I should first come clean and admit that I was born in Northern Ireland and that although I left at the age of 13 I still spend a fair amount of time there. I learnt to play golf at Lisburn Golf Club, where my grandfather bought me some junior clubs and pretended to the course marshalls that I wasn’t actually playing and so didn’t need a green fee! It’s where my love of the game was seeded, if not exactly where it flourished. But, despite spending time in Newcastle and even on nearby Murlough Beach, which is where the dunes are located, and seeing the course, I’d never played it.
I suppose that deep in my soul I knew it was to be respected, feared even, so I wasn’t ready. You don’t rock up to one of the world’s best golf courses in jeans with a 36 handicap! It’s not for hackers. It’s not even for regular golfers if they’re not very good. It’s Royal County Down. Tiger Woods plays this course for pleasure. How many other courses around the word can say that?
It’s also hellish expensive. The kind of expensive that makes non-golfers choke on their tea.
So, it’s only now that I’m (slightly) better that I suddenly discovered a yearning to play it. In many ways the fact that I hadn’t, and that I was from just down the road, and that I was nearby quite frequently, became a source of embarrassment on other courses. “You stay near Royal County Down all the time and haven’t played it?! What the hell is wrong with you?” was the general gist. It was a situation that had to be put right.
And so I played it.
And it is outstanding.
It is without doubt the single most unique golfing experience I’ve ever had. In fact, it was so totally extraordinary that I’ve had to take a good few days to let the experience sink in and percolate a little. I was just too confused coming out to write about it straight away like I do with other courses.
One reason why is that I have an uncanny knack for remembering every shot, on every hole of a course after I’ve played it. I can live the whole thing in my head for a good week or two afterward, and even months later can remember amazing detail of courses. But as I walked away from Royal County Down I could barely remember anything. This may sound worrying. Maybe it was so boring or awful it simply didn’t register! But the truth is the exact opposite. My head was so full of sensory memories I couldn’t process them. It took a while before the mist parted and clarity ensued.
And why? Because Royal County Down is so earth shatteringly different to any course I’ve ever played. Yes, it’s a links, which always feels strange unless you play them regularly. But I have played links courses before, so it wasn’t just that. It’s partly the total immersion borne of playing golf in the midst of such monumental dunes. They tower over you and cut off each hole from the other. It’s like playing golf in a canyon.
It’s also the terror of playing golf on a course that has so many blind drives. I’ve done it before, but never so many. Even the ones that aren’t blind are still imposing.
Then there is the rough, which is wild and barren and full of old gnarly gorse, which was in bloom when I was there.
Then there are the bunkers, deep and ringed by clinging heather and full of the most beautiful, powder fine silvery sand.
Then there is the backdrop of Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. I know the mountain well (I’ve climbed up it several times) but it seemed more alluring, more fascinating from the tee boxes and greens.
And the greens! A few mins spent on the practice green absolutely terrified me, I have to admit. The first few didn’t go so well, but once I let my intuition take over and started to ignore the sensible side of my brain that said “It can’t possibly be that far out”, I started to sink some. Unlike typical American style greens that are manicured and feel like felt, these are sandy and bare, but my God are they true. And fun.
But most of all it’s the routing. As you wind through the dunes you feel like you’re in Narnia. The fairways pinch and open out. It’s cute and interesting one minute, then majestic and expansive the next. Often within the same hole.
The 13th, often regarded as one of the best golf holes in the world, was so utterly lovely it genuinely warmed my insides. After playing it I stood on the bluff behind as I made my way to the next tee box. Looking down at the little green, nestled among the dunes and the slight dogleg where the fairway is pinched by a dune behind, it made me happy. And I parred that hole! Though admittedly it was after an unexceptional drive, a terrible second shot into the rough / side of a mountain and then a complete fluke of a pitching wedge to 4 feet from the hole.
It’s not terribly long by today’s standards, but it doesn’t need to be. This is about pure golf, about picking your way round the open spaces rather than just blasting it and hoping you’ll end up on the short stuff 315 yards away. This is about judging the wind, knowing how much it’s going to blow your shot around. This is about accepting that not every shot will find the fairway and using your creativity to get out of the hazards. Most of all it’s about enjoying the day on this pretty little corner of the world.
The back nine is famously less imposing than the front, so was I disappointed? Not really. It does lack dunes of the same size, which means you can see around you more, but some might say that is less claustrophobic and you only really notice it on holes 14 – 18. Plus, the design of these holes is perhaps more idiosyncratic than the opening ones, with changes in elevation and water hazards. And I parred the 18th, so clearly that is the best hole in the world, ever.
I was led round the course by one of the senior caddies, whose name I shall withhold just so I don’t embarrass him. Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was because of his company. He did all the usual caddy things like carry my bag and rake bunkers and give me reads on the green, but he also told me where to hit it on blind drives and, most importantly of all, regaled me with stories of the rich and famous he has looped for over the years. Tiger, O’Meara, Davis Love, Nick price, Vijay Singh. I’ve had caddies before (mainly in Asia) but this was different. It was like playing a round with a mate full of stories and I loved the craic. I was only embarrassed that I was short of cash when I finished to give him a proper tip. Next time…
I haven’t played Ballybunion or Old Head. Nor have I played Turnberry or Bandon Dunes. Nor even Royal Portrush, yet. So I can’t say this is the best golf course in the world. I have many years to explore those other courses and so judgement will have to be postponed, but I can say that Royal County Down is a truly magnificent experience that should be enjoyed. If anyone says otherwise they have no soul. This is to golf what poetry is to the written word. Special.
And the Slieve Donard Hotel is also worth staying in. The spa is amazing. Just stay out of the town of Newcastle. It’s like Blackpool. Only more shit.