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George L. Baillie, Old Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Harry Colt
There is always lively discussion about which golf course is better than another, but none is more passionate than the debate over the relative merits of Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. If you haven’t played either of them yet, we recommend a golf trip to Northern Ireland; you certainly won’t be disappointed by Royal County Down.
Royal County Down Golf Club is at Newcastle, a little holiday town nestling at the feet of the majestic Mountains of Mourne. It’s an exhilarating location for a classic links golf course where the Bay of Dundrum sweeps out into the Irish Sea and where the mighty peak of Slieve Donard (3,000 ft.) casts its shadow over the town.
A Scottish schoolteacher called George L. Baillie, who was on a personal mission to establish golf courses, originally laid out the first nine holes at Newcastle and they opened for play in 1889. Later that year, Old Tom Morris was paid the modest sum of four guineas to extend the course and 18 holes were ready for play in 1890. Harry Vardon modified the course in 1908, the same year King Edward VII bestowed royal patronage on the club.
Royal County Down maintains tradition; the “Hat Man” still mixes the pairings for the Saturday matches (foursomes in the winter and four-balls in the summer) as he did around 100 years earlier.
Bernard Darwin commented that the greens “lie, moreover, in a good many instances, in those pleasing little hollows which are the most adroit flatterers in the whole world of golf.” In 1926 Harry Colt was commissioned to make further alterations to the course which included addressing the gathering nature of the original greens and reducing the number of blind drives.
Old Tom however deserves most credit for the layout and he was presented with an idyllic piece of ground on which to design a golf course. The sand dunes are rugged but beautifully clad in purple heather and yellow gorse, the fairways are naturally undulating, shaped by the hands of time. The greens are small and full of wicked borrows.
Measuring nearly 7,200 yards from the back tees, Royal County Down is a brute. It’s a mystery that this fantastic course, with one of the finest outward nine holes in golf, has never hosted an Open. Factor in the ever-changing wind and you have as stern a test as any Open Championship venue.
The 4th and 9th holes are both universally admired. The 4th must be one of the most scenic long par threes in golf described as follows by one commentator: “Innumerable gorse bushes, ten bunkers, three mountain peaks, and one spire equal the most magnificent view in British golf”. The 9th, a long par four, is perhaps one of the world’s most photographed holes, the line from the elevated tee is directly at the Slieve Donard peak and the sweeping fairway lies eighty feet below—magnifique.
Sure, the course has a level of eccentricity; there are still a number of blind drives and some of the bunkers are fringed with coarse grass, which gathers the ball with alarming regularity, but this simply adds to the charm. If a measure of a great golf course is the number of holes that you can remember, then Royal County Down is one of the greatest courses of them all.
Architect Martin Ebert kindly supplied the following short update at the start of 2017:
Already in play are changes to the 17th on the Championship course made by Mackenzie & Ebert. We created a practice ground to the right of the hole but have built a line of screening rough-covered dunes along the right of the hole.
Much of the praise associated with Royal County Down is its splendid location and the surrounding scenery encountered. The Mountains of Mourne and the close proximity of Dundrum Bay is truly an eyeful of epic proportions. You also have the wonderfully updated Slieve Donard Hotel which has certainly been enhanced on a number of levels.
The outward half of the course is clearly first rate on all accounts. From the opening tee shot -- the combination of holes is truly stellar. You also have the ever present fear of the many bunkers that are simply waiting for the slightest of hiccups from golfers trying to negotiate their way around without being punished severely for the slightest mishap.
Driving the ball with total conviction is an absolute must when playing County Down. The blind shots force players to be totally committed to the line of attack they choose. Any half-hearted effort will face a major pushback from the course. Far too many courses today allow for loose and indifferent play from the tee. Royal County Down lays the gauntlet down on any such half-hearted plays.
The long par-4 3rd and the vicious par-3 4th are two of the most demanding holes in all of Irish golf. No quarter is provided to anything but the most highly executed of plays. The concluding two par-4's -- at the 8th and 9th -- are also brilliant. The drive over the hill at the 9th is one any player will long remember. Walking over the crest of the hill and eagerly looking for one's ball can be both a relief -- for those finding the fairway -- and terrifying -- for those failing to do so. Seeing the top of the Slieve Donard in the background with the Mountains of Mourne framed in the distance is one of the most stunning vistas in all of golf.
After such a rousing start -- you would think the momentum generated would continue with the inward half of holes. The answer is a mixed bag and far too many people who play the course fail to see how the concluding half just doesn't match what the opening half clearly provides. I am a big fan of the par-4 13th and 15th holes. They are architecturally significant and demanding to the max. But, I cannot say the same for the balance of the other holes on the back nine. It is not that they are poor in any demonstrative way -- although the pond at the 17th has always left me scratching my head in bewilderment of being totally miscast.
The par-5 finisher is also puzzling given the plethora of bunkers that have been scattered about. The architecture for such a closing hole rests on a clear overkill calculation.
My other issue with County Down is that the greens are sufficient in what they provide but are far from creative in terms of the challenges provided. In many ways, County Down's putting surfaces are akin to what one faces at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long island. The test at the New York course is akin to what one faces at Newcastle. Getting to the green is the central plot line at County Down. Of course, if County Down had putting surfaces at the level of an Oakmont or Oakland Hills / South then possibly no one would ever finish a round!
The bunkers at County Down accentuate the penal code dimension. There is often little in terms of proportionality to the shot one plays or fails to play. If you happen to find the wispy eyebrows that line the perimeter of many of the bunkers you may be in for a very long day indeed. Paying them proper heed is a must or you will certainly, at some point, pay a steep price.
When the wind blows hard -- which it often does -- the inherent demands only magnify themselves. For amateur golfers -- even those with low handicaps -- the test can be overwhelming because seldom is the half-hearted play allowed to escape without some form of discipline involved.
County Down is clearly at the peak of the golf courses one can play in the world and the intersection of so many elements is clearly present. However, I only wish the back nine -- and especially the closing trio -- were up to the task - in cementing the experience.
by M. James Ward
A very balanced review, but since your judgement of the back 9 as a relative let down chimes with many golfers' I think that this calls into question the standard 6 ball review.
If the 9's were reversed RCD would probably be an automatic 6 ball course, similar to Royal Aberdeen, but in relation to the latter RCD's back 9 disappoints with its pond and ugly countryside views and didn't leave me feeling it was "all that".
Just back in the States after my third trip to County Down and the course once again never ceases to amaze..the front nine is all world..much like the front nine at Royal Aberdeen..beside 4 and 9..the 3rd, 5th and 8th are all world..the experience first rate and the Club welcome beyond compare...
Having said that, the back none still needs work..the last three holes just done't measure up and continue to disappoint.. the "new" 16 is myc improved from my first paying of it in 2003 but still does not fit into th3e course like the old hole..the fairway needs more deifintnion and the bunkering needs to have the look and feel of the front none bunkers..The 17th is a poor hole and remains so.. the fairway is much to wide and straight, the pond on a links course is horrible.. the green site is ok and will some creative work,,this could be turned into a decent hole.. The 18th on the other hand suffers from the opposite.. a , narrow bowling alley fairway , uninspiring aim line and the adjacency to the second course at RCD take away significantly from the hole,,,again,,a fix is possible but the club has yet to find the right formula...Fix those three holes and RCD can rival Shinnecock any day of the week!
Having said that, even with these infirmities, RCD is a wonderful golf course not to be missed by those who truly love golf and the magical places and topography upon which it is played
We played the course twice in two days. The course is in excellent condition and of course has some wonderful holes - the 4th and 9th are the usual favourites and I would add the 13th and the 3rd. The course is difficult with a lot of long irons to greens with slopes and of course the rough is tough. I don't rank this as excellent because of blind tee shots - which make determining when to play difficult and also make if harder to find a ball. Also the bunkers are, in my opinion, too penal. A number of times our group had unplayable lies - with no way to make a swing even at the ball. We agree they are obstacles but we felt the ball should fall to a playable position to at least allow a chance to get it out. However all in all an enjoyable experience.
Royal County Down was our third stop on our NI tour after Castlerock and Royal Portrush before. We stayed in the hotel bordering the property and it is interesting to note that within the hotel, there are signs for the golf club and clubhouse. When asked whether we needed to walk or drive to the club, the lady told us to walk out the back and then follow a path through an almost secret bush with “Royal County Down” on a little gate. This feeling of secrecy really added to the mystique and atmosphere of the whole place.
Again, like Royal Portrush, the aura of this place was incredible. We again felt like the club was there for us and only us. We went in and signed the Visitors book and when we had changed our shoes, our bags had already been taken by our caddies to the putting green. I have never had a caddie before and it was a bit weird having them do literally everything for me, from raking the bunkers to fetching my divots, to even repairing my own pitch-marks but can safely say that they helped contribute to the best golf experience I have ever had.
We played end of November on a day that the locals said was good for summer, one club wind and no rain. The greens were in amazing condition and were incredibly quick. I know each to their own and all that but these were faster than some of the Surrey sandbelt courses in Summer. Not overly undulating but very very subtle. I cant thank my caddie enough for seeing where I had lined my putt up and then warned me to allow a bit for the break to the ocean.
Everyone complains about the blind shots but genuinely they aren’t an issue at all and in my opinion they are what make the course. The feeling of seeing your ball soar against the dark mountains in the background over the hill and to hear your caddie say “great shot” is something I haven’t felt before. The same goes for when you climb to the top of the hill and see the approach all laid out in front of you down below.
The dunes are big enough that when in the flat of the fairway with a dune either side of you, you are unable to hear the wind or the sea or even any other groups on the adjoining holes. You really get this sense that you are completely alone with the golf course.
The rough had been trimmed thankfully but still, if you stray too far off line then you are in lost ball territory and the bunkers, while I was under the impression that there weren’t too many, the few that I were in were very small and penal. Not steep necessarily but they feel very steep because you have to lift the ball high to get through the rough that lines the greenside side of the bunker lip.
For me, the front 9 is undoubtedly the best 9 holes anywhere I have played and the back 9 is definitely in my top 5. This isnt ‘motorway golf’, there are straight holes that are seemingly doglegs because being on one side of fairway leaves you with a very difficult to a partially blind green and there is a fantastic short par 3 7th which is similar to the Postage Stamp at Troon, anywhere on one half og the green and the slope takes the ball off into a deep bunker.
Not too sure what else I can say apart from the fact that I will be back as soon as I can to play again and take it all in. The first time experience is almost too overwhelming, you don’t take it all in!
There are few scenes as breathtaking as walking up the ninth hole at Royal County Down. County Down is old school links golf and the course has a couple of blind tee shots where you have to aim over a colored stone placed on a hill. Personally, I like blind shots and for those who think they have no place in golf, I would comment that many courses on the top 100 rankings have blind shots - including some of the best: Pine Valley, The National Golf Links, Lahinch, Cruden Bay and Muirfield. The 4th hole, a par 3 is one of the most intimidating tee shots you will ever face on a one shot hole. You must hit the ball about 200 yards over a sea of dense gorse. Being short is not an option, since gorse bushes have prickly branches that make retrieving a ball impossible. County Down is one of the most difficult courses in the world, particularly if the wind is blowing, but the difficulty is matched by the idyllic setting.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
The greatest course that I have played. Incredible holes, beautiful setting, perfect conditioning, it’s just sublime. The front 9 are the best collection of holes i’ve ever played. They hug the coastline ducking and diving over the dunes, sometimes, blind sometimes laid out in front of you but never simple.
I loved how natural the whole course felt, very little earth could be moved way back then and the course is all the better for it. It’s also brutally difficult - I left with a scorecard you wouldn’t boast about but memories that will last a lifetime.
Un parcours exceptionnel qu'il faut jouer une fois dans sa vie. Mais ne vous attendez pas à jouer votre Hdc. C'est beaucoup trop dur pour les golfeurs amateurs, mais quel plaisir on prend à se faire "démolir" par ce parcours. Et avec du vent, je ne vous en parle même pas.
Some will think me guilty of golf sacrilege or insanity for not rating Newcastle a 6 ball course (though I do note I’m not completely alone in this regard). Other dissenters often cite the difficulty of the course as their primary reason for not rating it so highly. While playability here is a factor, it’s not my primary lament.
Let’s start with the strategic challenge. There are very few tee shots where the golfer stands on the tee and decides how much risk (s)he wants to take on for a rewarding next shot. Instead, the line of charm is one choice only—the one that will keep the ball out of trouble.
And how about the plethora of blind shots? I know all the clichés about them only being blind once, and, yes, with a caddie the golfer will always know the proper line. But nobody will argue that a blind shot is preferable to one with the target in view The other great courses of the world do not have nearly the same number of blind shots as here—eight by my count.
The running approach—one of the finest features of links golf—is taken out of play on fully a third of the approach shots. And there’s nothing special about the greens. There are a few with interesting contours, most notably the 13th, but for the most part they are flat and less than world-class.
Royal County Down is indeed a beautiful piece of land in an equally beautiful setting. In that regard it reminds me of Pebble Beach: a gorgeous canvas on which has been painted a less gorgeous golf course. Like Pebble, Newcastle has some wonderful holes, but also too many ordinary ones. I can think of dozens of courses I’d rather play. I struggled to figure out why it should even be rated as high as five balls, but in the end I relented.
You shouldn't have relented, it's your opinion. We're all entitled to our opinions. The first 9 holes are wonderful, the last 3 or 4 awful. I think your review provides good balance to the praise heaped on the course elsewhere..
I should respond to your response to my "laughable comment".
We played in the Spring off slightly forward tees (I'm fairly sure I didn't drive the ball 260 yards, sadly) and like to play heads up golf without recourse to a stroke saver.
Most links courses give you enough clues on blind shots of where to hit the ball, and the pond is exactly where you want to hit the ball.
I'm not a purist, but (as with the Eden at St Andrews) I do believe that ponds have no business being in the line of play on a Links course.