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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.
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
The thing about RCD for me is that I'd arrived, been overawed by finally playing the majestic links and then all too quickly it was over; and I have to be reminded of that day when I see the images occasionally pop-up on my personal photos screensaver. So I have to go back at some stage. Just like The Old Course, I've played there and grinned like a kid the entire day, and at some stage I know I have to go back. Maybe that is what the final stages of retirement will be: a return to all those I've spent my life dreaming about. I really hope I live a long and healthy life!
Anyway, enough twaddle (but RCD makes you do that!): a genuinely spectacular course; a cathederal to the game if you will. I didn't care about any weaker holes at the finish, I just loved the blind shots, the dunes, the ground game, even the sublimely ridiculous "how am I going to hit my next shot" moments. This is golf. And every time an image from my day at RCD flashes up briefly on my laptop screen, I'll have that same longing smile.
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!