I’m not really bothered if you’ve crossed an ocean, a sea or just the Irish border to make it to Royal County Down but missing a quick spin on their relief course would be a mistake. It’s a wee course full of character, contains some exceptionally good golf and is played over the same joyous terrain as its big brother.
It is a perfect introduction to golf at Newcastle, or a lively pick-me-up after a lazy lunch, and one I would urge you to take. If played before the main event, in a similar way the St. Olaf at Cruden Bay does, it gives tantalising glimpses of the real thing which simply serves to whet the appetite.
With regards to the championship course it certainly lives up to its billing as arguably the best golf course on British & Irish soil and one that vies for the title of being the greatest in the world. I don’t quite put it into that lofty bracket but it is unquestionably superb and rightly celebrated.
The canvas at County Down is perfect for golf and it paints the most captivating of pictures. Visually it packs a big punch and the terrain is just wonderful for the best of golf. Dune-lined valleys, up-and-overs, soaring sandhills, undulating fairways, firm turf, dell greens, flags atop of plateaus, secret gorse lined walks from green-to-tee and a backdrop as stunning as they come. Set below the towering Mountains of Mourne, the links stretches along the curved shore of Dundrum Bay, zigzagging back and forth to provide a different vista and challenge from every hole. The setting and views are inspiring.
The beauty of the course is plain to see and combined with the unrelenting challenge it is easy to understand why the course is cherished so much. It comprises 18 truly individual holes that provide a true and tough test where you almost have to feel and sense your way around the course.
The Club was founded in 1889 when George Baillie, a schoolteacher, was responsible for the original nine-hole layout although it didn’t take Old Tom Morris long to arrive on the scene and create an 18-hole links. However, in subsequent years James Braid, JH Taylor, Ben Sayers and particularly Harry Vardon all visited and made recommendations but it was former Club Captain and a plus-handicap golfer, George Combe, who had the most impact during this time changing the routing to two loops of nine. Then in 1925 Harry Colt was called in to advise on further improvements and the alterations which ensued were notable for the creation of the present 4th and 9th holes, which were to become two of the most photographed holes in world golf. Further recent changes have been made with a revamped 17th & 18th and a brand new 16th.
As you can see, many hands have helped shaped Royal County Down but each has clearly been respectful of the true architect; Mother Nature.
On my visit in June 2018, during one of the most prolonged hot and dry spells of my lifetime, they should perhaps have renamed it Royal County Brown. It was firm, fast running and just how nature intended the course to be played.
Driving the ball well is imperative at Royal County Down. You must be committed from the tee because the blind nature of many drives creates an uncertainty in the golfers mind but at the same time builds excitement as you head off to find your ball.
Many of the green complexes, all of which are superb, are raised and will deflect a slightly off-centre approach into a closely mown swale (or sometimes worse!) to give the golfer an endless supply of fun, but treacherously difficult, recovery shots. Several of the approaches, not all of which favour the ground game, can be partially blind and the slightly domed nature of several greens can divert the not-quite-good-enough shot into trouble which isn’t always apparent and doesn’t present itself until you walk closer to the green.
The putting surfaces themselves are only mildly undulating and once you are on the green you know your hardest work is done.
The famed 4th and 9th holes on the front-nine are indeed exceptional but in truth the course doesn’t miss a beat on the outward loop. The inviting par-five opener, played through a shallow valley, is the perfect starter with a delightful semi-dell green at its end whilst the catalogue of superb par-fours are as strong as anywhere and the short 7th – with an unsighted and devilish green - is the perfect foil for the demands of the 4th where the raised and slightly angled green that Colt built is hypnotically good.
The back-nine doesn’t quite deliver to the same exceptionally high standard but the 13th, 15th and driveable 16th are among my favourites on what is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring links.
Having recently held the 2015 Irish Open the course can be stretched to well in excess of 7,000 yards (7,186 from the blue tees) but has much more manageable tee-boxes at 6900, 6700 and 6300 yards. Regardless of tee used it’s an unrelenting par of 71; your three main opportunities to pick up a stroke come at the first, 12th and 16th – make sure you take them!
In terms of negatives the course doesn’t give you much to be critical about. The much maligned pond, albeit at a natural low-point, on the 17th hole is certainly out of character and I’m sure The Club would remove it if they could, however, one of the caddy’s explained to me that it was home to some rare protected newt so it could not be touched – how true that is I don’t know!
There are perhaps a couple of blind drives too many but I can live with that and is what adds to the mystery of RCD and the uncertainty that it causes as we take aim at one of the white directional rocks placed into the dunes and hope our swing holds true. The hairy-edges, that border many of the bunkers, also have their detractors and I am one; I had a couple of near-misses from what would have been an unplayable lie. The ‘bearded’ bunkers are world famous and feature overhanging lips of marram, red fescue and heather but they dish up a penalty that often doesn’t fit the crime.
The experience away from the course is not quite as classy as that on it either. Again, it all boils down to personal preference but on arrival my experience was one of seeing a multi-seated buggy ferrying visitors to and from the practice ground (it’s a mere 250-yard walk), an army of caddies wearing banana-yellow bibs waiting in line to be passed their golfer for the day, and men with walky-talkies telling me where I must place my bag. This organised chaos (which admittedly is not uncommon at most ‘top’ venues nowadays) is a million miles away from what I would ideally like to experience when I turn up at an illustrious venue such as this. Perhaps I want my cake and eat it too.
Not wanting to end on a negative note I simply want to re-iterate how brilliant the course is. It contains elements of many of my other favourite courses. It has a little bit of Cruden Bay, a touch of Royal Aberdeen and a hint of Dornoch. But it all combines wonderfully to create its own image.
The game of golf has the ability to take you on amazing journeys to the most wondrous places where you meet such interesting people.
It was an impulsive, crazy… and some would say utterly ridiculous… decision that took me to The Machrie in the Spring of 2018.