Martin Hopley
By Martin Hopley

Whenever you look at a top 100 course list for the United Kingdom or the British Isles you can be sure that Royal County Down is going to be near the top of the list. Sometimes the idea of your best course is influenced by when you went, what the weather was like and how you played.

I first played Royal County Down 20 years ago and it was fantastic. Since then I have played many courses, including regular visits to the other two that are usually at the top of these lists, St Andrews Old and Muirfield. Muirfield is the one I usually trot out as the best course I have played, but now I was returning to Royal County Down for the first time since Donald Steel tightened up the 18th in 1997 and the 16th and 17th in 2003.

The course is locate in Newcastle, which is about an hour's drive south of Belfast International Airport. I was fortunate to stay at the Slieve Donard Resort which is next door and has a unique sign post to the golf course in the lobby. Looking out over the clubhouse and Dundrum Bay the day before, you got a sense of the magic to come, just like on Christmas Eve.

Royal County Down Sign

Fortunately we had a great forecast for the day and the short two minute walk from the hotel to the course brought me to the clubhouse with a well stocked pro-shop and plenty of electric and push trolleys for hire. You can also get a caddy, which if you are unfamiliar with the course could be a good investment as there are numerous blind shots that I will come to later.

The practice range is across from the clubhouse, but I preferred to warm up on the old putting green in front of the clubhouse, which was one of the slopiest and fastest ones I have been on. Great for a beer money game after the round.

Royal County Down Putting Green

There is also a giant putting area that had just been created just beyond this and beside the 1st tee that reminded me of the Himalayas putting green in St Andrews with a bunker and chipping area shown in the top right corner above. It was a bit slower but the club say they hope they will get it up to speed.

By speed they mean very fast. I was there in mid-May and the greens were very quick with the grass cut to 5mm. When they get more growth in the summer they are cut down to 3mm and with the firmer surfaces they will be a real challenge.

Now was the moment to tee off and very quickly you see why you need some local advice. The first tee shot is blind and you can't see the fairway and this is how it is going to be for most of the first 13 holes. Apparently blind tee shots were in vogue when Old Tom Morris laid out the full 18 holes in 1889 and I don't see a problem with that. You just need to be very confident of your line and your swing and trust you will find the fairway.

This is a championship course and even off the normal medal tees the SSS of 74 is 3 above the par of 71, so it is tight too. As you head out, the first 3 holes are parallel to the beach, which you can hear but not see. Unless you carve one to the right to view the shore, you are almost cocooned in the dunes rising up on each side.

As a par-5 the 1st hole is not overly long and a solid par the brought me to the 2nd hole and by the green I encountered Royal County Down's other defense for the first, and sadly not the last time that day - the bunkers.

So it is a hole filled with sand and a steep face. I have played many championship courses and this is expected. However what is not expected is the completely untouched tall grass growing around the edges, like the bunker has just got out of bed.

This adds another 2 to 3 feet to the height of the already tall bunker face. And if that is not enough, in this particular bunker short left of the 2nd green, the face actually went under the lip of the bunker and then curved back towards me like a large rolling wave of sand and grass.

Royal County Down Bunker 2nd

Thankfully I was in the middle of the bunker as there was no shot from under that lip. It did cross my mind that this was either going to be a 1 or a 3 shot bunker as shot number 2 was almost certainly going to have to be a drop back from under the crest of the wave in front of me. I got it out first time, took my bogey and ran to the 3rd tee.

If it is not the bunkers or the gorse distracting you at Royal County Down then when you turn back towards the clubhouse and board the elevated 4th tee you are presented with the final distraction. The view.

Royal County Down 4th Tee View

The fabled Mountains of Mourne rise dramatically from behind the town of Newcastle with the clubhouse in front of it to give you one of the best views in golf as the 215 yard par-3 4th lies below you. This must rival the 1st at St Andrews for the time taken to get off the tee as you soak up the view and take pictures. It is simply majestic.

There are not many places I have played golf where my head is up looking around at the scenery above more than looking down at the ball and ahead at the course. Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies is one I can remember and Royal County Down is another as you walk along almost in a dream soaking up the setting you find yourself in.

Like many of the greens at Royal County Down, the 4th green resembles an upturned saucer and the knack is to stay straight and play for the front or just short of it. I wish I had known this before, as this was what enabled the 2007 US Walker Cup team to win when their Captain had this figured this out early.

Royal County Down 4th Green

The 5th continues to draw you back towards the view like a siren before you tie yourself to the mast and reverse direction for the short par-4 6th which is a welcome relief after the testing run from the 2nd to the 5th. It is no picnic though as the tight landing area for drives is complimented by the up-turned soup bowl of a green which drops off sharply to the left and back.

From the 7th, the sirens come loud again and you give in as the par-3, then long par-4 8th lead you to back to the view and one of the other great tee shots in golf at the 9th.

Royal County Down 9th Tee View

From on high you hit over a dune down into the wide valley of the 9th fairway with the Mountains of Mourne full in your face. To make the experience even better, we were joined by Ryder Cup player David Howell, courtesy of Adams Golf, who was on hand to help us play this famous hole.

Modesty prevents me from saying who outdrove who, but it is one of those tee shots where that really doesn't matter (much) as you just want to hit a good one and see it fly out into space and fall into the fairway in the valley. Put it this way, I was in a good enough position to make a nice par 4, unlike some European Tour players.

Royal County Down David Howell

After holing out at the 9th you are back at the clubhouse and the good news is that after an exhilarating front 9, you get to play out and back all over again. The elevated 10th tee looks down on the green 188 yards away with another particularly stern example of a standing wave bunker to the right of the green.

Royal County Down Bunker 10th

By now I wasn't sure if this style of bunker was fair or even right given that the rest of the course is manicured to within a millimetre of its life. However they are distinctive and there are not may classic links courses that are set up to be fair, so the best strategy, as always, is not go anywhere near them.

The next 4 holes continue the blind tee shot/narrow fairway theme and I loved the 14th which curves round to the right and then opens out by the green. All the grass is cut short for about 25 yards around the green so you have a multitude of shot options, but the putter is usually the best call.

Royal County Down 14th Green

From the 15th you are on the town side of the course with the dunes on the left and open ground on the right. This is where some say the course feels different and I know what they mean.

Holes 15 and 16 are great challenges and then 17 feels a little more generous with a pond in the centre of the fairway. This does seem odd even though it is a natural spring and it always seems to draw comment, but nothing is ever normal about the hazards at Royal County Down.

The 18th is a signficant improvement from my previous visit as the bunkering on the right makes the dog-leg left hole much tighter and in keeping with the rest of the course, but without any dunes on the right.

Afterwards I retired to the upstairs lounge of the clubhouse to watch over the 10th tee and 18th green and reflect on the course. It is a true genuine test and in anything like a reasonable local breeze would be a real monster.

Royal County Down Clubhouse

The greens were fantastic even in their longer state and it is great to play a course where they can cut them low and make them really pacey. They do have the advantage of the greens being sheltered from the wind in the valleys, but many other championship links courses around Britain that I play could learn from how they create consistently fast greens.

Royal County Down also has the other X factor to elevate its position in golf and that is history. It has hosted the British Amateur, the 2007 Walker Cup, the 1968 Curtis Cup, The Senior British Open and in 2015 it will host the Irish Open on the European Tour.

Looking around the clubhouse there are many artefacts outlining this history and when you look at the players in the US Walker Cup team, you can see why GB&I lost. Even if they did have Rory McIlroy on their side, the USA had Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschell, Webb Simpson and all but one of the rest went on to play on the PGA Tour

2007 Walker Cup Team

Quite what the Americans made of the course I am not sure. It must have looked like the moon to some of them and when the European Tour comes, there could be a few more bemused faces. The friendly club professional Kevin Whiston says that the course has been given a license for crowds of 45,000 a day for that event, as the dunes provide many excellent viewing points.

If it is a success, could the Open Championship be next to head to Royal County Down? It would certainly not be out of place in the list of Open Championship golf courses and it would rival Turnberry for the most scenic location, but with a much better course.

So how can I summarise Royal County Down? It deserves its lofty ranking in all these top 100 lists and if you haven't been there, then you must go. The winter green fee rates are a steal and even the summer rates are decent enough for 2 rounds, as you will appreciate it even more when you know where you are going.

Plus, you will want to turn and see that view from the 4th tee one more time.