Spotlight: Royal County Down

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Going by what Rory has been telling me, it could possibly be the best course I play this year,” says Sergio Garcia. When one considers the hosts of this year’s majors – Augusta, the Old Course and genuinely exciting modern venues Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits – the course Garcia and Rory McIlroy have been discussing must be something special.

While it’s true McIlroy will have been ‘selling it’ to the Spaniard, given he was trying to lure Garcia to a first Irish Open in 15 years, the sentiment does not flatter Royal County Down.

Garcia will set eyes on one of the world’s finest tracts of linksland when McIlroy’s charity The Rory Foundation hosts the Irish Open in the last week of May. The world No.1’s role has attracted Rickie Fowler and Ernie Els back to the town of Newcastle; the former will (like McIlroy) relive his Walker Cup match there, the latter will reprise a social trip 17 years ago. “I went with my dad and a friend. I remember the course well – it is in my top five links in the world.”

Garcia, Els and McIlroy may know of RCD’s allure, but it has a lower profile among the wider golfing public 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, is one obvious reason. Amateur Championships, British Senior Opens and a Walker Cup have been played here and it is now Golf World’s No.1 course in GB&I. But we were hardly quick to recognise RCD’s superiority; it only reached the summit in 2012 having seen several Open hosts take their turn at the top. To this golfer at least, RCD in the No.1 spot feels absolutely appropriate.

Royal County Down

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 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 walk towards your ball eager to find it sitting in the bottom of the trap 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 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 more pointless than usual. Thins will trundle inexorably off the other side of the green while heavy shots will be shepherded off at 90˚ by the slopes as they lose their pace.

Royal County Down

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 have 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 good score to be made on every hole. It’s just a bad one always feels closer than it is anywhere else in these Isles. This is an exhausting as well as exhilarating experience.Nowhere else in GB&I is it compulsory to concentrate so comprehensively on every shot. There are even tales of Irish squads retreating to the clubhouse on blustery days, so worried was their coach at their increasingly-ragged swings. So the scores produced by world top-10 stars in May will be fascinating, and let us hope conditions are breezy but not extreme. RCD is perfect for matchplay but where you relish keeping a card.

In strong winds, its challenge will be too much for higher handicappers. In a gentle breeze, all levels can play properly, but RCD 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 in this article. 

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 but one proviso. You will 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 hill of rough, bracken, bushes – and the marker post. Your instinct is to help the ball into the air, but all that is required to clear the summit and find a wide 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. 

Royal County Down

Since Colt, changes have amounted to only 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 (see left) 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 will hit in May. It is, actually, a natural pond – and even this out-of-character feature does not notably detract from this masterpiece. 

As the Irish Open will illustrate, this ultimate golf examination is a truly life-enhancing golfing experience.

Exclusive

In his own words, Rory McIlroy tells Golf World of his affection for the Newcastle links.

I was probably about 13 or 14 when I first played RCD. I initially wondered what all the fuss was about – it’s just another links course, after all – but I’ll put that down to my age and inexperience. I thought it was tough but playable, with opportunities to score on quite a few holes. And that’s still true, as long as you hit fairways and the wind isn’t up too much. I’ve matured since then, though, and grown to respect its subtleties and timeless design.

I’d have to say the first few holes along the shore are my favourites. I’m not saying they’re better, only that I love the roar of the sea and the feeling I’m on one of the best links courses in the world. And, of course, the very real challenge that lies ahead at almost every hole. I really do expect the world of golf to be stunned at what a majestic course it is during the Irish Open.  RCD is unique and the surrounding area is outstandingly beautiful. 

The destination as a whole enjoys some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere and it certainly has appeal beyond golf and golfers. I’ve had a desire for some time now to play a greater role – rather than as a player only – in the Irish Open. I expressed an interest to the European Tour that my Foundation could be tied in as host and we agreed to jointly run with the idea. It’s an exciting project and hopefully it’ll be well supported by everybody. I might be the host, but I will absolutely be trying my very hardest to win. It’s about winning the event. I’ve had such mixed results at the Irish Open – perhaps too much expectation on my part or a bit of a dip in form at the wrong time – so I’d really like to count my home event among my wins. Hosting, naturally, will be a very big part of it but once Thursday comes, it’s very much a case of gloves off…

The support of players like Rickie – who like me has a Walker Cup connection with RCD – Ernie, Sergio and so many others is going to make all the difference to the tournament and the Foundation. I’ve been plaguing them all for a while now... I understand that many of the guys will already have commitments elsewhere, but those who don’t have expressed a real interest. It’s going to be a great week in almost every sense. It’s not as if the course is a hard sell, especially as it’s great links preparation for the Open in July. I will also get a chance throughout the week to really put the work of the Rory Foundation (roryfoundation.com) on the agenda. One of the main beneficiaries is The Cancer Fund for Children and its main project Daisy Lodge, a centre for young people with a cancer diagnosis, is located close to Royal County Down. I count myself very fortunate to be able to change lives; it gives me a wonderful chance to have a focus beyond golf and the public eye.

Read much more of Rory’s views on Royal County Down in our ranking of Ireland’s Top 100 Courses within the August issue of Golf World.

A hole with a view

9th Hole

The 9th, 483 yards, par 4 

Yes, a highly-predictable choice as RCD’s highlight. Originally played as two holes before Colt’s amendments, it begins with a seminal drive, your white ball being propelled towards the darkness of the forested mountain. It becomes ever smaller as it clears the hill before disappearing from view to likely elicit a smile on its owner’s face.

Direct your ball within vague range of the marker post and it will plummet onto the notably flat fairway ready for stage two.

In fact, unless you are one of those disconcerted by blind shots, the drive is actually the easier shot. The fairway must be 40 yards wide at some points, so while it is impossible to see from the tee, it is hardly impossible to locate. 

Even if you do find the perfect spot on the short grass, you still need a seriously good iron shot to find the raised green hard to another large mound and in front of the red bricks and turrets that is the swish Slieve Donard Hotel. The mountains once more frame the whole majestic scene, but as ever it is one that can turn nasty in the presence of senseless golf; miss the fairway off the tee (and find yourself with a hanging lie in the rough on the edge of the dunes that line the fairway) and a wedge out
is necessary. That tactic will seem especially astute as you stand over your third, on a flawless, flat fairway and with
a gap wedge in hand, yet still worried about holding the green. To try to do so with the apposite conditions is barmy. So, the 9th is much more than just a pretty picture. With its challenge, its aesthetics and
its enchanting blindness, it encapsulates the essence of Royal County Down in four shots (or maybe six).

Information:

36 Golf Links Road, Newcastle, Co Down.
Telephone: 028 4372 3314
Email: golf@royalcountydown.org.
Green fees: Weekday AM & Sunday PM - £190; Weekday PM - £175. All day - £290.