What we say
Royal County Down is the No.1 in our Golf World Top 100 Courses Great Britain and Ireland, but we were hardly quick to recognise its superiority.
It only reached the summit in 2012 having seen several Open hosts take their turn at the top down the years.
That scenario reflects the fact RCD has a lower profile than its quality merits. The fact it has not hosted an Open – unlike Royal Portrush up the coast – or even an Irish Open for 75 years prior to the 2015 edition, is one obvious reason, even if Amateur Championships, British Senior Opens and a Walker Cup have been played here.
But it has taken the world longer than it ought to conclude Royal County Down is one of the great courses of the world – and by that we mean, it has only a handful of peers, if any at all.
This beguiling links elegantly combines golf’s principal attractions of challenge and beauty. Few others in the world possess that faculty. Others might be as challenging – Carnoustie and Royal Lytham spring to mind – but they lack RCD’s aesthetic appeal.
Others might be as scenic – Turnberry, perhaps – but lack the stringent examination of every aspect of the game. Royal Dornoch is one that perhaps comes closest to fulfilling both criteria, but whereas its exacting nature is centred around the greens, RCD is a test every inch of the round. Every par here is hard fought; none are made fortuitously.
Off the tee, carries of up to 200 yards are sometimes required off even the yellow tees and while the fairways are often wide, the gorse and rough that line them mean waywardness leads to either a hack out at best or, most likely, a reload.
Drive bunkers add to the premium on direction, and their unkempt nature – with overhanging lips of marram, fescue and heather – adds additional penalty. The tufts of rough round their edges are so unappetising to escape from that, unusually, you often walk towards your ball eager to find it sitting in the bottom of the hazard on a carpet of fine sand.
Cruel, domed greens dismiss iron shots lacking conviction, so on many occasions a conservative lay-up is the wise choice when not in prime position.
Mistakes are punished here... and are compounded if penalty is not accepted. Fortune doesn’t often favour the brave at RCD.
This is rarely a place for heroics, with unforgiving surrounds routinely turning modest approaches into damaging ones. Even accomplished chippers and nerveless putters must not expect to scramble to a tidy card here.Rarely do you stand over a straightforward chip while the greens are so slick and contoured that pleas for mis-struck shots to ‘get close’ are even more pointless than usual. Thinned shots will skuttle inexorably off the other side of the green while heavy contact will result in your ball being shepherded off at 90˚ by the slopes as they lose their pace ahead of time.
Those same contours make long putting unfailingly exacting while putts of two feet that are usually brushed in nonchalantly become nervy affairs in the knowledge if you miss the hole you will face a longer one back. You might, it is no exaggeration to suggest, even face a chip from a hollow by the side of the green for your next shot.
And yet, while this unremitting challenge can be evil, it never feels unfair or tricked up. There is a satisfying score to be made on every hole. It’s just a bad one always feels closer than anywhere else in these Isles. It is an exhausting as well as exhilarating experience, and nowhere else in GB&I is it compulsory to concentrate so comprehensively on every shot. There are even tales of Irish international squads retreating to the clubhouse on blustery days, so worried was their coach at swings made ragged by the relentless challenge.
In strong winds, its challenge will likely be too much for higher handicappers. In a gentle breeze, all levels can play properly, but RCD contradicts the suggestion a links needs wind. It does not need to be breezy to test all but the strongest amateurs.
For most of us, a benign evening is just right; still sufficiently testing, but also offering the chance to savour a location and landscape whose majesty is conveyed accurately in the images you see of it.
On the opening trio, Dundrum Bay edges their right side in classic fashion and a better start in Britain and Ireland you will not find. Then turn round for the seminal 4th and the rest of the front nine, with the towering Mountains of Mourne the brooding backdrop. Sand dunes, gorse, bracken, heather and those bearded bunkers decorate fingers of gorgeous seaside turf, each individual masterpiece sitting exquisitely in the wider gallery. It is, without fear of contradiction, a breathtaking arena.
There is one proviso to all this praise. You will likely be immune to RCD’s charms if you dislike blind shots. There are lots of them here and, for some, it is a fatal flaw. Yet, as Tommy Armour noted, a blind hole is only blind once (and who wouldn’t want a second round?) and, more subjectively, when did you misplace your sense of adventure? We even love the small whitewashed stones that sit among the rough and heather atop the hills you must cross. They may be basic, they may unnerve, but there is absolutely no doubt which line you should hit your ball over.
The 11th is a good example. This most remarkable of blind drives is all illusion. All you can see on the tee is a steep, wide intimidating dune of rough, bracken, bushes – and the marker post. Your instinct is to help the ball into the air but, actually, all that is required to clear the summit and find a generous fairway is a solid strike. And consider this; prior to Harry Colt’s work here in the 1920s, there were even more of them!
Colt’s other main contribution to the links of today was creating the all-star 4th and 9th holes. Before his input, most of the work had been done. Scottish teacher George Baillie devised the first nine in 1889, a thirst for golf stimulated by the new rail line to Belfast that led to Newcastle becoming a Victorian resort. Old Tom added a second nine within a year, alterations to which were made by among others James Braid, but most notably by a member, George Combe.
Since Colt, changes have amounted only to Donald Steel’s work on 16. So, now, as then, RCD begins with a par 5 whose quality is in keeping with what follows but without quite the level of difficulty. The fairway is one of the course’s widest and two further shots can fly an island of rough to find a sunken green.
A terrific start is augmented by the 2nd – with a blind drive followed by an obscured approach unless you find the very middle of the fairway – and especially the 3rd, an awesome hole starting on an exposed tee next to the beach and following a narrow, snaking, well-bunkered fairway to a green in front of muscular dunes.
Turning 360˚, you eye the short 4th with mountains behind, an array of bunkers and steep run-offs into devilish hollows to the left, right and back. As is often true here, a good ‘miss’ is short but straight.
Remarkably, the rest of the front nine maintains this standard. All are epic holes; the dog-leg 5th, the sporty two-shot 6th, the classic short 7th, and the beautiful 8th. Then the seminal 9th brings to an end what is generally considered the better half.
Yet the nines offer a super balance, with the inner back nine just as exquisite and equally challenging. The 16th and 18th offer a hint of a good finish… but, of course, as it’s RCD also potential misery. In between is a blind pond in the 17th fairway that contentiously punishes the kind of drives Rory and co hit during the Irish Open. It is, actually, a natural pond – and even this out-of-character feature does not notably detract from this masterpiece.
This ultimate golf examination is a truly life-enhancing golfing experience.
- Costs -
- TG Rating
- Players Rating
- Address 36 Links Road, Newcastle, Co. Down
- Tel 028 4372 3314
- Website https://www.royalcountydown.org/
|Green Fees||£90 to £280|
|Course Length||7,186 yards (6,571 metres)|
- Course does not have: Bar
- Course does not have: Buggy Hire
- Course does not have: Driving Range
- Course does not have: Practice Green
- Course does not have: Pro Shop
- Course does not have: Restaurant
- Course does not have: Trolley Hire
- Course does not have: Dress Code
- Course does not have: Club Hire
- Course does not have: Handicap
A truly brillant links course. The course was in great condition when I played it in march. Make sure you bring your A game for it is a difficult course.