Royal County Down Pilgrimage

In 1889 Old Tom Morris left St. Andrews to go across to Northern Ireland’s County Down, to remodel and extend the existing popular 9-hole course to 18 holes. His journey to collect the 4 pound fee was a bit tougher than the one Carolyn and I took on Monday. We drove for 17 minutes from St. Andrews to Dundee. Then we flew for 40 minutes to Belfast City Airport (George Best Airport). Tom would have taken a couple train rides then a ferry to Ireland. However the last 33 miles down to Newcastle took Tom an hour on the train. It took us 2.5 hours in a rental car, the Easter Monday traffic was really tough, although we did get to see the countryside better at 20 mph.

As we roared past a gas station we saw a TIM HORTON sign! Pulling off the road was out of the question as we would have lost our place in the rush to the sea. However we promised to investigate!

We finally did get to Newcastle and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. It was worth the drive, from the outside it looks like the St. George’s clubhouse on a much larger scale. Very comfortable room on the top floor (4th), the no kids floor, great views of the sea, the town and the mountain also named Slieve Donard. We found the path leading to the clubhouse of The Royal County Down Golf Club which might be the finest test of links golf in the world. Nice clubhouse, separate one for Ladies, good proshop, engaging staff, confirmed our t-time for Tuesday at the crack of noon.

We cruised the town of Newcastle and found it to be a typical old seaside (their beach is best seen at high tide) settlement with it’s pound shops for we senior shoppers and several high end kid’s shops where we seniors buy stuff for grandchildren. And on every block there seemed to be a pub for we olduns, a games room for the younguns and various Becker type stores to buy your sweets and smokes, both mandatory over here. I have now learned the difference between “sweeties” and “sweets” and between “braces” and “suspenders”. that’s another story.

The golf round. After non-stop rain from 9:00 pm until 6:00 am, I expected the course to be swamped when we went over in the morning. It was perfect, links courses drain wonderfully. I had researched the course and expected a fine test with fairly flat greens. Well what I experienced was the toughest test of golf that I have encountered anywhere in this world, with sloping greens. But it is also the most fun course we have ever played, from the setting to the relentlessly long par fours to the short par threes it is the perfect course. I don’t think I could play it every day but would like the opportunity! They have a second course, only 4000 yards long – and it is very popular with the membership, extending their memberships so they can play into their 90s (years).

The layout we played is mostly the same as it has been since 1930 with a few controversial changes a dozen years ago to the 16th and the 18th. I just can’t imagine playing this course with the equipment of the 30s. I would love to play it with the clubs and balls we had in the 70’s because I think you have to work your ball around a course like this and the new stuff is hard for me to knock down shots and curve my flight etc. And of course I don’t have the modern power game to attack with this new tech stuff. Anyway with my old legs and new balls, Royal County Down was spectacular. As James Finegan said “the unassailable greatness of seven or eight holes and the extraordinary beauty that surrounds us at every moment more than compensates for the insistent pressure on our swings.” This is a demanding treasure.

THe first hole is just a straight narrow par five of 523 yards with fescue, heather and gorse covered dunes on both sides, the sea 50 yards to the right. The hole gets narrower as you go. And it introduces you to their bunker style – at least 139 of them! Most are small, but deep. Most of them have long fescue shaggy grass around their edges. On the Castle course they nick named their humps Don Kings. I liken RCD’s to what you see sticking out from under Rory McIlroy’s hat – that’s what their bunkers look like. Bewhiskered bunkers is the way one writer described them. One rule is obvious, if you are in a bunker the first thought should be JUST GET OUT, quickly.

The first hole also introduced the tremendous undulating links terrain with every type of bounce to be bestowed, some lucky, some not so.

The second hole introduces the blind shot. At least six holes have some type of tee shot where you have to trust that over the dune lies a fairway, but does it go right or left? We also found that there are several semi blind shots into the greens. Is it true Helen Keller was club champion? The second shot to the second green is played through a gap in a dune, over several deep bunkers to a small pocket green. At only 424 yards from the middle tees, a bargain.

Each hole seemed to be followed by an even better one! Even from the forward tees RCD is long – 6250 yards. From the Whites 6880, Blues 7181. The third is another great par four, 477 yards with a generous fairway for your tee shot but hardly any area for your next other than bounding onto the green.

I really enjoy par three holes (shorter walk) and the 4th hole from a new elevated tee is brilliant, 213 yards carry over seven bunkers to a long narrow green. 3 iron, chip, my first par.

I won’t bore you with a hole by hole (I have slept through Al Geigberger’s 59 twice so imagine what a 79 sounds like). The t shot on the 11th hole is over a huge dune (called Matterhorn), I hit a really solid drive well over the marker stone. Carolyn also hit a cracker, just clearing the stone. Her tee was only 12 yards in front of mine and when we climbed the Matterhorn and looked down the fairway both balls were close together 160 yards from the green, 290 yards from the tee! Remarkably my ball had flown all the way to the fairway, Carolyn’s had bounded down the slope to pass mine. Links golf is superb when you can roll your ball like that. My favourite hole is the 13th where the ideal second runs the ball down the slope on the right on to a huge green with something obviously buried under the back right.

From the 1st to the 14th Royal County Down is without peer, anywhere! The views are added bonuses. The 15th could be a super hole except the tee shopt leaves one looking skyward wondering how to hit the missing green. I cracked a t-shot, then really hit a good 3-wood just 30 yards short of the green. A tough par four. Could be a nice par five.

The 16th at 317 is a so-called “driveable” par four. For flat bellies maybe, we both liked the fact we could get home in regulation! 17 is a long par four that would fit better on the Jubilee Course, another drive and three wood left me a short birdie putt, which was close. James Finegan had said the greens were basically flat, we did not find any easy putts, but wouldn’t have wanted them anyway. The 18th is a long par five that curves gently left, uphill the first 300 yards and slightly downhill after. We both avoided the nineteen bunkers and walked off the course elated!

The weather was perhaps the finest day in our almost two years in the UK. Can’t think of a better place to have enjoyed on our 38th anniversary! Royal County Down is always ranked in the top 10 course world-wide, in my book it’s top 3.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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