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Fancy following in the golfing footsteps of Rory McIlroy? Chris Stratford tees off at Royal County Down.

A PHOTOGRAPH on a wall in the clubhouse at Royal County Down encapsulates both the allure of the course and the game of golf itself.

It shows Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, European Ryder Cup heroes and both former US Open champions, striding down the first fairway for an impromptu round in their native Northern Ireland.

These multi-millionaires eschewed the use of caddies and, bags slung across their backs, headed off on a sun-kissed day to enjoy a round of golf, and one another’s company, on a course regularly listed among the top 10 in the world.

Royal County Down is the jewel in the crown of the Heart of Down tournament, an annual event open to all golfers – not just major title winners, you will be glad to hear – whose essence is the same as that which drew Messrs McIlroy and McDowell to the course on that day.

Great craic while playing great courses in great company – plus the Heart of Down championship offers prizes, too, both daily and for overall winners across its three days. Two of three courses are used on a rota basis – Ardglass, Spa and Downpatrick – with Royal County Down at its apex each year.

Competitors come from all parts of the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Continental Europe and from the other side of the Atlantic. There are many such tournaments for the golfer with a “have clubs, will travel” attitude, but it is Royal County Down which elevates the Heart of Down competition to a plateau above so many.

Old Tom Morris was responsible for the course’s original layout among the heather-topped dunes – although he handed nature 90 per cent of the credit, including, one assumes, for providing the backdrop of the breathtaking Mourne Mountains. Five-times Open champion Tom Watson has described it as “a tremendous test of golf and the outward half especially is as fine a nine holes as I have ever played”.

Small wonder, then, that Heart of 
Down competitors fight hard to be among the top 148 who qualify from the first two days for a round over these links. The remainder are given the opportunity to play Royal County Down’s Annsley Links.

All of this is not to say that Ardglass, Spa and Downpatrick are mere warm-up acts. Ardglass, like Royal County Down, provides a superb links challenge, hugging close to a rugged coastline whose natural savagery is visually captivating while its holes assault the golfing senses. The layout here places a variety of demands on the golfer, especially the eight holes on which the coastline of the Irish Sea comes into play where accurate tee shots are very much a must. Moving inland to Ballynahinch, Spa has an altogether different visual appeal and golfing aspect, being a par-72 parkland course measuring just over 6,500 yards from the white tees.

As with Ardglass, though, the A-game is required when driving to offer up the best chances of a decent score, although its tree-lined fairways are not so tight as to lay too much stress on the number of golf balls you have placed in your bag.

The 17th tee, it is said, affords panoramic views of the Mourne Mountains, although on the day of my visit severely bad weather drove me to the sanctuary of the clubhouse before reaching this stage, where a warm welcome was offered in every sense of the expression. Next year, Spa will step down temporarily from the Heart of Down roster to be replaced by Downpatrick.

Royal County Down’s standing in the golfing world is perfectly complemented by the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, which borders it and offers golfers the opportunity of four-star accommodation just a couple of hundred yards from the clubhouse. Built by the Belfast and County Down Railway as a luxury end-of-line holiday destination, it celebrated its centenary in 1997.

More recent refurbishments have ensured that its Victorian grandeur – including a Drawing Room, Grand Coffee Room, Reading Room and Writing Room, plus a marble chandelier-lit entrance hall with roaring turf fires – has been maintained while providing all the comforts a modern-day traveller expects.

Its two-floor spa, including a fitness suite, offers treatments for golfer and non-golfer alike, and a place for working off possible excesses indulged in the Percy French Inn, Slieve Donard’s bistro-style pub, its Lighthouse Lounge or sumptuous Oak Restaurant.

Famous golfing guests have included Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. Even though my golf for the week came nowhere close to their standards – indeed it was more a case of causing mirth in the vein of another of Slieve Donard’s past guests, Charlie Chaplin – I still finished the week with a big smile on my face. On these courses, in this setting, how could I not?

Useful websites

For more details about playing at Royal County Down, Ardglass Spa and Downpatrick visit www.posnettgolf.co.uk/heartofdown; www.royalcountdown.org; www.ardglassgolfclub.com; www.spagolfclub.net

Hastings Hotels has a number of properties in Northern Ireland and for full details go to www.hastingshotel.com

For general information about visiting Northern Ireland go to www.discovernorthernireland.com or www.facebook.com/discovernorthernireland

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