(This is the final feature in a series on golf in Ireland stemming from a trip I undertook in 2004. The first segment of the series can be found here. Other features covered Portmarnock, the European Club, County Louth and Portrush.)
Final Day: Royal County Down
The majesty and grand scale of Royal County Down can be sensed from the opening tee shot. A mid-length par five, golfers face a relatively wide tee shot with a large dune on the left and another protecting the right side of the course from the raging ocean. The shot is ultimately fair, but not easy, which is also a pretty good way of describing County Down overall. Like Cape Breton’s fabulous Highlands Links, County Down is a sea and mountains course.
The truth is there is little one can say about County Down that hasn’t[photopress:Royal_County_Down_5th.jpg,full,alignright] already been written many times. The course is among the best in the world, generally ranked in the Top 10 on the planet, and is likely one of two courses (the other being Ballybunion) that people will certainly want to seek out when making a trip to Ireland.
Rightfully so. Royal County Down has one of the most remarkable pieces of property for golf, a series of dunes and hollows that gives the course a character all its own. It is truly unlike any other course I’ve ever played, and its personality is so appealing that most will want to finish their game and head immediately back to the first tee.
Our experience at County Down started strangely. Having requested a caddy for Ian Andrew’s father, we showed up on the first tee to speak to the starter and no bag carrier was within sight. Gerry, Ian’s father, has had hip surguries, making it impossible for him to carry his own bag; instead he spent most of the week renting expensive golf carts. No such luck at County Down, which doesn’t even have carts for those with medical exemptions. We had requested a caddy for Gerry, but he simply never showed up. The starter, admittedly, looked horrified that this had happened — after all, of all the clubs on our trip, County Down appeared to be the most interested in its image as a blue blood club. It took six holes for the club to locate a caddy for us — in this case a near mute school age boy — to grab Gerry’s bag. Truly a bag carrier, but it made the round much easier.But those opening holes! Wonderous things, full of lumpy fairways and driving passages that ran between low lying dunes. Natural looking, fescue-lined bunkers dot the landscape in a way that has just become popular in North America. Subtle elevations changes occur through the initial holes — the opening five, followed by the long four, but County Down is far from flat; holes like nine and 11 effectively use hills as part of the strategy.
County Down offers Old World golf, in a course that feel surprisingly modern in places. That disappears when the course hits the ninth hole, which returns to the clubhouse. One of the most famed in the world, the ninth features a blind tee shot over a vast dune ridge line. The fairway then plunges downward to an area 60 feet below that sets up the approach. This unusual approach is played in a reverse fashion on the 11th.
Along the way, County Down offers several of the best holes in the world. Along with the previously mentioned 9th, the sixth with its great geen, and the amazing long 13th with its fairway banked against a dune on the right stood out. Green contours present a multitude of options and opportunities, and the fescue, while present, isn’t as much of a penalty as it is at Portrush. With that in mind, to most County Down will feel a little easier and a little more fair.
With all of this in place, it is too bad County Down limps to such a bland closing. Though I was partial to the short par four 16th, the 17th, with the blind pond in the middle of the fairway (one of the only instances of water on the course) would be better if they brough in a bulldozer and filled the watery chasm in. The 18th, which has been redone in recent years, is still just an average long par five on the most ordinary piece of property.
But one bad hole and one average one doesn’t keep County Down from being elevated to a small list of the best golf in the world.
What’s Better — Ireland or Scotland?
As we walked off County Down, our whirlwind trip along Ireland’s east and north coast had come to a conclusion. Interesting that several key differences between Scotland and Ireland’s golf offerings struck me as we staggered off the final green. Our round at County Down was nearly five hours long, and featured many times where we simply waited on the tee; I have a feeling this would never happen in Scotland. Secondly, with the exception of Castlerock, Ireland doesn’t appear to have the list of tier two courses that makes it easy to play 36 a day and see a lot of different courses. Sure there’s a great deal around Dublin, but once you are removed from that area, there’s lots of driving ahead of you. That’s not the case in Scotland.
In truth, the top offerings (County Down, Portrush, Portmarnock) had great similarities with the best in Scotland (Old Course, Carnoustie, Dornoch). Should one see both? Most certainly — the lure of great links golf runs deep and once you’ve experienced it, the pitching fairways, the quirky bunker placement, the pace and vibrancy of the game will draw you back. Bask in it when you can.
Green Fee: £135.00 (Peak season)