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Expert Advice

Royal County Down: Northern Ireland’s Best

PGA Tour website article The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. Established in 1988, Golf International specializes in the design and operation of quality golf trips to Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, France, Spain and Portugal. The articles written by David represent trips available to Golf International customers.

If you are considering taking a golf trip to Northern Ireland, congratulations, you are obviously an informed golfer and a true connoisseur of the game, with a desire to play courses acknowledged as being among the best on the planet. In Northern Ireland you have found the right place to fulfill your dreams.

The listing of this small country’s truly world-class courses is impressive and includes perhaps a quarter of Northern Ireland’s total inventory of well over 90 courses, some already famous and others with names less familiar. Make the very most of your trip and play as many courses as time permits, each has its own character and personality, yet all share in the consistent quality for which Northern Ireland has earned such an enviable reputation.

At the top of every visitor’s must play list, are the two top ranked courses in all of Ireland. Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Course, Ireland’s No. 2 ranked layout is the only course outside of Scotland and England to ever be selected as a British Open venue, which was the case in 1951. A recent announcement by The R & A confirms the honor will be repeated, most likely in 2019. Royal Portrush won another “first” a couple of years ago when it became the very first course outside of the Republic of Ireland to host the Irish Open Championship.

Ranked No. 1 in all of Ireland is Royal County Down’s Championship Course, a handsome links layout that will tease, tantalize and confuse, even the most accomplished player. If Royalty is in a class of its own, to be revered, respected and even worshipped by mere mortals, then Royal County Down Golf Club is well deserving of the Royal moniker it has proudly carried for more than a century.

It may be the most spectacularly beautiful links course to be found anywhere; it’s ranked among the top ten courses in the world and has been consistently listed as the best course in all of Ireland for as long as most can remember. Royal County Down is inarguably, the King of Irish golf.

Dating from 1889, the original design for the Championship Course was laid out by Old Tom Morris, the grand master of all golf course architects, who was paid the princely sum of 4 guineas (about $6) for his efforts. Old Tom was quite content with the fee as he had little work to do, considering this to be the most natural of all links courses.

Against the magnificent backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne, County Down Championship Course stretches along the shores of Dundrum Bay and the Irish Sea, zigzagging back and forth to provide a different vista from virtually every hole. But the glorious scenery only distracts from what is an extremely challenging layout, more than worthy of its top ranking.

The narrowest ribbons of fairways thread their way through as impressive a set of sand dunes as could be imagined. The fairways are surrounded by purple heather and golden gorse, so beautiful to look at but so punishing for any who may stray from the prescribed path.

Innumerable bunkers are scattered throughout the course; deep, cavernous and topped with fringes of sea grasses. The greens are fast and many are domed, immediately rejecting any approach shot lacking in conviction. This is a true test of any player’s command of the traditional bump and run approach, the preferred way to play any links layout.

It is seldom one finds a course lacking in any poor holes, but County Down Championship is on the very short list of such layouts. Tom Watson ranks Royal County Down at the top of his favorites list and it is difficult to disagree with his evaluation of a course composed of only strong holes.

The par 3’s are as good as any and far better than most; the par 4’s, equally outstanding, but is this one of the toughest courses in the world? The highly respected golf-writer, Herbert Warren Wind thought so when he said, “it was in fact, the sternest examination in golf I had ever taken.”

County Down is everything a links course is supposed to be – unpredictable, challenging to the extreme, rewarding for the accomplished player and penal to those of lesser abilities. The undulating fairways are as tight as can be and the unforgiving rough is to be avoided at all costs.

There are deep pot bunkers, always strategically placed and voraciously hungry. Billowing greens are filled with contours that are sometimes subtle and often not. In traditional links style there are blind shots to manage and always, the inevitable wind blowing in erratically from the sea. Yet despite the difficulties and problems this course presents, it is never unfair, never devious and has no need to resort to trickery. The test is what it is — tough and serious. Play well and you will be equally well rewarded.

Uncommon for a links is Royal County Down’s design — two distinct loops of 9 holes rather than a typical straight out-and-back. The resulting constant changes in wind direction adding even more difficulty to an overall test that is already far from a walk in the park.

This is a course that demands strategy, where it’s important to keep your ball in the frighteningly narrow fairways and away from the rough, but measuring a hefty 7,065 yards from the championship tees, length is a also a definite asset and those with the innate desire to spread the shoulders and let it rip will have plenty of opportunities. But big hitters beware, if length is not accompanied by surgical precision, there will be a heavy penalty to pay.

Royal County Down is quite unique and a one of a kind treasure that every serious golfer dreams of playing some-day. There is no feeling quite as exhilarating as to eventually reach the 18th green, battle worn and weary, the fearsome fight almost completed, knowing you have put forth your very best effort. Win or lose, you are about to complete a memorable battle with one of the world’s best and have lived to tell the tale. Be forewarned, the temptation to play Royal County Down, just one more time, is likely to be irresistible.

Even for those who may not be up to the challenge of the Championship Course, but still want to taste the special attributes of Royal County Down Golf Club, there is a second layout here that is almost as delectable. The charming Annesley Links at County Down is a shorter and more passive course, recently upgraded by the renowned British architect, Donald Steele.

Still a course to be contended with, it contains many of the Championship Course’s tests, though in a somewhat milder form. With views the equal of its bigger brother, the Annesley provides a somewhat different but thoroughly enjoyable experience for all.

©2014 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.