Royal County Down, Northern Ireland

If Augusta National is “The Cathedral in the Pines” and Cypress Point is “The Sistine Chapel of Golf,” what epithet could possibly do justice to Newcastle, to the golfing shrine that is Royal County Down?

Of all the world’s great golf destinations, Newcastle was the acknowledged favorite of esteemed English golf writer Peter Dobereiner, who thought it “exhilarating, even without a club in your hand.” As for the degree of challenge presented by the links, Dobereiner’s American counterpart, Herbert Warren Wind, declared it to be “the sternest examination of golf I have ever taken.” At one time or another Royal County Down has been adjudged more beautiful than Turnberry, more spectacular than Ballybunion, more natural and more charming than Royal Dornoch and more punishing than Carnoustie.

The golf, then, is extraordinary. The accompanying scenery adds a touch of majesty and romance. Newcastle is where, in the immortal words of Percy French, “the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.” There are soaring, smoky blue peaks and a glistening turquoise ocean, or—when the elements are stirred—forbidding mist-covered mountains in a wild, turbulent sea.  Situated some 30 miles south of Belfast in Northern Ireland and fringed by the impressive sweep of Dundrum Bay, this is where towering sand hills appear wrapped in bright yellow gorse during spring and early summer, while in September are liberally sprinkled with purple heather. On such a stage and amid such splendor weave the emerald fairways of Royal County Down. Newcastle may be the greatest links on earth.

Open any book titled Great Golf Courses of the World and chances are it will include a photograph of Royal County Down—probably an image taken from the championship tee of the fourth. The first time you see a picture you fall immediately under the spell, and you make a vow: One day I will stand on that exact spot and drink in that view.

In fact, pictures seldom do the scene justice. For one thing, the Mountains of Mourne are much closer and rise far more dramatically than people imagine; also, the colors are even more vivid than the best trick a modern camera can effect.

So the scenery and the setting can exceed expectations, but is the golf links really “more beautiful than Turnberry” and “more spectacular than Ballybunion?” Even on a dull day when clouds envelop the mountains and hills, Royal County Down is a stunning place. This is because the golf course itself is stunning. There is no famous lighthouse and no Ailsa Craig sitting off the coast of Dundrum Bay, nor is there a sequence of Oceanside holes like the fourth to the 10th at Turnberry, or ones that resemble the rollercoasting 11th and 17th at Ballybunion—but Newcastle doesn’t want for them. It has several holes capable of sending the pulse into overdrive.

After hearing the crash of the sea as you walk along the first and second fairways, pause on the very back tee of the 473-yard third: You are as close to the ocean as could ever wish to be on a golf course, and what a thrilling hole confronts you! The third at Royal County Down has been featured in many a panel’s “greatest 18 holes.” For its entire length it runs parallel to the shore and is distinguished by an ever narrowing split-level fairway—when the wind is against, it is a ferociously difficult par-4. Then, honoring that vow, climb to the top tee of the 217-yard fourth to savor one of the world’s finest short holes, and where a sea of heather and gorse (never mind 10 bunkers!) awaits the mis-hit shot; be teased by the sharply dog-legging fifth; enjoy the wonderful sea views from the sixth tee and permit your jaw to drop with dignity at the ninth. At this instant, you will be completing what no lesser a judge than Tom Watson reckons to be “as fine a nine holes as I have ever played.” The five-time British Open champion, like everyone, was particularly struck by the 486-yard, par -5 ninth. Here is where an exhilarating uphill tee shot must be targeted at the mighty peak of Slieve Donard—undisputed king of the Mountains of Mourne—and followed (assuming the drive has successfully flown the hill and descended into the valley below) by a long second to a plateau green.

On the back nine, clamber up the giant hill at the 11th to experience the relief of seeing your ball nestled safely in the middle of the fairway; prepare to be amazed by the character and challenge of the long, curving 445-yard 13th with its splendid amphitheater green—another of the links’ world famous two-shotter; dare to go for the flag a the precipice style 15th; and dare to go for the green at the chasmic 16th, a tiny four-par of 265 yards.

The sand hills at Newcastle are not merely exceptionally rugged but (unlike at Ballybunion and Turnberry) they are attractively cloaked in gorse and heather. Then there are the extraordinarily distinctive bunkers with their steep faces framed by wild tussocky grasses Yes, all very beautiful and very spectacular: in the word of Bernard Darwin, “the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams.”

What of the claim that Royal County Down is “more natural and more charming than Royal Dornoch?” Well, as for its capacity to charm, Newcastle undoubtedly has mesmeric qualities. Sir Peter Allen, a lifelong admirer of the links, once described Slieve Donard as “perpetual gazingstock.” Sure enough, when you play the course for the first time it is tempting to walk the first three fairways backwards, so enchanting is the view over your shoulder. The full ancient Mariner treatment comes with the next tee shot.

As befits a golf course originally laid out by Old Tom Morris, there are many charming features of the design, and many charming holes. The second is an obvious example, with its central fairway bunker seemingly wedged between two large sand dunes; the short, impish seventh is another, as is the almost eccentric shape of the 13th.

The notorious blind shots at Newcastle could also be described as both charming and eccentric.  Much is made of them (and the comments are usually negative) but as they are all tee shots, and none is at a par-3, it could be argued that their effect on play is limited. In any event, the first time you play at Newcastle you are likely to be spellbound you will want to forgive its every blemish, including the blindness, and once you get to know the course, the blindness becomes irrelevant—or, as Tommy Armour once famously put it: “There is nothing blind to any man with a memory.”

It is said that the ghost of Old Tom still wanders the fairways and haunts the rough at Royal County Down. Perhaps the club should have paid him a little more than four guineas for his work! Of course, what such a modest fee indicates is that there was not a great deal Old Tom felt he needed to do. One has only to reflect on the superb collection of natural green sites to appreciate that Mother Nature was the principal architect at Newcastle.

Finally, is Royal County Down truly “more punishing than Carnoustie?” Measuring almost 7,000 yards from the championship tees, it is a similar length. The finishing three holes are not as tough as those on the famous Scottish links (they couldn’t be!) and whether those characterful tussocky faced bunkers—there are approximately 130 in total—are as destructive as the vast cavernous pots of Carnoustie, is difficult to judge. But, certainly, its fairways are far more undulating and generally narrower.  Moreover, the average size of the greens at Newcastle is markedly less; indeed, the putting surfaces are frequently dwarfed by the surrounding dunes and, with the exception of the 17th, they are not inclined to gather the ball. Those blind shots are none too friendly either!

But this shouldn’t lead one to the conclusion that Newcastle is overly penal. There are some subtle, even graceful holes, such as the very underrated par-4 eighth and the beautifully flowing par-five 12th, and many that are highly strategic in nature. When all is said and done; perhaps you cannot fairly compare Royal County Down with any other of the world’s great links for it is too different, too special. It is, to adopt a great Irishism, so very unique.