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Royal County Down: Northern Ireland’s Crown Jewel

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Royal County Down Golf Club, located in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, along the shores of Dundrum Bay, is considered one of the finest links golf courses in the world. Founded in 1889, it boasts a rich history and pedigree in championship golf. Its natural setting against the Mountains of Mourne provides a dramatic backdrop that enhances its reputation as one of the most scenic courses on earth.  

This post will explore the course Harry Vardon once declared “the hardest course in Ireland.” We’ll learn its origin and storied history, its critical acclaim as a perennial top-ranked course, and some of the biggest events it has hosted, including the Walker Cup, British Amateur Championship, and the Irish Open. We’ll take a hole-by-hole tour of the challenging Championship course, analyzing its unique features and landmark holes.

Additionally, we’ll take a lesson on the bump and run from hometown hero and Major champion Rory McIlroy. Finally, we recommend further reading and videos to enhance your knowledge of Royal County Down. As always, the images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Origins and History

Founded in 1889, Royal County Down Golf Club has a rich history. A group of influential businessmen and professionals from Belfast, drawn by Newcastle’s scenic beauty and sandy linksland, established the club and commissioned an original 9-hole course on the site. They brought in renowned golf architect Old Tom Morris, paying him the modest fee of 4 guineas, to design this inaugural layout focused on the flatter terrain.

The club quickly flourished, adding nine holes after just a few years to form the Championship course. A series of renowned golf architects have shaped Royal County Down over the ensuing decades into a world-class links test, including Harry Vardon, Harry Colt, and Martin Ebert. Their enhancements added strategic bunkering and contoured greens, incorporating the dramatic dunes and landscape for which the course is acclaimed.

The course has received lavish praise from golf writers and architects. Bernard Darwin stated that Royal County Down provided “golf as we know it when we wake on the morning of the Resurrection.” Tom Doak called it “the best golf course I have ever seen” while describing the 4th hole as “the best par-3 in the world.” Five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson said it “demands all the skill a first-class links can demand.”

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Notable Events

As one of the world’s premier links courses, Royal County Down has hosted several prominent golf championships and tournaments. Most recently, in 2015, the course welcomed the Irish Open after 76 years. Royal County Down previously hosted the event in 1928, 1935, and 1939 – all before World War II. The return of the Irish Open demonstrated the capability of Royal County Down to hold a major professional event with large galleries.

Additionally, Royal County Down hosted three Senior British Open Championships from 2000-2002, drawing legendary champions like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson during their historic appearances. At the elite amateur level, the course hosted the Walker Cup in 2007, where the U.S. narrowly defeated Great Britain and Ireland. On the women’s side, Royal County Down was also the site of the prestigious British Ladies Amateur Championship in 2019.

The club also has a long history with the Irish Amateur Championship, hosting the event just years after the club’s founding in 1889. These early amateur events and four Irish Opens pre-World War II underscore Royal County Down’s important role in developing championship golf over its history. With its beauty, challenge, and pedigree, Royal County Down seems destined to host many more landmark tournaments and events.

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy grew up playing golf in Northern Ireland, honing his skills on classic links courses like Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. He has praised the course, specifically calling out the views from the 4th hole tee as his favorite in golf.

Today’s Golfer quotes Rory, “I played my only Walker Cup there, and though we lost as a team, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When I’m home, I play the odd round with my mates at RCD, and I’d love to play a professional tournament there one day,” and “The more you play it, the more you recognize it for the class place it is.”

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Rory’s Bump and Run

The bump and run is an essential shot to master for links golf. You’ll often face tight lies, firm greens, and windy conditions where bump and run are safer and smarter than lofted pitch shots. Use a short iron, play the ball back in your stance, make a putting stroke to minimize wrist hinge, focus on contacting the ball first, and visualize the landing spot. Links courses demand creativity – with the bump and run’s simplicity and consistency, it takes nerves and doubts out of tricky greenside shots.

Like his countryman, Harry Bradshaw, Rory favors the bump and run with a less lofted club when playing links golf. Similar to the pitch and run that we learned from Bradshaw in our post on Portmarnock, Rory makes a few setup adjustments and hits the shot like a putt. “You want to keep the ball back in your stance. If anything, you want to try and get a little bit closer to it. Get the shaft a little more vertical.” He describes his technique, “I don’t try to do much else. I try to take a lot of wrist hinge out of it and go pretty rigid…almost just like a long putt.”

For more on Rory, check out our “Chasing Distance: Rory McIlroy off the Tee,” where we learn about his fitness routine, approach with the driver, and learn the split grip drill.

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The Course

The Championship Course plays 7,186 yards from the tips. The par 71 layout routed on a narrow strip of linksland features blind shots, forced carries, sloping greens, and distinctive bunkers framed by wild grasses. Not the traditional out-and-back links, both nines start and end near the clubhouse.

The course puts a premium on driving, with fairways varying from narrow slivers to generous landing areas, almost always affected by wind, as the course changes direction frequently. The opening 13-hole sequence has been called “perfection,” and as George Waters wrote in his acclaimed book “Sand and Golf,” Royal County Down possesses “the finest combination of beauty and challenge in golf.”

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First Nine

The opening holes at Royal County Down wind along the shoreline, encountering dunes and blind shots. After a relatively benign starting par-5, the course bears its teeth at the 2nd with a blind drive. The approach must carry a vast revetted bunker 100 yards short of a raised green.

The spectacular par-4 3rd plays along the Dundrum Bay on the right, with most of the hole framed by dunes. The optimal line off the tee down the left side brings the bunkers into play in a typical risk/reward fashion. Missing the fairway all but eliminates your chances of hitting the green in regulation. While the hole plays to a stout 475 yards, the relatively flat and open green is a small consolation.

Royal County Down then unveils two of its most thrilling and photographed holes at the 4th and 5th. The 4th is a short but exacting par-3 in an amphitheater setting, surrounded by bunkers and hollows with the Mountains of Mourne looming behind. The 5th demands a blind drive over a hill, revealing a breathtaking view down the fairway with the bay beyond, and the shortest par-4, the outstanding 6th swings left around a dune ridge.

The scenic, short 7th is known as “The Blind,” and provides a stark contrast to the forced carries required throughout the course. You are faced with a blind tee shot over a large dune that obscures the view of the small, well-bunkered green surrounded by undulating terrain. In the 1933 Irish Amateur, Eric Fiddian amazingly aced the hole in the morning and afternoon rounds but ultimately lost to Jack McLean.

Royal County Down crescendos at its world-famous 9th along the bay. It’s one of golf’s most photogenic, considered one of the great sights in golf. A risk-reward par-4 requires a blind drive over the hill, which then discloses a spectacular view down the fairway with a green tucked between bunkers left and hollows right.

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Second Nine

The second nine holds historical importance as part of Old Tom Morris’s original 9-hole layout from 1889. The current 10th green may have been in use for over 115 years and the routing has remained intact, with some recent changes to holes 9-11. 

While the first nine garners much of the acclaim for scenery, the second also provides spectacular vistas. The downhill 10th hole offers views over the links to the sea. The famous 13th provides panoramic views from the tee, with much of the course layout visible against the backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne. 

The last of the short holes, the 14th, is another blind shot over a hill, but significantly longer. The landing area falls away towards the sea, with a waste area to the left. The 15th green is perched right alongside the shoreline, providing a beautiful scene of Dundrum Bay.  The 16th requires another forced carry to clear a ridge to the most benign green on the course.

The closing stretch heads back towards the clubhouse and becomes more open. The longest on the course, the home hole, is no respite as a demanding par-5. It features options off the tee, flirting with the gorse to the left to set up a reasonable second or playing safe to the right to avoid a big number.

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Royal County Down Today

Royal County Down continues its reign near the pinnacle of world golf rankings into 2024. It perennially ranks among the top courses globally, currently at #1 in Golf Digest’s “World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses” ranking and no worse than sixth in all other major rankings. The course will host the Horizon Irish Open from September 11-15, 2024.

The course remains in immaculate condition coming into the 2024 season. Royal County Down offers open tee times on its Championship course for visitors on various days of the week from March through September 2024, with green fees ranging from £215-470 per round. The backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne and the natural beauty of the links continue to shine through for those lucky enough to experience Royal County Down firsthand.

Visit Royal County Down online at https://www.royalcountydown.org.

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PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and the confidence they instill in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, are Royal County Down!

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Further Reading

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Royal County Down – Ecstatic Dreams
The Most Beautiful Golf Course on Earth
Royal County Down Club

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