My expectations were sky high when I visited Royal County Down last year. The famous Northern Ireland links is rated the top course in the world by Golf Digest and fourth by Golf Magazine. Everyone I had talked to told me how magical the place is. Every picture I had seen looked awesome. I had to make the trek.
Amazingly, Royal County Down exceeded my expectations. It’s out of this world and, without question, the best golf course I have ever played. The setting is amazing, the club is welcoming, and there are almost too many good golf holes to keep track of. All golfers should have this place at the top of their list of must-play courses
Royal County Down is the centerpiece of the tiny town of Newcastle, which sits next to Dundrum Bay in the southern part of Northern Ireland. The course is about a one-hour drive south of Belfast, and about two hours north of Dublin. The club was opened in 1889 and originally designed by Old Tom Morris. It has seen a number of changes over the years, which are well chronicled on the club’s website. Today, County Down remains a generally private club, but sets aside tee times for the public certain days of the week. You must book well in advance. Green fees range from 220 to 240 British Pounds, which is approximately 300 to 325 U.S. Dollars as of publication.
What’s good about County Down?
Everything! But if I had to break it down, I’d say…
The land: County Down is on land that is blessed for golf. Like any links course, County Down is right next to the sea. But it separates itself from other links courses in a number of ways that make it truly amazing. To start, the course features the most massive sand dunes that I have ever seen on a golf course. The dunes look awesome, and they frame many of the holes in a stunning fashion while also providing vistas for some incredible views of the course, Dundrum Bay, and the Mountains of Mourne. The course also features an abundance of tall native grass and gorse that adds to the course’s character. Sure, most links courses have tall grass and gorse, but County Down takes it to another level. It feels like a national park with a golf course carved into it. 100% pure. Finally, the turf at County Down is perfect for golf. It’s firm like the ground should be at any links course, but it wasn’t hard-pan firm like some other links courses. Instead, the turf had a touch of sponginess that allowed for harmoniously perfect contact between club, ball, and ground.
The collection of golf holes: There are sooooo many good holes at County Down. A strong argument can (and has) been made that the front nine at County Down is the best front nine in all of golf. But the back nine easily holds its own and has quite a collection of good holes too. Even the closing stretch, while lacking the WOW factor that the rest of the course has, provides an excellent finish, with a driveable par-4 and a testy par-5 to finish.
What’s bad about County Down?
Nothing! I wouldn’t change a thing.
Here are a few holes to note. Important disclaimer: I played County Down on an incredibly foggy day. The staff kept apologizing for the fog, but the fog did not ruin the experience one bit. Frankly, it turned out to be quite sensational to see every layer of this course revealed shot-by-shot as I traversed the course. The only downside was that I was not able to snap as many pictures as I normally do. There are lots of picture-worthy holes on this course that I just wasn’t able to get a good shot of because of the fog. But I still took enough to give you a good idea of why this place is so phenomenal.
I’ve provided two yardages for each hole: one from the 7,186-yard Championship Tees, and one from the 6,675-yard Stableford Tees, which are the tees I played, and which provide a great test for even low handicappers.
First hole, 539 / 503 yards: The opener at County Down provides a perfect introduction to the course. It’s a reachable par-5 framed by some huge dunes on the left and Dundrum Bay on the right. With no fairway bunkers to deal with, it’s a great hole to let one rip off the tee to set up a chance to reach the green in two. The green might be the longest on the course, I think it’s possible to have a 100 foot putt or even longer. Still, the first is probably the best birdie hole at County Down.
Third hole, 475 / 455 yards: As my readers know, I am the king of hyperbole. I often say something (golf or otherwise) is “one of the best” I’ve ever seen. With that said, I make the following statement with all sincerity: County Down’s third hole is the best par-4 I’ve ever played. It is EPIC. It starts with a slightly elevated tee that provides a great view of much of the front nine. From the tee, the fairway opens up on the left side over a pair of fairway bunkers, so the tendency will be to aim left over those bunkers. But a tee shot too far left results in a blind second shot over a massive dune that features one of the coolest blow-out bunkers I have ever seen. That dune and another to the right pinch the fairway to just a few yards wide from about 150 yards from the hole. The fairway then opens up on the other side of these dunes to a green that is framed by a literal mountain of a dune behind the green. The green itself is pretty flat, but there’s some more bunkers a few yards short of the green, then a small but nasty bunker to the left of the green. The combination of strategy and scenery on the third hole make it spectacular.
Fourth hole, 228 / 202 yards: The two one-shotters on County Down’s front nine aren’t template holes or quirky holes, but are still two of the best par-3s I’ve played at a links course. The first is the long fourth hole, which requires a big tee shot over a jungle of gorse and a flurry of bunkers to a green that, while forgiving with its depth, has steep fall-offs on both sides. It takes a great shot to find the green, and there are countless types of recovery shots that await the golfer who misses the green.
Seventh hole, 145 / 125 yards: The seventh is the second par-3 on the front nine and provides an excellent counterpart to the fourth hole. At less than 150 yards, it plays about 80 yards less than the fourth, but the tee shot is no less nervewracking. Unlike the fourth, there’s no bailing out short of the green. Instead, golfers must deal with a mean looking bunker that sits smack in the front of the putting surface. The seventh is the kind of hole that can feel like an easy par (or even birdie) with a tight short iron or wedge. But miss in the wrong spot and you’ll quickly be looking at a bogey.
Ninth hole, 486 / 428 yards: Remember when I raved about third hole? Some people will argue that the ninth is an even better hole! The ninth is a long par-4 that plays toward the clubhouse. The tee shot is blind over a hill that drops down to a flat fairway that is lined by beautiful dunes on both sides. The view from the top of the hill is one of the best in golf; the green is tucked away straight ahead, with the clubhouse, Dundrum Bay, and Mountains of Mourne all providing a postcard worthy backdrop. When I played, the fog shielded the bay and mountains from my view, but all you have to do is click here to see how amazing the view is on a clear day.
13th hole, 444 / 422 yards: Is the back nine at County Down less interesting than the front? I suppose, but it is still world-class. My favorite hole on the back is the par-4 13th, a somewhat lengthy par-4 that bends from left-to-right around some heather-ridden dunes up to an elevated green. The tee shot gives golfers a spectrum of options, ranging from of an iron well left of the dunes (the safe option) to a driver that cuts across part of the dunes (the not-so-safe-option). The aggressive player who smacks a good drive is rewarded with a shorter shot into an elevated green, plus a better angle. The green itself is quite undulating with a bank off the right that provides a bailout option, but also leaves a slick chip or putt back down to the hole.
16th hole, 337 / 298 yards: The fog was at its thickest down the final stretch and I gave up trying to take pictures, so I’ll do my best to describe a couple of the holes. The 16th is a driveable par-4 and a great risk-reward hole. A drive will need to favor the left to avoid kicking into some bunkers near the green on the right. But a mean little bunker sits front left of the green and will swallow a drive that favors the left too much. A recovery from any of those bunkers will be tough, but a threaded drive leaves a great birdie chance.
18th hole, 550 yards / 530 yards: The closing par-5 has two dozen bunkers from tee to green, which will penalize any drive, layup, or approach that goes astray. Make sure you finish strong, as all the folks having a drink upstairs in the clubhouse will have a great view of the 18th green.
Miscellaneous thoughts – combining Ireland and Scotland
It’s natural to think that a golf trip overseas must be planned to just one country, i.e. only Ireland or only Scotland. But it’s actually easy to combine a trip to the great courses in Northern Ireland (County Down, Portrush, Portstewart) with a trip to the great courses on Scotland’s west coast. From Belfast in Northern Ireland, it’s about a two hour ferry ride across the Irish Sea to Cairnryan on Scotland’s west coast. Most conveniently, Cairnryan is just about an hour south of some awesome courses, including Royal Troon, Prestwick, Western Gailes, and Dundonald Links. Combining those tracks with Northern Ireland’s best would be one hell of a week. And to boot, it might be easier to do the Northern Ireland/western Scotland combo than trying to hit everything in Ireland or everything in Scotland in just one week.
I try to be fair in all my course write-ups and point out anything that could be better. But I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about County Down. It’s perfect.
Design: A+. Great holes, great routing, great views.
Condition: A+. The land was meant for golf.
Enjoyability: A++. SO MUCH FUN.
Value: A. $300 is a lot, but I wouldn’t blink to pay it again.
Overall grade: A+.