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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.
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.
I suppose that deep in my soul I knew it was to be respected, feared even, so I wasn’t ready. You don’t rock up to one of the world’s best golf courses in jeans with a 36 handicap! It’s not for hackers. It’s not even for regular golfers if they’re not very good. It’s Royal County Down. Tiger Woods plays this course for pleasure. How many other courses around the word can say that?
It’s also hellish expensive. The kind of expensive that makes non-golfers choke on their tea.
So, it’s only now that I’m (slightly) better that I suddenly discovered a yearning to play it. In many ways the fact that I hadn’t, and that I was from just down the road, and that I was nearby quite frequently, became a source of embarrassment on other courses. “You stay near Royal County Down all the time and haven’t played it?! What the hell is wrong with you?” was the general gist. It was a situation that had to be put right.
And so I played it.
And it is outstanding.
It is without doubt the single most unique golfing experience I’ve ever had. In fact, it was so totally extraordinary that I’ve had to take a good few days to let the experience sink in and percolate a little. I was just too confused coming out to write about it straight away like I do with other courses.
One reason why is that I have an uncanny knack for remembering every shot, on every hole of a course after I’ve played it. I can live the whole thing in my head for a good week or two afterward, and even months later can remember amazing detail of courses. But as I walked away from Royal County Down I could barely remember anything. This may sound worrying. Maybe it was so boring or awful it simply didn’t register! But the truth is the exact opposite. My head was so full of sensory memories I couldn’t process them. It took a while before the mist parted and clarity ensued.
And why? Because Royal County Down is so earth shatteringly different to any course I’ve ever played. Yes, it’s a links, which always feels strange unless you play them regularly. But I have played links courses before, so it wasn’t just that. It’s partly the total immersion borne of playing golf in the midst of such monumental dunes. They tower over you and cut off each hole from the other. It’s like playing golf in a canyon.
It’s also the terror of playing golf on a course that has so many blind drives. I’ve done it before, but never so many. Even the ones that aren’t blind are still imposing.
Then there is the rough, which is wild and barren and full of old gnarly gorse, which was in bloom when I was there.
Then there are the bunkers, deep and ringed by clinging heather and full of the most beautiful, powder fine silvery sand.
Then there is the backdrop of Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. I know the mountain well (I’ve climbed up it several times) but it seemed more alluring, more fascinating from the tee boxes and greens.
And the greens! A few minutes spent on the practice green absolutely terrified me, I have to admit. The first few didn’t go so well, but once I let my intuition take over and started to ignore the sensible side of my brain that said “It can’t possibly be that far out”, I started to sink some. Unlike typical American style greens that are manicured and feel like felt, these are sandy and bare, but my God are they true. And fun.
But most of all it’s the routing. As you wind through the dunes you feel like you’re in Narnia. The fairways pinch and open out. It’s cute and interesting one minute, then majestic and expansive the next. Often within the same hole.
The 13th, often regarded as one of the best golf holes in the world, was so utterly lovely it genuinely warmed my insides. After playing it I stood on the bluff behind as I made my way to the next tee box. Looking down at the little green, nestled among the dunes and the slight dogleg where the fairway is pinched by a dune behind, it made me happy. And I parred that hole! Though admittedly it was after an unexceptional drive, a terrible second shot into the rough / side of a mountain and then a complete fluke of a pitching wedge to 4 feet from the hole.
It’s not terribly long by today’s standards, but it doesn’t need to be. This is about pure golf, about picking your way round the open spaces rather than just blasting it and hoping you’ll end up on the short stuff 315 yards away. This is about judging the wind, knowing how much it’s going to blow your shot around. This is about accepting that not every shot will find the fairway and using your creativity to get out of the hazards. Most of all it’s about enjoying the day on this pretty little corner of the world.
The back nine is famously less imposing than the front, so was I disappointed? Not really. It does lack dunes of the same size, which means you can see around you more, but some might say that is less claustrophobic and you only really notice it on holes 14 – 18. Plus, the design of these holes is perhaps more idiosyncratic than the opening ones, with changes in elevation and water hazards. And I parred the 18th, so clearly that is the best hole in the world, ever.
I was led round the course by one of the senior caddies, whose name I shall withhold just so I don’t embarrass him. Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was because of his company. He did all the usual caddy things like carry my bag and rake bunkers and give me reads on the green, but he also told me where to hit it on blind drives and, most importantly of all, regaled me with stories of the rich and famous he has looped for over the years. Tiger, O’Meara, Davis Love, Nick Price, Vijay Singh. I’ve had caddies before (mainly in Asia) but this was different. It was like playing a round with a mate full of stories and I loved the craic. I was only embarrassed that I was short of cash when I finished to give him a proper tip. Next time…
I haven’t played Ballybunion or Old Head. Nor have I played Turnberry or Bandon Dunes. Nor even Royal Portrush, yet. So I can’t say this is the best golf course in the world. I have many years to explore those other courses and so judgement will have to be postponed, but I can say that Royal County Down is a truly magnificent experience that should be enjoyed. If anyone says otherwise they have no soul. This is to golf what poetry is to the written word. Special.
And the Slieve Donard Hotel is also worth staying in. The spa is amazing. Just stay out of the town of Newcastle. It’s like Blackpool. Only worse.