Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Royal County Down Golf Club Review – Newcastle, N. Ireland

In the United States, there is a very clear line of demarcation between public and private golf courses. There is a plethora of fantastic public golf in the U.S. Some like World Woods are very reasonable. Others like Whistling Straits are not. Elite private courses are just that; extremely elite and private. The odds of most of us getting on them are slim to none. Imagine a nice gentleman on holiday from the U.K. calling (insert private club here) and asking about visitor days. Do you think they’d laugh at him or just hang up? I imagine an exchange going something like this:

Pro Shop: Hello, Pro Shop. How may I help you?
Tourist: Hi, I’m travelling from overseas next fall and I’d like to enquire about availability for visitor tee times. What days do you take outside play?
Pro Shop: (Stunned silence)
Tourist: Are you still there?
Pro Shop: I’m sorry sir. The only way to play our course as a visitor is to be accompanied by a member.
Tourist: Well, I don’t have any Fortune 500 CEO’s on speed dial. Is there any other way of getting a game at your club?
Pro Shop: No. Our club is strictly for the enjoyment of our 300 members and their guests.
Tourist: The course can’t be that busy, can it? I read that almost all of your members are national and don’t play the club more than once or twice a year. Shouldn’t there be plenty of openings for visitors anxious to experience one of the most historically significant golf courses in the world?
Pro Shop: No, we’d rather our course sit empty on most days and be there strictly for the enjoyment of our membership. It doesn’t matter if they are members of a dozen private clubs; it’s all about choice for them. After all, our members come to our club to get away from the unwashed masses, not to play golf with them.
Tourist: This is absurd. You don’t have any days set aside for visitors? Money is no object. I’m a member of a golf club over here in the U.K. and I can gladly get a letter of introduction from our golf professional.
Pro Shop: (getting annoyed). Sir, didn’t we actually win our War of Independence? The reason we fought for our freedom was to establish snobby golf clubs that most golfers like you can never sniff, much less take a divot on. How did you get this phone number anyway?

The good news is I’m not bitter at all about not being able to play many of the elite clubs in the U.S. The even better news is that I knew most of the clubs in the UK and Ireland allowed for outside play. Some clubs it’s more limited than others, but I knew that I could probably get a tee time one way or another if I planned far enough in advance.

While planning the trip I was like a kid in a candy store. Muirfield? Check. You can even request times right off their website. Royal Dornoch? Check. They even have twilight rates! Heck, the hardest course to get on is probably the Old Course and it’s the most public of them all. So with this newfound freedom of choice I emailed the pro shop at Royal County Down about a year ago and inquired about a game. There was a total of two times available during the days I was there, and they were afternoon times at that. No worries, I was booked at a course that had been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.

Royal County Down Golf Club
One of the many fantastic views at Royal County Down

One of the most memorable parts of my day at RCD, besides of course the golf course itself, is a photograph that they have in the clubhouse. It is a picture of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy circa 2010, shortly after Graeme won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It’s not a posed, “thanks for hosting me”, celebrity shot. It’s just a shot of two guys, walking the course by themselves with their Sunday bags, enjoying an afternoon round. It’s a simple, yet amazing photograph.

If you’ve read this far you probably care about the golf course itself; not my rants about private clubs or photography. If I could describe Royal County Down in one word it would be “mesmerizing.” The course lies between the Mountains of Mourne on one side and the Dundrum Bay on the other. Every time you look around you’ll just say “wow.” The course winds its way through the dunes, up and down hills, and it simply feels like a you’re on a leisurely stroll in a beautiful park. Even the rough, with its picturesque heather, is gorgeous.

A green at Royal County Down Golf Club
Note the semi-evil grassy mounds in the runoff areas

It’s simply a great course. The holes are interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking. I can see why it’s so highly ranked. Royal Portrush just kicks your ass and leaves you feeling like you went a few rounds with Rhonda Rousey. Royal County Down might be as difficult but you’re so enamored with the beauty of the place that it seems a little less punishing.A fairway at Royal County Down Golf Club

What makes the course so difficult? Besides the typical (Northern) Irish wind, the crowned greens are extremely challenging to hold, much less putt. One gentleman I spoke with in the locker room thought the greens were more challenging than those of Portrush, a scary thought by itself. I don’t know that I’d call them “collection areas” (or at least as I know collection areas on courses in the U.S.) but there are many spots where balls just seem to end up. And chipping back to the greens is every bit as difficult as you’d expect it to be.

The infamous 9th fairway at Royal County Down Golf Club
The infamous 9th fairway at Royal County Down

To provide some context to the actual difficulty of the course, it’s best to relay the caddy’s description of the par 3 7th hole. While the hole plays a mere 135 yards from the men’s tees, the caddy described the hole as “the world’s shortest par 5.” Unfortunately, the caddy was accurate. Even though the hole is extremely short, it is borderline impossible unless you can hit a high, arching shot to within about a 25 by 25-foot area on the green. Everywhere else was dead. There is massive bunker short of the green.  Shots left, right, and long, all roll off a steep slope into deep rough. I pinballed a couple shots across the green before picking up.

The fairway of the 16th hole at Royal County Down Golf Club
The beautiful 16th hole at Royal County Down

While still on the subject of caddies, I’d highly recommend taking one at RCD. Even though the course is by no means unfair, there are many blind shots. There are several tee shots where one can hit driver, but it might not be the best play. And as I mentioned earlier, the greens are so difficult that any help in reading them would be useful.

A narrow chute through the gorse at Royal County Down
Thankfully this is not one of the fairways at Royal County Down

So is Royal County Down worth the relatively high £170 you’ll pay to play it? Let me explain it this way, I have never felt so sad to see the 18th hole. On one hand, I had the calmest, happy, and peaceful feelings going on walking up the 18th. On the other hand, I just didn’t want the round to end. I’ve played plenty of rounds in my life and been ready for more golf, but I’ve never felt the same emotion as walking up the 18th fairway at Royal County Down. I think that says all you need to know about whether or not it’s worth the money.

As an aside, if there is any doubt as to how friendly the folks from RCD are, let me tell you about after my round. I was staying about a half-mile away from the course at the Golf Links House in Newcastle. Because my wife had the car, I figured I’d just walk back to the hotel, golf bag and all; no big deal. As I’m walking out of the parking lot one of the pro shop employees stops me, asks me if I need a ride, then proceeds to drive me to my hotel. It was a small gesture but one I’ll not soon forget.

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Royal Portrush Golf Club Review – Northern Ireland

Golf in a Cruel World

Fans of the HBO television show Game of Thrones (GOT) will quickly recognize many of the locations around Royal Portrush Golf Club. Arya Stark’s roam through the Dark Hedges, the Carrick-A-Rede Bridge and Brienne of Tarth’s victory,  and Cairncastle and the beheading in the pilot. As a matter of fact, there are day-long driving tours one can do if you’d like to see as many of the GOT sets as possible during your time in Northern Ireland.

The 13th green at Royal Portrush Golf Club
The 13th green at Royal Portrush

So what does this actually have to do with playing golf at Royal Portrush? How could a fictional show set hundreds (?) of years ago have any relationship to playing at an elite golf club? If you are a fan of the show, you will know that a good way to describe the world in which GOT is set, is simply “cruel.” These were the days before indoor plumbing and gunpowder. These were the days of beheadings and hand to hand combat; days when men choked to death on their own blood after an unsuccessful jousting match.

A green at Royal Portrush Golf Club
Moral of the story? Don’t miss greens at Royal Portrush

The good news is there will be no jousting at the Royal Portrush, the bad news (that of course depends on what you want out of a golf course) is that Portrush might be the hardest track you’ll ever play. I have written about difficult golf courses in the past, Coyote Springs in particular comes to mind. Many of those courses are made difficult by the extreme bunkering, the lightning-fast greens, and the forced carries. Portrush also has lightning-fast greens. The bunkering in some cases could be called extreme (the 17th hole and “Big Nellie”), but the bunkering is mostly there to punish an errant or overly-valiant shot. There are also relatively few forced carries at Royal Portrush. You can play the ball along the ground and still score well. It’s not a course that requires you to hit it a mile. It simply demands precision.

13th hole Royal Portrush
The windblown 13th hole at Royal Portrush

The difficulty of Royal Portrush, in my opinion, comes from two particular areas:

  1. The slopes of both the fairways and the greens. In some cases I’d describe the slopes as “subtle”, in other cases I’d call them terrifying. An example of the more subtle variety occurs as early as the 2nd hole. There are three bunkers in the right-hand rough lying about 190–240 yards from the white tees. I hit what I would call a “weak fade” off the tee. It wasn’t awful and it was by no means a good shot. On many golf courses you’d roll into the right side of the fairway or maybe into the first cut of rough. At Royal Portrush weak shots like that get drawn to bunkers like magnets. There are miles of safe ground to the left. If I had played the proper shot, a draw, and even overcooked it, I would have been fine. The weak shot on the other hand is roundly punished.
  2. The wind. The day I played it was probably a 2–3 club wind. While wind will make any golf course challenging, the exacting nature of Royal Portrush means that the wind makes an otherwise challenging golf course oppressive in its difficulty.
the 15th hole at Royal Portrush
Looking back on the 15th hole, I hit what I thought was a perfect drive down the middle only to never see the ball again…

Looking back on my round and thumbing through the course guide I was struck by how easy the course appears from an aerial view. Again, there are few forced carries, it’s long but not ridiculously so, and the fairways appear wide enough. Then it struck me the true genius of the layout. The course is really as difficult as one chooses to make it. Most of the holes can be played along the ground. Most of the greens offer a very wide opening from which to approach. The challenge comes in when trying to play a typical American-type game. Playing high-arching shots in the hope of landing (and sticking) by pins is recipe for disaster. Playing for the front opening of greens and allowing for roll is a smarter play.

Royal Portrush Golf Club
I’m not sure if any hole says “links golf” better than this shot

So is Royal Portrush the kind of course that beats you into submission where by the end of the round you can’t wait for it to end? Is it as “cruel” as expected? Nothing could be further from the truth. First off, even if you shoot 65 on the front nine you will be greeted by the most simple and perfect halfway house in golf. If the flag is flying, stop in for a sandwich and an Irish Whiskey. There is nothing quite like enjoying a Bushmills neat in a proper glass in-between nines on one of the most beautiful sites in golf. That’s probably the only slight downside to Royal Portrush. The course and its scenery is so gorgeous you just want to take it all in. Unfortunately it’s one of the most demanding and attention-requiring layouts you’ll ever have the privilege of playing. Even though it kicked this 9 handicapper’s behind all the way to a 98, it’s a course I could play again and again.

the halfway house at Royal Portrush Golf Club
One of the coolest halfway houses you’ll ever come across

Random thoughts about Royal Portrush

  • Remember this summer’s US Open at Chambers Bay? Remember the shots that seemed to be a couple feet off line that ended up 60 yards away from their intended target? I could see similar issues at Portrush when The Open Championship comes in 2019. The course is so hilly and plays so firm and fast for visitors, I can’t imagine how it will play under major championship conditions.
  • Hole #14, Calamity, is one of the most visually stunning holes you’ll ever see. Not only do you play your shot over a cavernous ravine, the view onto the rest of the course from there (mostly the Valley Links course) is spectacular. What is less spectacular is the proximity of the 15th tee to the 14th green. The 14th the day I played it played about 200 yards from the men’s tees. Any shot pulled about 10 yards left of the green comes right down on 15 tee. One of the players in my group almost drilled the group in front of us. The group behind us DID drill us…or at least they drilled our trolley. It would be one thing if it was a easy short iron shot to a mild par 3, but this is a hybrid or more for most players. It’s not like it’s a precise shot for most players hence beware while playing off the 15th tee.

    Hole #14 at Royal Portrush Golf Club
    The par 3 14th hole at Portrush, aptly named “Calamity”
  • I had heard that caddies were less-necessary at Portrush, at least when compared to Royal County Down. The reason for this is supposedly RCD features at least a half dozen blind tee shots, whereas Portrush it’s “all out in front of you.” While I agree Portrush is pretty straightforward, I do think a good caddy would be highly beneficial. There are a fair number of blind shots and the course is so tough that one should take all the help they can get.
  • My only regret at Portrush is that I didn’t get a chance to play the Valley Course. According to some, it’s supposed to be one of the top courses in Northern Ireland. Check out this from Tom Doak in Links Magazine:

Overshadowed by its big sister, the championship Dunluce course, the Valley course is probably the third-best course in Northern Ireland. There is a wonderful set of par threes, and the rugged terrain outside the fairways minimizes the need for bunkers and other manmade hazards. Now we have to cross our fingers that the powers that be don’t ruin the Valley in the process of expanding its big sister to be Open-worthy.

The Valley Course at Royal Portrush Golf Club
The Valley Course at Royal Portrush

 

If you liked the photography in this post click here to go to my website to see full-size versions of all the images. All images are free to use as your desktop wallpaper and may also be purchased as prints.