Royal County Down: Irish Golf’s Dark Star

We worked our way up Ireland’s eastern coastline from Dublin toward Belfast with one of the world’s big boys, Royal County Down, on the agenda.  After a tough driving day; wet, slick, and breezy, we’d made Newcastle, about 30 miles south of Belfast, and taken rooms at the Slieve Donard, a massive old dowager overlooking Dundrum Bay.  Close to the golf course, too.  A two-minute stroll along a path framed by tall privet hedges to the pro shop.  Nothing if not handy.

We had the good luck to stumble upon tickets for Christy Moore’s show that night in the hotel theater.  In the pantheon of Irish rock and roll/balladeers, only Van Morrison occupies a more exalted spot than Moore.  He is much-loved, a hard worker on stage, joking and deadly serious by turns, playing the house.  He sang about love and music and politics.  In Ireland, always and forever there will be the politics.  But for me, the vague feeling of risk that was once part of trips involving Belfast and Londonderry is gone, though the aphorism that what has gone on between England and Ireland should never be remembered by the Irish nor forgotten by the English still obtains.

Outside the Slieve, I’d spent a little time preparing the emotions for the donnybrook scheduled for the morning. The town, strung with lights, had an almost carnival look about it, but on closer inspection the lights weren’t signifying much.  A seaside town gone out of season.  The lighthouse marking the north tip of Dundrum Bay was flashing, warning mariners off with a snapping beam of white light.  Between me and it, I knew, lay 18 holes of golf that were, besides being memorable, hard.  Difficulty is not necessarily a component of a great course.  Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Course, for instance, does not deal out the punishment with the remorselessness that County Down does.  But I hadn’t been to Portrush yet, and knew only that come morning, I’d pay a good bit for my mistakes.

I played on a Monday morning, and so the place was deserted.  An indifferent-looking assistant pro looked up from his newspaper and waved me towards the first tee.  There was a starter’s hut, sans starter, and  a very small practice green behind the tee boxes.  County Down is an odd links in that the water’s presence is felt but the Bay itself goes virtually unseen.  The fairways run like rivers through big-shouldered dunes, and while you can smell the water, hear its wash along the shoreline, and are obliged to respect its breezes, the water itself is a thing beyond.

This setup is the look right from the first tee.  I hit off, and lured by my ball, followed along and entered County Down, the dark star of Irish golf, a consuming world of ragged-edged bunkers, blind tee shots, humps, swales, twists, gorse and thistle.

There are many ways to define a golf course that lifts itself above the rest—even the very good—and can arguably be called great.  They all, I think, begin with good ground.  All the rest; setting up hazards, creating danger (or the perception of danger), giving the player more than one way to play toward the same result, all these rise off the foundation of good ground.  Great courses are never shoehorned into a real estate parcel.  As different as they look, feel and play, they are true to their environs.

County Down was shaped only by the hands of God and Old Tom Morris (Morris worked for four gold guineas; God’s earnings are unrecorded).  The collaboration wove a world of wind-and sea-scoured defiles that not only shapes the course, but creates as remote and absorbing a feeling as I’ve eve felt on a golf course.  It wasn’t until rethinking the round that one of the strongest emotions it produced, that of the loneliness that singles acquire, is especially strong at County Down because one can rarely see another hole.  Fore is a cry seldom heard.

Morris said the golf course was 90 percent built the day he first set foot on the site.  He was left to design only the bunkering and shaping of greens. In this he was artful.  We can feel this something, this hand and glove union of the game and the ground, at some moment early in the round—a click in the part of the player’s brain devoted to golf that registers, gee, this place is really, really something.  At County Down, where the first holes move steadily away from the clubhouse, I hit off on the 3rd, a sinuous par-4 of 440 yards, and even though the ball finished in the fairway it was right of center, and so my view of the green was compromised by a shoulder of dune intruding into the fairway.

I suppose there are golfers, some of them mumbling about “fairness”, who would have the offending hummock shaved away.  But no.  County Down sunk a black and white candy-striped pole with a black and white bullseye atop it into the ground behind the green.  Hit it at the pole and trust.  That’s when I thought: there’s no place quite like this.  And turning that corner is where the click came and the rest of the world vanished behind me.

County Down truly is hard—I mean by this it is not open to negotiation, to half-shot penalties for balls that stray and can be thrashed back into play, or tee shots that never get going and just make a hole longer.  On many holes, the carry from the tee is forced.  Keeping it straight avoids the trouble running alongside the fissures of fairway.  Accuracy off the tee is vital –and rewarding –anywhere, but the grasping runs of nettles and spiky gorse and lank grasses at County Down make it vital.  They are as entangling as any.  Even finding a ball in that clumpy, grasping wilderness is a bit of misfortune, for hitting it out is like trying to swing a club in a field of railroad spikes.

That said, a ball in the fairway almost always opens a scoring opportunity.  The green complexes tend toward the simple and straightforward, and the course’s length is not insuperable (6722 yards from the middle tees, 6190 from the front.)  Some holes,  such as the aforementioned third, the fourth (a 212-yard par-3 to a slippery green) and the 9th (a par-4 of 425 yards) will play shorter than the card if the wind is right.

Playing to a handicap — “marker” in United Kingdom parlance – of nine, I most certainly took some scrapes along the ankles as the price of waywardness, but I birdied two holes, including a lipped out eagle try on the short, blind  (480 yard) par-5 12th, and those, of course, are the things you remember.

Blind.  Five of County Down’s tee shots are blind, further amplifying the feeling of mystery, of constantly needing to round a corner in order to see what lies ahead.  Since the course includes four par-3s, the mystery of where you are going with the driver nets out to five of 14 swings — more than one-third.  These blind tee shots, marked though they are with rather tentative-feeling directional aids (white-painted stones the size of seed pearls set at the far limit of visibility), are the one serious criticism leveled at County Down.  It’s a good grill room debate.  In fact, say some, (include me in this), a blind shot is only truly blind once.  But, say others, you can never swing with quite the conviction you’d like to when you can’t see where you’re going.  Blind shots equal flawed architecture.  You decide.

On balance, I wanted to play County Down again.  For the golf, and simply for being there, enveloped in the coarse beauty of the dunes and the thistle and the gorse.  I had been awed by it, enchanted, really, and I would have liked to switched attitudes next time and simply play it as hard and well as I could.

On the last turn back towards home, the spires of Newcastle’s churches and the Mountains of Mourne lift in the background.  It is a time of reawakening.  There really is a world beyond the green thread Old Tom pulled through the dunes below.  You don’t finish County Down: you emerge from it.

Royal County Down is justifiably called one of the world’s great golf courses.  Unlike most of its brethren — and there are of course truly great golf courses throughout the United Kingdom and in Ireland — County Down is a bit of a doyenne. And with one or two exceptions, that’s rare.  There is a tale that at least one golf club in the U.K. posts this sign outside its pro shop: “All visitors welcome except members of Royal County Down.”

Many a round in the U.K. and Ireland ends up with club members and officials having the Yank into the grill, but County Down was as quiet and unpeopled when I finished as when I began.  I found a spot in the car park and used that as my clubhouse, changing my shoes while leaning on a car.  Municipal-style.  And I considered as that day’s playing partner the links themselves: Old Tom’s layout, the aiming rocks, the candy-striped marker pole, the forbidding beauty of the place.

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