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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.
The Championship course at Royal County Down is one of those courses that is so good that I sometimes lose track of my turn to play as I get caught staring at its brilliance. It is truly one of the greatest golf courses in the world. This is one of a small number of golf courses that one would choose to play if given just one course to play the rest of their life. The views are stunning, the routing is terrific, the terrain changes are varied, the bunkering is superb, the course has natural defenses, and the greens are smooth and beautifully placed.
Since 1960, many “new” courses have cracked the top 100 list whether it is the world list, a continent, a region or a country’s top 100 list. These courses were designed by Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, David MacKlay Kidd, Michael DeVries, Greg Norman, Dana Fry and Michael Hurzdan, Pat Ruddy, Kyle Philips, etc., and have led to a third generation of the Golden Age of Architecture. There are arguably fifty of these golf courses that have entered into the top 100 lists such as Friars Head and Sand Hills, (Coore/Crenshaw), Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, Tara Iti, Cape Kidnappers (Doak), Ellerston (Norman), Ohoopee Match and Castle Stuart (Hanse). Contributing to the growth of the game are the development of additional “destination” resorts at Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, Barnbougle Dunes, Cabot, etc. with more on the way.
Many of these “recent” architects got their inspiration from the great classic links courses in the UK/Ireland. It has been great for golf that many of these newer courses, and courses yet to come, are being built with the attributes of the finest links courses in the world – a view of the ocean, rugged and rolling terrain, heroic carries, wider fairways, wild edged and raised bunkers, run offs, undulating greens, sandy soil, dunes, etc. These architects studied courses including the Old course at St. Andrews, Prestwick, Royal Birkdale, Rye Old, Ballybunion Old, etc., as well as the Championship course at Royal County Down.
There might not be a better template for these architects than Royal County Down which took a “village” of architects to perfect it.
More importantly, even though these 50 new courses are terrific, they have yet to surpass the marvelousness of the championship course at Royal County Down. Maybe it is because they have not yet found land quite as good. It would certainly be difficult to find a site for a golf course that has such a special location. Royal County Down has a view of the sea (Bay of Dundrum), with an added view of a town (Newcastle) and its spires, and finally a breathtaking mountain chain (Mountains of Mourne) on the far side of the town seemingly looming over it. The golf course has high dunes, elevated tees, downhill shots to a green, uphill shots to a green, uphill tee shots, brilliant straight holes, blind shots, and the correct bends to its doglegs. I believe Royal County Down will remain within the top ten golf courses in the world even if in the next century another hundred great golf courses have been built.
On my notes my one critique is that the final three holes are relatively weak compared to the rest of the golf course. That is about it. They are perfectly fine holes, but do not match the fifteen before them. But this comment is like saying one won the lottery fifteen times in a row and three more wins just seemed too many.
I agree with many that the small pond on seventeen does not belong on a links course, and perhaps it is due to an environmental reason. Once I played the hole several times it no longer became an issue as the ground there is low and there is room to miss the pond with one’s drive.
What I notice as different from the minimalists is at Royal County Down there are several narrow driving corridors, particularly on the front nine. I think tighter driving lines a very good attribute to this golf course given the dunes and other natural features on these holes.
I also enjoyed the numerous blind shots and did not find them to be frustrating.
As for the greens, they are not as undulating as some other courses, particularly the newer ones, but they are perfectly placed, well defended and roll very smooth. You should not three putt too often but making a one putt is not a given.
It is a difficult golf course particularly in bad weather or higher winds. Yet if one plays each hole for itself because each hole does not feel like the previous hole, then one can enjoy the challenge no matter what one scored on the previous hole. I do very much like that the holes never seem to be repetitive.
While in my reviews I normally go through every hole, I see no reason to do that for the championship course at Royal County Down as I would be using the same adjectives over and over: wonderful, beautiful, challenging, spectacular, strategic, magnificent, special, decision-making, difficult, etc.,
Other than perhaps the 15-17 at Cypress Point, there are no better views in golf than from the tee on four and the crest of the hill on nine at Royal County Down. A few places come close such at Tara Iti and several holes at Pebble Beach, but in my mind only Cypress Point comes close.
The championship course at Royal County Down is a must play for any golfer. You will be challenged on nearly every shot, but you will awed by the brilliance of the layout, the design of it, and its setting. It is very close to perfection.
I love golf in Ireland, and it does not get any better than Royal County Down! Most rate County Down as amongst the ten best courses in the world, and some as the best of all.
Royal County Down has its detractors who are not fond of the multitude of blind shots as the course winds through the most magnificent of dunesland imaginable. I do not subscribe to that point of view, and believe County Down to be one of the very top courses and golf experiences to be found anywhere.
The first 3 holes play away from the Mountains of Mourne along the coastal dune with the sea on your right. Each of these holes are top class, and they set the scene for one of the best nines in golf.
The new Colt par 3 fourth heads back toward the start over a sea of gorse - an extremely intimidating shot if ever there was one, but then around every turn, and over every dune, each new hole brings a new adventure that you will want to repeat. And then you tee off on the 9th hole over the biggest dune you could ever dream up, and as you crest the top of the dune the magnificent 9th hole with Slieve
Donard and the mountains of Mourne as a backdrop is unveiled. This is an experience you will never forget!!
It is the last 3 holes that are often critiscised at County Down as not quite up to the standard of the rest of the course. These are not bad holes, but have neither the appeal, nor strategic merit of their predecessors. They have been reworked a number of times, but just don't have the character to match the rest of the course.
Nevertheless, Royal County Down is a brilliant golf course, and a course every serious golfer should travel to experience.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Been lucky enough to play RCD twice in the last three years and each time the weather has been spectacular and allowed play in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt under brilliant sunshine. The addition of a range has been a pleasant surprise since my last visit. Little to add to the other reviews as the challenge of this course remains strong but it is fair if you keep the ball straight and have the proper line. If not the views make up for any frustrations. Still feel like the last few holes are not as strong as others but overall I would return here in a heartbeat.
Everyone knows that Royal County Down is one of the absolute best on earth, and it's hard to keep your expectations low, however right from the first hole you know you're in for something special. It's a great combination of strategic and penal golf design, and it was truly special. Each hole was unique and interesting. The Fourth and Ninth get loads of notoriety (and rightfully so), but there are so many other world class holes there. The back nine gets some slack for not being as good as the front, but frankly I don't think any group of nine holes on earth would be able to compare to the front nine at RCD. I loved every single minute on that course, through the downpours and harsh winds, and I immediately wanted to play again.
As you already have the idea from other reviews, this place REALLY does deserve its lofty position in the uk rankings. Some marvellous holes, marvellous challenges, marvellous views and spectacular scenery and changes of conditions !!
Cannot fault in any way. Hope to return some day.
On my visit in June 2018, during one of the most prolonged hot and dry spells of my lifetime, they should perhaps have renamed it Royal County Brown. It was firm, fast running and just how nature intended the course to be played.
Driving the ball well is imperative at Royal County Down. You must be committed from the tee because the blind nature of many drives creates an uncertainty in the golfers mind but at the same time builds excitement as you head off to find your ball.
Many of the green complexes, all of which are superb, are raised and will deflect a slightly off-centre approach into a closely mown swale (or sometimes worse!) to give the golfer an endless supply of fun, but treacherously difficult, recovery shots. Several of the approaches, not all of which favour the ground game, can be partially blind and the slightly domed nature of several greens can divert the not-quite-good-enough shot into trouble which isn’t always apparent and doesn’t present itself until you walk closer to the green.
The putting surfaces themselves are only mildly undulating and once you are on the green you know your hardest work is done.
The famed 4th and 9th holes on the front-nine are indeed exceptional but in truth the course doesn’t miss a beat on the outward loop. The inviting par-five opener, played through a shallow valley, is the perfect starter with a delightful semi-dell green at its end whilst the catalogue of superb par-fours are as strong as anywhere and the short 7th – with an unsighted and devilish green - is the perfect foil for the demands of the 4th where the raised and slightly angled green that Colt built is hypnotically good.
The back nine doesn’t quite deliver to the same exceptionally high standard but the 13th, 15th and driveable 16th are among my favourites on what is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring links.
In terms of negatives the course doesn’t give you much to be critical about. The much maligned pond, albeit at a natural low-point, on the 17th hole is certainly out of character and I’m sure The Club would remove it if they could, however, one of the caddy’s explained to me that it was home to some rare protected newt so it could not be touched – how true that is I don’t know!
There are perhaps a couple of blind drives too many but I can live with that and is what adds to the mystery of RCD and the uncertainty that it causes as we take aim at one of the white directional rocks placed into the dunes and hope our swing holds true. The hairy-edges, that border many of the bunkers, also have their detractors and I am one; I had a couple of near misses from what would have been an unplayable lie. The ‘bearded’ bunkers are world famous and feature overhanging lips of marram, red fescue and heather but they dish up a penalty that often doesn’t fit the crime.
Not wanting to end on a negative note I simply want to re-iterate how brilliant the course is. It contains elements of many of my other favourite courses. It has a little bit of Cruden Bay, a touch of Royal Aberdeen and a hint of Dornoch. But it all combines wonderfully to create its own image.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
I was lucky enough to play RCD or as the members like to call it “Newcastle” in the beautiful summer time with a friend who is a member at the club. What a golf course it is everything about it makes me love playing for these very moments. Playing golf with the mountains in the background and right next to the sea is the best way to play but be warned as it is a tough golf course and getting a caddy is highly recommended to help you get round and to make the experience all the more enjoyable. My caddy was extremely friendly and knowledgable and i probably should have listened to him to use a wedge out of the harsh fairway bunkers instead of a 7 iron! If you are ever given the opportunity to play this golf course then take it as it is a fantastic experience and will not disappoint you!
As there is no 7 ball rating, can all my previous rankings be moved down by one ball please?
Everything about RCD is brilliant, but of course we go for the course. The front nine is just great hole after great hole and then you hit 8 and 9 which are truely awesome. On 9 you think the hard work is done after the tee shot, but the approach is equally as hard.
The back nine is not as good as the front (the front nine is the best 9 holes of golf I have played) but there is still some great shots/holes. The tee shot on 11 is blind (more room left than right, so go left if not straight). The 13th is one of my favourites on the course and after an ok 14th you arrive at 15. I stood on the tee at 15 and thought at last I can really open my shoulders. It is a long uphill par 4 that is nice and wide and in reality, from the tee, not the hardest hole on the course. Having hit a nice shot up the middle I walked to the top of the hill and the split personality of the hole was revealed. The approach is long and there is trouble everywhere, be warned. The last 3 holes are a strong but not an amazing finish but overall this is just a great, great course and I walked off 18 and wanted to go round again straight away.
Best course I have played and that was great as it was number 400 for me.
Won’t forget it.
Augusta? Royal County Down? Augusta? Royal County Down? Augusta? Royal County Down? Decisions, decisions. RCD is nothing less than FANTASTIC!
#1 course in the world