Still waters run deep at Royal Belfast

​Royal Belfast Golf Club, a pioneer of golf in Ireland, is steeped in history. A stunning setting on the shores of Belfast Lough makes this Harry Colt parkland a sight to behold.

  • 02 February 2017
It was a sober day by the shore, Belfast Lough swaying gently against an industrial cityscape. The golfers at Royal Belfast enjoyed a panoramic view from their tranquil escape nine miles east of the city heartland.

Before you begin, it is best to take a glimpse from the 11th tee box, where you can appreciate the full vista. Look west towards the shipyards that serve to symbolise Belfast’s industrial past and you’ll see the outline of a modern, commercial hub. 

Directly across the lough, the sky is clouded and greying as it absorbs the smoke from two, tall chimney stacks.

The best view is out across the eastern horizon. A jetty at Cloghan Point cuts across from Carrickfergus and on clear days, Scotland lingers in the distance.

There is much to admire about Harry Colt’s intricate layout at Royal Belfast. Like all works by golf’s master architect, it is fair test – the challenge clear and uncomplicated while managing to remain uncompromising. Clever is a word that springs to mind on every hole and when you consider the wider historical context, the significance of Royal Belfast suddenly becomes palpable.

The Colt connection to the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush is widely heralded and for that reason, perhaps it is easy to forget the quality of his parkland designs. Comparisons with Portrush would be futile yet Colt’s ability to maximise the beauty of his surroundings and the natural features of the land is just as readily apparent at Royal Belfast.

Maureen Madill, the celebrated broadcaster who was also prolific as both a player and a coach, encapsulated it neatly: “The course challenges every part of your golf game – sloping lies and bunkers abound. The greens are of the highest standard and if your game doesn’t match up, just lift your eyes and drink in the phenomenal views.”

On a visit in early January, it did not feel like the first month of the year had just clicked another notch. Temperatures mild, a mellow atmosphere filled the air as Belfast Lough appeared motionless. Before the blue of the water came into view, a golden brilliance captured a corner of the eye. Tracking towards Craigavad House, Royal Belfast’s palatial clubhouse, the mind considered a rare thought – what a thrill to play a bunker shot.

At Royal Belfast, the bunkering is one of the strongest features and Colt’s mark is stamped on every hole, whether it be the strategic positioning of the fairway traps or the sandy graves guarding those glassy greens.

And as much as Royal Belfast is celebrated for its rich history, the current guardians of the club are also keen to move forward. Mackenzie & Ebert, the firm commissioned by Royal Portrush, are considered one of the foremost authorities on Harry Colt courses. Their services have been employed here as well and their initial work has seen many bunkers subtly reshaped so as to enhance Colt’s original creation.

The 8th, a picturesque par-four that sweeps down to the lough, encapsulates the Colt effect. 
A slight dogleg favours those who move the ball right to left but a fairway trap is perfectly positioned to capture stray shots down the right hand side. Playing downhill, the driver is hard to resist. Then again, the safe play has no guarantee of success. An oval green, pinched in the centre, has bunkers left and right. Caution is not necessarily the best advice, a testimony to the ingenuity of Colt’s design.

A similar trick is at play on number 10. Playing to an elevated fairway, a committed swing is still required to make the most of the shortest par-four on the course. Playing 303 yards from the back tee, the green is by no means out of reach. There is gorse to contend with if the ball sprays left or right while a misjudged lay-up may leave an awkward number to the pin. 

A severe slope from back to front leaves scope for treacherous pin positions. This is a green you do not want to mess with and if you end up putting from the wrong spot, be prepared to take your medicine.

Whatever the outcome on the preceding hole, the view from the 11th would sweeten a sour soul. Still water tends to have a soothing effect and the sight of a bright, blue beyond creates a sense of calm. How long that feeling lasts depends on how you see the next shot. 

To navigate the trees, which impose severely on the right hand side of this demanding par-three, you face a dilemma. A cut may need to become a slice, depending on the position of the pin. Those who move it right to left will have a hard time settling over the shot. An elevated green conceals the base of the flagstick, adding another variable to the equation as clubbing becomes a guessing game.

The walk down the 12th fairway brings the clubhouse into focus as Craigavad House stands tall and proud above this 140-acre estate. Dating from 1852, it was built by John Mulholland (later to become Baron Dunleath in 1892), and its neo-classical style has been impeccably maintained. A recent makeover has modernised the interior and the club have spent wisely, upgrading locker rooms and office space without taking from the grandeur.

A generous par-five brings a satisfying conclusion to the round and at 6,185 yards, this par-70 remains a stiff test without being overly taxing on the body. The mix of classic and contemporary styles, on the course and in the clubhouse, feels just right.

Belfast is a haven for parkland golf and Royal Belfast ranks among the finest. Recognising as much, the club have partnered with Malone and Shandon Park to launch the inaugural Belfast Parkland International Golf Tournament, which runs from 3-5 July.

Billed as a ‘Titanic-esque’ pairs event, teams of two will bid for the title. Open to ladies and men alike, the tournament will use the Stableford points format where the best scores count over three days. Tournament entries must be registered by Friday 30 June and entry costs just £99 per person.

For more details, visit DiscoverNorthernIreland.com 

To find out more about Royal Belfast, visit their website – RoyalBelfast.com