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Caption: The 14th green on the Dufferin Course at Clandeboye
Out here, the terrain is simply supreme. It’s not the first place you would think to come on a golfing trip to Belfast, which cannot be helped in a city blessed with a rich cast of clubs.
In Clandeboye’s case, living in the shadows is not necessarily a bad thing. Expectation, run wild, can become a curse. No sooner have you set foot in Clandeboye, it dawns that here lies one of the best kept secrets in Irish golf.
The name does not roll off the tongue and when the journey out of the city takes you east towards Bangor, it’s easy think you’ve taken a wrong turn. A fork in the road marks the spot where the passage to Clandeboye departs from the main carriageway. It has all the hallmarks of a road less travelled.
Winding your way through a dense, suburban demesne there is no hint as to what lies beyond a vista of housing estates. Welcome to Conlig, home to a very special secret garden.
Turning uphill onto final trail, the golf course is almost hidden from view. An imposing clubhouse, which also serves as an invaluable community resource, dominates the opening scene. Above lies Ava, endlessly charming, and below the pro shop sits Dufferin, where an elevated tee provides a stage from which to begin a true golfing quest.
Apart from the sheer variety– Dufferin differs from Ava about as much as is possible within the grounds of the same estate – there is a rich history attached to Clandeboye. When you consider that this 250-acre country estate dates back to the late 17th century, a clear picture starts to emerge. You get a sense of the spectacle that awaits.
A serene setting for golf, these grounds could just as easily serve as the backdrop to a period drama. No less a figure than Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate for much of Queen Victoria’s reign, immortalised Helen’s Tower in his poem of the same name.
In recent times, scenes from the hit television series Game of Thrones have been filmed within the estate. As much as it is a challenge, to play golf here is also an escape.
The rolling landscape, which gives that links effect, combined with the feel of playing on pure turf gives the Dufferin a genuine, championship quality. At 6,742 yards and playing to a par of 71, it is every bit as intimidating as it sounds.
Distance is a virtue on many holes but severe penalties await drives that stray off line. At every turn, the course is flanked by masses of gorse and bracken. Trees have been strategically positioned, placing a further premium on accuracy. Take the par-five sixth, which should offer a birdie chance. The big hitters have water to contend with if they take driver while a pair of bunkers down the right keep you thinking even with less club in hand. There are more bunkers in play if a lay-up is called for, and as inviting as it seems, it’s a hole that keeps you thinking from start to finish.
On the back nine, the par-three 14th is a pure gem. From an elevated position, the view is simply fantastic but depending on the pin location, you may not be moved by it. Playing to the front portion brings the water into play and the contours of the green mean that your work is far from complete whenever you reach the putting surface.
With a strong par-four to finish, a regulation score will always bring a satisfying conclusion. On those days when the Dufferin’s prevailing north-east wind sweeps in from Belfast Lough, it is a course to test the best.
If time allows, take lunch in the clubhouse and refuel for an afternoon treat on Clandeboye’s second 18. The Ava Course, which plays 5,748 yards, offers a complete contrast. First and foremost, it is fun to play. A smart layout eases the burden, adding to the appeal for golfers short on time.
Just because it is less taxing on the body, do not be fooled into taking Ava lightly. As you plot your way around, you’ll often find yourself tempted to take it on. The secret lies in knowing when to resist.
That is not to say risk does not always get its reward. The green is very much in play on number four. Coming home, you can get close at 16, 17 and 18. No matter how good you are from the tee, your wedge play has to be sharp. The short game will make or break your round. As prep, Ava is ideal. Manage your way around its narrow fairways and subtle undulations: you’ll be ripe for competitive battle.
Visually, Ava overlooks Strangford Lough and boasts an engrossing view over the rich farmland that sweeps down to the mountains of Mourne. A golfing adventure unlike any other, come to Clandeboye once and you’ll be hooked on golf for life.