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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.
I have played Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Shinnecock, Merion, Winged Foot and some more, and all I can say is that RCD comes very close if not better even than Pine Valley. I believe it is a greater course than Cypress and Shinnecock, not only because of design and variety, but also due to the great scenery that surrounds the course with the Ocean, the Mourne Mountains and the dunes plus colored gorse that makes it look totally natural.
We arrived early on the course as the Proshop is a compulsive buy attraction not only for shirts or sweaters but also every kind of souvenir you can imagine as ball markers, glasses, paintings, club covers, logo balls, etc. Many of my group spent quite a bit and will exhibit their sweaters very proudly back in Argentina. The day was not perfect and sunny, but not bad at all as we only had rain on one hole (my 15th!), just wind and not the strong wind a course by the Ocean can have.
The 4 starting holes are as great as you can imagine, regarding #1 is a gentle par 5 where a good driver can give you a birdie chance but the second shot needs to be very accurate. Then 2 and 3 are 2 great par 4s with a very challenging tee shot but as we played downwind a 3 wood was enough. Arriving to 4th hole you find the first monster, 215yds into the wind with danger all around and all I can say is bogey was not bad! Tee shot on 5th is tough to find but once you get on the fairway most of the job is done. 7th the short par 3 is easy, but a shanked PW led me to a very disappointing double! Last 2 par 4s on the front 9 are great where the last one is maybe the nicest hole in Ireland and maybe one of the toughest. When you get over the hill, a picture there is mandatory!
Back 9 went downwind from the great par 3 10th to par 3 14th (another shank and another double!), being 13th another great hole where second blind shot is a great challenge. Last 4 holes into the wind were tough but I managed pretty well, being here finding fairway makes the difference between a par and really big numbers. In 15th, the only hole where we had some rain, I have a great story: while standing there, one of the excellent caddies said “This should be the 1 Stroke Index Hole”. 454yds into the wind was a great challenge and my low cut driver went to the fairway to 215yds to the pin. Then I hit another low cut hybrid with such a good luck that the ball went into the hole and EAGLE!! Finding the cup from that distance is 100% luck!
After finishing the round the walk discovering the Club House is mandatory, there are lots of memories and pictures including one of Rory and Gmac playing on their own carrying their bags just days after the 2010 US Open at Pebble showing great amateur spirit by both of them. A great round and better experience, a must play course, a demanding challenge and the certainty that this course should share number #1 with Pine Valley. Many people will disagree and I can stand with that, but after having walked both of them my feeling is that none of them should be #2, they are timeless and it will be a very tough job to build a course better than these too.
I am a very thankful guy about the luck and honor of having been here and my promise is I WILL BE BACK!!! There should be a seven balls rating and be called UNBEATABLE where RCD and Pine Valley should stand.