As I wrap up my recent visit to Northern Ireland I have a stunning confession to make: I did not play Royal County Down.
Why is this such big news? Because RCD, as some fans call it (though the Irish tend to shorten it just to County Down) is indisputably one of the greatest golf courses on earth, and by consensus the best in Northern Ireland, and by most rankings, the best in all of Ireland period.
To put it bluntly, I know some golf experts who are as knowledgeable about architecture as they come, who would argue that RCD is not one of the best course on earth, it is THE best. And they make good points.
Now by way of clarification, I should add that while I skipped it this trip for logistical reasons, I have played RCD several times before, from the off season to the pro-am of the British Senior Open, so I have seen it under differing conditions, and it never disappoints.
We all have our favorites, and mine happens to be the Ailsa at Turnberry, which most magazines rank top ten but nobody else has first. The usual suspects are Pine Valley, Cypress Point and the Old Course, but the reality is that once you get to the ten or so best courses on earth, the order does not matter – they are all great. And RCD is one of those, a true contender.
So what makes Royal County Down so great?
First of all, there is the setting, which is incredibly beautiful. It runs along the ocean, as most links do, but more so, with constant ocean views from holes set high amidst towering dunes. The fairways are bracketed with heater, and then with gorse, so that at the right time of year when everything is blooming, the course becomes a sea of green, purple and yellow that is simply unmatched in its artistic elegance, and compounded by the sea, the sand and some of the most incredible sunsets anyplace, It helps to play it the waning hours, or better yet, play 36, and enjoy a superlative experience on the closing holes. Just when it can’t get any better, the back nine plays towards the wonderful backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne.
Words cannot express how gorgeous this is. But if you have been in any golf hotel that puts up reproduced paintings of the world’s great courses you have seen RCD, whether you knew it or not, because the view from the closing holes is an absolute classic, an iconic image of the game.
So what’s the catch?
For most players, myself included, RCD is simply too hard. It beats the hell out of you, beauty or no beauty. But it does not do so in a stupid way, like PGA West. Rather it is a very smart golf course, one that separates the men from the boys, and quickly. That is why it so hard to rank. If you are a single digit player, or better yet scratch, I think you will find it the finest golf course you have ever played. If you play off 20 or above, like the vast majority of golfers, you will find the literal example of a good walk spoiled.
You hear pundits talk all the time about “using every club in the bag” as a test of good golf design. At RCD it goes a step further – you use every shot in your arsenal, which quickly becomes a problem if like me, you are lucky to have one that works. The course calls for you too hit it high, hit it low, left to right and right to left, in ways that simply don’t allow for other options. This is great fun for those who can execute such chicanery, inevitably disappointing for those who can’t. To make matters worse, the wind affects play more than most links because it runs across, rather then into or behind, which is much easier to deal with.
I recall my caddie telling me on yet another blind drive to hit it over the rock, and aiming stone perhaps three feet wide. I hit what I thought was a A drive, maybe not A+, but damn good, just a smidge right of the stone, like a few feet. I looked for his smile but instead saw him shaking his head. “I said hit it over the stone.” On a golf course where very near misses are penal, most golfers are going to struggle.
So here’s the book on RCD: if you love golf you have to play it, it is both incredibly well designed and incredibly gorgeous, but like golf itself, the course is a cruel mistress, and should you somehow manage a birdie, it will be a birdie you will never forget.