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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.
Without a doubt the best golf experience in the world. The course is absolute perfection with incredibly fast an smooth greens - clearly well-maintained throughout the year - and a great facility and staff. I golfed here in February so it was a bit chilly, however even in the winter the course was in incredible shape. The clubhouse was immaculate, there are great locker rooms and warm showers, and a wonderful bar/dining area; I recommend getting there several hours early to take full advantage of all the course amenities.
Additionally, I recommend having a caddy; the course knowledge they have will take anywhere from 5-8 shots off your scorecard. Besides the blind shots on the course, they can give you great yardage factoring in wind, how hard the ball will bounce, whether you're hitting out of the rough or on the fairway, etc. Paying the extra money for a caddy enhances the experience well beyond the cost.
RCD clearly has many great features. There are some classic links holes and the backdrop of the mountains of Mourne is spectacular. However, I left after my first visit feeling somewhat underwhelmed. This could be because of a number of factors: the high expectations going in, the numerous blind shots that possibly make the course hard to appreciate on a first outing, the strong wind we played in or the weaker finishing holes. It is clearly a very good course but I need to play it at least once more to assess whether it really is in my top 10 in the British Isles.
Royal County Down is superb. The course starts with an easy par 5 and just builds from there. Quite a number of spectacular holes. The par 4's are as good as any anywhere. A few of the par 3's are post cards from heaven. Conditions are immaculate. Greens are superb. Club is a tad put offish but they let us come and play so kudo's to that. This course could be the very best. I only have one rub. The pond on 17 seems artificial...Why? A top 5 in the World.
The last course on our Northern Ireland tour was Royal County Down. The course is consistently rated in the World’s Top 5 which is some achievement and after playing it I can see why.
The front 9 holes is probably the best set of holes I have ever played with particular spotlight on hole 3 a brilliant par 4 through the dunes, a well bunkered fairway and a large green that runs from back to front. The 4th one of the most photographed holes in world golf is a beauty. Teeing off from an elevated tee with the Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop it would be hard pushed to find a more picturesque hole in the UK. The hole itself is brutal though as the player needs to carry a sea of gorse before reaching this deceptively sloping green with a long iron or a wood.
The 7th is a short par 3 with a green that allows only the best of tee shots to rest on its putting surface….any miss judged or miss struck tee shot will be expelled to either a pot bunker or huge run off areas. Hole 9 is another cracker with its split fairway and huge elevation change. Once the fairway has been found an accurate approach is required to find the green set between two large dunes.
The back 9 does not quite meet the consistent excellence of the front side although it is still very good. Hole 13 is a sharp left to right dog leg par 4 set between the dunes…a long straight tee shot is must if you want to see the putting surface otherwise the player will be left a blind approach to another lively green. The 16th is a cracker as well and is the shortest par 4 on RCD. The green can reached in the right conditions but if you leave yourself short sided its game over…two of my group putted off the putting surface.
A few things stood out for me about RCD. Firstly the conditioning was first class without doubt the best I have experienced on a links course. The greens were rapid and smooth…the fairways were better than some clubs greens! The off play areas stood out as well with very well managed rough which was consistent throughout the course…not an easy achievement. The green complexes were brilliant although extremely exacting…most were raised and the run offs gave the player the opportunity to use every facet of their short game.
People mention that RCD has many blind tee shots but this does not deter from its brilliance I feel it enhances it. The whole experience was first class and I cannot wait to return.
Spectacular setting and wonderful, albeit challenging, golf. The views are amazing as are most of the holes. The 17th is a head scratcher that just does not seem to fit, but this is a very minor criticism of one of the best courses in the world.
Beautiful but very difficult, stunning views worth the trip!
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.