Royal County Down: Offers everything, delivers more

Northern Irish gem leaves you battered, bruised but most of all beaming

Charlie Lemay's picture
Wed, 18 Mar 2015

Royal County Down: Offers everything, delivers more

When nature and man work in harmony, it often has spectacular consequences. Royal County Down would not be the national treasure we see today were it not for the effortless dovetailing of dune and digger. 

Often ranked in the top-five courses in the world, Royal County Down is renowned and revered in equal measure. "The best prepared links I have ever seen," said Peter Alliss, the "Voice of Golf", while World Golf Hall of Famer Bernard Darwin said it offers "the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams".

Situated in the small holiday town of Newcastle, an hour south of Belfast, the club was established by Scottish schoolteacher George L Baillie  in 1889, with the aim of resurrecting the ailing County Down Railway. A Mr Patterson was employed to create a nine-hole course, and after a meeting in the railway station that acted as a clubhouse (now sadly a Lidl) the members played their first 18-hole competition.

In the summer of 1889, Old Tom Morris was paid no more than £4 to extend the layout to 18 holes. There were two more phases of evolution – between 1902 and 1908 and then in 1926 – but from that point until the present day the course was relatively untouched apart from minor work to lengthen the layout, a testament to the original design.

The Championship Course boasts some of the most heavenly views imaginable and it is matched by a beguiling layout that uses the land spectacularly.

Standing on the first tee, views of the Mourne Mountains and Irish Sea serve as an aperitif for what is to come. It will also be the first taste many will get of the famed wind at Royal County Down, and players will need to adapt quickly to the new conditions. Our fourball peered down a misty fairway while battered by 60 mph winds and sideways rain that forced us to walk backwards down fairways at times. I'm sure this is nothing unusual.  

The opening nine is a purists' links-style layout that Tom Watson says is “as fine a nine holes as I have ever played”. It hugs the coastline so closely you can taste the salt, and you will be hard-pressed to find a stretch boasting superior views or a more beautifully crafted design. The ninth hole is one of the most photographed in golf and its tight tee shot and numerous fairway bunkers will give your group something to talk about as you make the turn. The back nine is similarly beautiful but works its way inland, slightly quieting the elements but not dampening the challenge.

Throughout the round you will be faced with a variety of blind tee shots and almost every hole bends to the right or left, necessitating a mastery of ball striking. While fairways are narrow at times, landing areas are often swollen and the firm ground offers generous roll. You will encounter numerous elevated tees which offer superb vantage points, but be careful as on windy days these areas are prime for runaway trolleys. 

The greens are relatively large and are true and fast. If you're a "jabber" rather than a "roller" you will be carding more three-putts than two-putts, but they are an enjoyable test. If putting is tough, chipping is even harder as the undulating greens require both pin-point accuracy and perfect distance control. 

At 7,186 yards from the tips, players may be daunted by the length, but the fairways and greens are cut short and firm so landing before the green and rolling on is often the best option, meaning the total yardage is somewhat of a false truth.

Stray from the first cut and you will be traversing beautiful but bruising sand dunes, or hacking out of the abundant gorse found throughout the course. The bunkers are deep but escapable for us mere amateurs and when the wind is blowing you will do well to finish your round without visiting a couple. The sand traps have vegetation growing on their lips, nicknamed "eyebrows", which will offer some respite from what will probably be a frustrating visit to the hazard.

Verdict

Mention Royal County Down to a fellow hacker and you will likely see their face contort in angst as they sympathise with what they imagine was a round that dismantled your game – and they’re probably right. County Down is a tough layout, and almost impossible to play well if you cannot control your ball flight - but it is a fair test.

Chip and putt badly and you will be punished, if your approaches are wayward you will drop shots, and if you are wild off the tee you’re looking at a clanger – but isn’t that the way golf should be?

The opposite of a "hidden gem", the Championship Course has a lot to live up to, such is its stature. For it to pass all my expectations, and on a day the heavens opened, was nothing short of extraordinary.

It's a shame the club has not been bestowed the honour of hosting the Open, but this summer's Irish Open will be a reminder of what golf's oldest major is missing. 

For those of you who think the game should be played in shorts on sun-baked fairways, get yourself to Newcastle and you will likely have a change of heart.

Par: 71
Length: 7,186 yards
Green Fee: £175-£190

Royal County Down website

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