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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.