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
Date: April 05, 2018