Royal County Down

The staging of the Irish Open at this Northern Irish links will show the world why it has few, if any, peers, says Golf World.

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’sNo.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.

The marker post is often required on the majestic 3rd green at Royal County Down, while the par-4 3rd is to the right.

The marker post is often required on the majestic 3rd green at Royal County Down, while the par-4 3rd is to the right.

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.

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.

The par-4 16th at Royal County Down looks simple enough, but clever bunkering will punish anyone who gets too greedy from the tee.

The par-4 16th at Royal County Down looks simple enough, but clever bunkering will punish anyone who gets too greedy from the tee.

A true test for all levels
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. 

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 illustrated, this ultimate golf examination is a truly life-enhancing golfing experience.

Royal County Down’s immense beauty and danger are easy to see from high.

Royal County Down’s immense beauty and danger are easy to see from high.

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Nick Wright