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Ardglass: A Hidden Gem in Northern Ireland

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Located on the shores of Ardglass Harbor in County Down, Northern Ireland, Ardglass Golf Club is a hidden gem with a rich history dating back to 1896 when Reverend Thomas Macafee established the club on a thumb-shaped peninsula along the coast. Ardglass sits 30 miles from Belfast and about 30 miles from another Irish gem, Royal County Down, which is also documented in our Legendary Links series and is currently ranked #1 globally.

The course began with just seven holes that utilized the natural landscape and topography of the land. By 1907, it had expanded into a 9-hole links course. For over 60 years, the layout remained primarily unchanged until additional lands were acquired in the late 1960s, allowing the course to stretch to 18 holes. The current layout continues to be upgraded, but the soul of those original seven holes perseveres.

What makes Ardglass so special is its breathtaking seaside location, with all 18 holes providing views over the Irish Sea. Its signature 2nd requires a tee shot over a precarious cliff edge to reach the green. The first five holes trace a spectacular route along these cliff tops as ever-present winds sweep off the sea, transforming the course daily. Firm, fast fairways, and small greens add to the challenge.

In this post, we’ll dig into the history of Ardglass, walk through the course, and take a lesson from Irish legend Christy O’Connor, who helped open the modern 18-hole course at Ardglass in 1970. We’ll close with further reading suggestions and share some videos to help bring the course to life. As always, the images here are simulated to provide context and set the scene.

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Origins and History

Ardglass Golf Links has a long and storied history dating back to 1896. The course was founded by Reverend Thomas MacAfee, who laid out a modest 7-hole, sub-1000-yard course that utilized the land between the 1st and 18th holes. This initial course was quite compact but marked the beginnings of golf in Ardglass. Over the next 60-plus years, the course was expanded in phases – first to 9 holes in 1907, then to 18 holes in the late 1960s when additional lands were acquired. The latest redesign came in the late 1960s when the club obtained the land around Coney Island Bay and remodeled it to create a modern layout.

Ardglass is considered one of the finest links courses in Northern Ireland and has steadily climbed the rankings of top courses in recent years. In 2022, Ardglass was voted the 58th best course in the UK and Ireland by Golf Monthly magazine. It’s also consistently ranked inside the top 15 courses in Northern Ireland by outlets like Golf Digest and Today’s Golfer.

Ardglass receives praise for its natural beauty, quirky blind shots, and excellent conditioning. While some find the green complexes too severe, most agree that Ardglass offers an authentic, challenging links test. With no weak holes and thrilling seaside scenery around every corner, it’s no surprise why Ardglass continues to earn accolades as a must-play in this golf-rich region. Its friendly members, relaxed atmosphere, and reasonable green fees further bolster its reputation as a prized destination for visiting golfers.

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Did You Know

One unique aspect of Ardglass is its clubhouse, which has the distinction of being the oldest still in use worldwide. The existing building originated as a fortified warehouse in the early 15th century, likely built during the rule of Sir John De Courcy. In the late 18th century, it was converted into a castle and family home, with a new extension completed around 1788.

It was expanded around the late 18th century and served various functions before being converted into a clubhouse. The clubhouse has unique architectural features like towers, turrets, arched doorways, and small water closets. While the course dates back just over 125 years, the clubhouse structure has origins going back over 600 years, possibly even further.

ardglass clubhouse

Christy O’Connor

Christy O’Connor was one of Ireland’s most accomplished and renowned professional golfers. Born in 1924 in Galway, O’Connor honed his buttery smooth swing growing up practicing in the windy conditions of the west coast of Ireland. He turned professional in 1949 and went on to win over 20 tournaments on the European Tour, including two British Masters titles.

O’Connor, nicknamed “Himself,” was especially revered for his fluid swing, ability to shape shots, and control his ball flight in adverse weather conditions. O’Connor never won a Major but only participated in The Open Championship, where he placed second in 1965 and had 10 Top 10 finishes in his career. A Ryder Cup stalwart, he also won the Canada Cup with partner Harry Bradshaw in 1958.

O’Connor faced American Bob Goalby at Ballybunion in a 1970 broadcast of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Unfortunately, I cannot find footage of the match online. O’Connor is considered Ireland’s first global golf superstar, paving the way for future generations of Irish golf champions. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 92.

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The Knockdown

Considered one of the game’s best wind players, O’Connor was a master of the knockdown shot. Footage from one of his clinics shows him explaining and demonstrating his technique in simple terms. He moved the ball back in his stance, took more club than normal, and choked up slightly.

The adjacent video was taken from the aforementioned clinic – the audio is rough, or I would have linked the full video. Here you can see O’Connor makes a full backswing and hits hard through the ball with full extension. He specifically calls out the importance of a straight left arm at impact. To copy this, I would recommend the “Hit Hard, Stop Quick” drill to ingrain the feeling and then transfer those feelings into the knockdown shot.

Christy O’Connor – Knockdown

The Course

Ardglass is a traditional seaside link featuring dunes, fescue grasses, dramatic elevation changes, and choppy terrain. It possesses all of the characteristics of the quintessential links while taking full advantage of its coastal setting. The course is routed along the shoreline, providing spectacular sea views from many holes, especially the par-3 fifth, which plays across rugged dunes. With a par of 70, playing at 6,268 yards, Ardglass is known for its blind shots and its demand for accuracy off the tee.

The outward nine is full of unique features like old walls, elevation changes, and well-placed bunkers. It presents a good mix of scoring opportunities and challenges from the ever-present coastal winds. Standing on the elevated first tee provides awe-inspiring views over the links and out to sea. The 4th is a difficult par-4 requiring a carry over a valley, while the par-3 5th plays across rugged dunes, and the par-5 6th doglegs are left around an old stone wall from the 15th century.

While short by modern standards, the second nine is a stern test of golf. It starts strong, featuring some of the best holes on the course, with beautiful views of the Irish Sea along the cliffs and coastline. The par-4 11th plays alongside the beach with more views of the Irish Sea, while the 12th is a great par-3 played over grassy “moguls”.

As noted, O’Connor was on hand to help christen the modern incarnation of the course and commented that the combination of the elements and the small green at the par-4 13th made it one of the most difficult and memorable two-shotters he had ever played. On the 14th, things transition slightly inland, while the closing stretch is dramatic, coming back along the rugged cliffs and coast Ardglass is known for. The 18th provides a memorable finish as it heads straight through the heart of the historic fishing village, with the world’s oldest clubhouse waiting just off the green.

Visit Ardglass online at https://www.ardglassgolfclub.com

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Further Reading

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Ardglass – Hidden Gem
Ardglass – Tee Time
Ardglass – Flyover
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