This review was written by my good friend Tim Gallant. Tim is an avid golfer living in Edinburgh, Scotland, boasting North Berwick GC as his home club. We have played rounds together across Scotland and England, comparing notes and debating designs along the way. Tim is a real student of the game – enjoy his review and reach out to him on Twitter at @tdgallant.
Royal County Down was founded in 1889, and is steeped in a rich history that one would expect from a course continually ranked in the top 10 in the world. Originally laid out as a 9-hole course by George Baillie, the championship course has undergone changes over the years directed by the likes of Old Tom Morris, Harry Colt and Donald Steele. Colt is largely responsible for the routing of the current course, and what a routing it is!
Before we get to the course though, a word must be said for the club itself. From my point of view, if Portrush is Ireland’s Carnoustie, Royal County Down is undoubtedly Ireland’s Muirfield. On arriving through the gates, guests slip ‘through the wardrobe’ and are treated to an experience that is unparalleled.
The current clubhouse was originally built in 1894, though several extensions and refurbishments leaves members and guests alike with a beautifully crafted building that provides first-rate service, all the modern amenities and a golfing memorabilia display that proudly offers a look into the exciting history of the club over the last 125 years.
Once the player is ready and has had his or her cup of tea, the first tee beckons, and a rollercoaster ride of emotions begins. Exhilerating, freightening, spectacular, menacing. These are all words I would use to describe the links at County Down. It was perhaps the only course I have played where I simultaneously wanted to finish a hole as quickly as possible (partially out of fear, and partially in anticipation to see the next star), while wanting to linger around for hours to appreciate such a grand course.
Hole #1 – The first really sets the tone for the rest of the course as a good drive is required between gorse and the sea on the right. Players are helped by the fact that that landing area is severely sloped from right to left, thus, leaving the better angle for the next. The green is reflective of the rest of the course: lightning fast with subtle breaks, but not overtly undulating.
Hole #2 – The first blind drive of the day is played over the heather to a generous landing area. The approach is world-class. Players must hit their approach over a front bunker that looks like it is right up against the front of the green. In reality, it is 40 yards short of the green. Anything slightly short or short right is ok.
Hole #3 – Another stunner, this long par-4 is fantastic. Those approaching the green from the right side of the fairway are blocked-out by the sand dunes in front of the green. However, those able to place their tee-shot on the left side of the fairway (and challenge the bunkers), are left with a great view of the pin. The green is flat-ish, but slopes from back-to-front at a quick pace.
Hole #4 – One of the most photographed par-3s in the world, this hole is a beauty. Playing it at 8.30am with the sun rising and the gorse in full-bloom was semi-spiritual. The hole itself is a monster, playing well over 200 yards even from the stableford tees with 9 bunkers to contend with after clearing the vast sea of gorse. If you get your par here, walk off quickly in the knowledge that you have bested many others on this gem.
Hole #7 – Proof that distance is only a number in links golf. This short hole plays around 125 yards with a massive front bunker guarding the front portion of the green. However, the hard part arrives once players reach the putting surface. The back right and front left portions run down to collection areas 10 feet below the green al la Royal Dornoch. The spot in which a player must land and hold his or her ball, is about 10 yards!
Hole #9 – Possibly one of the most photographed holes in the world, the long par 4 9th is simply incredible. Players hit blind across a ridge, and then climb the steep dune until they arrive at the top, only to be treated with one of the most incredible views in all of golf. With the Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop, the hole sits in a valley at the foot of the dune, and is quite breath taking. Even without the views, the hole is superb – a tough par 4 with cross-bunkers short of the green, and a further smaller dune that impedes the view of the right side of the green.
Hole #13 – One of my favourite holes on the course, this long par 4 seems relatively straight-forward, however, players again must position his or her tee ball towards the left-side of the fairway or pay the consequences of a blind second. The approach shot is hit towards a green that is sloped from right to left and set within a dune (see a pattern?).
Hole #14 – Rounding out a strong class of par-3s, the 14th might not get the attention of the 4th or 7th, but it is a hole the demands respect and a well-struck iron. Not overly long, it does put a premium on accuracy, with no bail-out areas. Having put my tee ball 5 feet from the green, a greenskeeper smiled at my shot and said ‘Well played – hoping for a 2 and assured a 4!’. He wasn’t joking, the greens are that quick and subtle in their breaks.
Hole #16 – A great risk-reward hole, this 4 shot-er measuring a little over 300 yards, gives multiple options in attacking the green. Beware! Those hoping to reach the green in 1 can encounter some of the thickest heather on the course to the right of the green/fairway.
Hole #17 – If I was to nitpick (and I am), the 17th was the only hole I thought was inconsistent with the rest of the course. It is played between holes from the second course, and has none of the character that is present on the other 17 holes. There is also a small pond to catch-out longer hitters, which seems contrived and a bit trivial.
Hole #18 – A strong finish to a world-class track, I would applaud any player that could reach this green in two with a stiff breeze in the face. There are over 20 bunkers covering the hole, and is a fitting finish to a top-10 course.
With my round complete, I wanted to head straight back out. The course was that good and interesting. It had everything, a great routing, interesting individual holes, great green complexes, a character that was wholly unique, and impossible to replicate. Not a course to miss, and given its relative openness to visitor play, I would encourage everyone to make the trip to Newcastle.