) and, on no fewer than nine occasions, the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship, as well as numerous other leading amateur events. The Irish Open Amateur Championship was held at the course on fifteen occasions, before the competition was discontinued in 1959. Professional golfers, too, have long been drawn to Royal County Down. In 1893, a competition boasting prize money of one hundred guineas attracted almost all the leading professionals of the day, the great Harry Vardon defeating J. H. Taylor in the final.
 The Irish Professional Championship was held on four occasions, the last being in 1954 when it was won by Harry Bradshaw.  In more recent times the course has been less used as a professional venue, but it has always remained a supreme challenge which attracts the best players in the world; Tiger Woods, Tom Watson and many others have played it either as part of their preparation for the Open Championship or just for sheer enjoyment, and Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s current world star, is a frequent visitor. The Senior Open Championship' was held at Royal County Down in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and such giants of the game as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player all took part in it.
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Historical Character

Through all the changes of the years, Royal County Down has retained its essential character. The words of Bernard Darwin, that doyen of golf writers and no mean player himself, over seventy years ago still ring true: when he drew back the curtains of his hotel window to catch his first glimpse of the Mourne Mountains, he wrote that “to see Slieve Donard’s crest just emerging from a great sea of early mist is to taste one of the intenser joys of shaving on the morning of a workless day”. And regarding the great course which lay below the mountains, he added that it was one of “big and glorious carries, nestling greens, entertainingly blind shots, local knowledge and beautiful turf – the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams”.
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