The British Isles is blessed with most of the world’s finest links courses. Some offer spectacular views of the ocean. Others terrify and thrill with blind tee shots into oblivion. Many feature holes exclusively defined by the swell of the land alone. Some present the shortest and most ticklish par threes imaginable. Others are altogether less subtle with formidable par fours, their fairways swathed in rough, almost unreachable in regulation. Some are defenceless, apart from the weather conditions which can arrive or depart at any given moment. Others are protected by banks of gorse and the wildest patches of waist-high hay you are are ever likely to see on a golf course.
A few continually surprise; around every corner lies an entirely new vista. Only the very best manage to combine wild beauty with a comprehensive examination of every aspect of the game.
And then there is Royal County Down.
Situated in the holiday town of Newcastle, some 35 miles south of Belfast, Northern Ireland’s finest does all of the above – and much more. It is a dreamy, awe-inspiring course. If you do not immediately fall in love with it then you should never waste your time playing links golf again. It is the epitome of the quintessential form of the game.
So expect to be intimidated by monstrous carries to fairways that cannot be seen. Eye the flight of your ball nervously, quite unsure as to what will happen to it when it returns to terra firma. You will feel belittled by holes that you cannot contemplate completing in fewer than six shots. You might watch your very best long iron balloon into the wind and drop gently into a bunker some 30 yards short of its intended target.
Then on the next, finesse a wedge that pitches the same distance in front of the green and wanders merrily through the back into more trouble. Perhaps merely touch a slippery 15-footer and watch as it brushes the hole then trundles half as far again down the green.
You will stand on a tee and feel bewildered as to the hole’s nature and direction, with not a shred of evidence that a fairway exists anywhere amid the dunes. But most of all, expect the unexpected, because Royal County Down never fails to amaze.
One of few constants on a course where every single hole is completely different to the last are the immense Mountains of Mourne. These precipitous hills tower over the clubhouse and links before ploughing into the ocean, their brooding glory a dominating backdrop. As for the holes, it seems almost unfair to isolate any, with at least a dozen among the finest in the world. Naturally, the influence of Old Tom Morris is never far away.
Unlike most modern architects, Morris, also involved with the Old Course, Macrihanish, Lahinch, Royal Dornoch and Westward Ho! to name but a few, had no disdain for blind drives. Small, rounded, whitewashed stones stranded amid unkempt rough and bushes become a familiar – but none too reassuring – sight. Indeed, it all seems a little too symbolic.
Far more holes genuinely take the breath away than do not. Only once the inevitability of losing a few balls has been accepted – through the combination of zero-tolerance rough and not seeing the ball land – is it possible to relax fully and derive maximum pleasure from your visit.
The quickest way to ruin your day is to try to keep score. It is inconceivable you will play to your handicap on your first visit, irrespective of the conditions, because Royal County Down makes no allowances for the quality of your game. Even from the yellows, carries of up to 200 yards to fairways that cannot be seen are commonplace. And though the fairways themselves are relatively generous, anything wide of them is often lost – and at best to be hacked out from.
Even the bunkers are like no others. With levels of grooming that would put an unshaven tramp to shame, tufts of rough give an entirely natural appearance. Needless to say, awful stances and lies ensue.
The greens typically reject a shot into anything other than the very heart. Worse still, deep hollows wait to gather near-perfect shots from where the deftest of touches is called for to get the ball back on the putting surface without it running off the other side. If all this sounds a tad depressing, then a little context would not go amiss.
Playing Royal County Down is an uplifting experience, and losing a few balls here and there while returning your highest score for years is a small price to pay for one of the highlights of your golfing life. And when you do play a hole well, sheer pride more than compensates for previous disasters. Anyway, it would be wrong to think that good scoring is impossible on any given hole. It really is not like that: Just that any mistake you do make will be magnified and soundly punished.
It is a dreamy, awe-inspiring course. If you do not immediately fall in love with it then you should never waste your time playing links golf again. It is the epitome of the quintessential form of the game.
There are chances to pick up shots. Big hitters should be able to reach two of the three long holes with a couple of meaty woods while the par-four 16th is sometimes drivable with as little as a long iron. The short 7th meanwhile measures only 145 yards from the championship tees. But it goes without saying that attacking anywhere is fraught with danger – birdies must be earned.
The opening hole is an excellent example. The most generous fairway on the course, kindly sloping from right to left, is no indication of what lies ahead. From here, play for a par five and you should avoid too much trouble but if you decide to try for the sunken green, you must carry a bank of rough as well as avoid two nasty bunkers.
And not for the last time – for this is one of Royal County Down’s eternal truths – miss your target by a just a few yards on the wrong side and there is every chance your ball will never be seen again.
Do not be fooled by the modest length of the 2nd. If the blind, uphill drive is not hard enough then the approach to a green obscured by a pit of a bunker 50 yards short tends to scramble one’s sense of judgment.
What has often been described as the best front nine in golf anywhere in the world gets better still at the 3rd. The elevated tee serves only to make more explicit the difficulties that lie ahead, namely three bunkers on driving distance into the breeze. Then a thin fairway that snakes through the dunes and a green that, from fairway level, is tucked away almost out of sight.
The par-three 4th features another nine sand hazards. Miss it left, right or long and you will run into a hollow from where four is a good score. Then another of the infamous blind tee shots awaits at the 5th, although this fairway is at least on the generous side. Amazingly, depending on the wind, this 438-yard hole can actually prove the easiest par four on the outward half.
Travelling in the opposite direction, the 6th can be a mere drive and a pitch downwind. Play it in a headwind and it is transformed, with the near 200-yard carry to the unseen fairway a real challenge and the approach to the small, isolated green particularly intimidating.
The short 7th represents a change of pace. Normally played from around 130 yards, the bunker in front of the green must be carried and the ball brought to ground as soon afterwards as is possible to hold a green that falls sharply away to the left and rear. The 8th has been described as “the hardest par four in golf that no-one talks about” and it is one of several unsung holes at County Down that get overlooked because of the more obvious brilliance of others.
For once, the tee affords a comprehensive view of the fairway but the real test comes in trying to find the putting surface. The table-top green demands total accuracy to avoid running off on either side into areas where only the top of the pin is visible.
Then comes one of the most famous views in golf. Never mind that you cannot see the fairway. Just smack your ball over the post on the side of the hill and watch your ball, framed against the mountain backdrop. Then hold your finish for as long as possible, sigh, take a deep breath, and hope that once you reach the fairway down below your ball will be in view. From here, your best iron shot will be required to find the raised green that sits in front of the clubhouse underneath another gigantic mound.
The back nine opens with a short hole before the blind drive to end all blind drives. Not only is the short grass all but 200 yards away, it is also at the top of a substantial hill, the nearside of which is covered in a sea of rough and bushes. It is a brave – not to mention talented – player who can remove all this from his mind and fire a driver over the marker to the sanctuary of the downward-sloping fairway.
Happily a par five is next, with a generous target, running gently downhill. Like many holes here, to stand on the green and look back up the fairway is to appreciate the majesty of the setting and the genius of Morris’ design.
The latter is never more in evidence than at the dogleg-right 13th. Cunningly, and against the golfer’s instinct, the best line is down the left. Slightly further from the green it may be, but only from this side may the pin be seen and otherwise the approach must be played across intimidating rough ground.
Although not apparent until you reach the green, a generous patch of fairway short and right mean this is the side to bail out on if finding the green itself is too much to ask.
If the 7th is a subtle short hole, the 14th is a test of power allied to control. It takes a genuinely well struck long iron to find a green heavily protected at the front.
From this furthest end of the course begins the home stretch with yet another stern par four. Finding the broad fairway is one thing, threading your ball over disintegrating ground on to another table-top green a different proposition altogether.
Reach the 16th tee and confront a dilemma: knock a short iron into the bottom and wedge on, or take on the green some 260 yards away but with plenty of thick rough ready to swallow a wild thrash. Short par fours may not appear in the modern designer’s lexicon, but they are a particular highlight of courses of this calibre.
Once the relatively-bland 17th has been negotiated, you can confront the 24 bunkers which define and protect the par-five closing hole. Technically reachable in two unless conditions dictate otherwise, expect to pay at least one visit to sand before reaching the green.
And that is the essence of Royal County Down: Never has the phrase ‘take the rough with the smooth’ been more apposite.