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Royal County Down (Newcastle, Northern Ireland, UK)

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A great course on great land…Royal County Down is perfection.

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

The skinny

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.

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This land was meant for golf.

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.

Specific holes

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.

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I was speechless when I reached the third tee at County Down.  What a sight.  Even the caddie photobomb can’t ruin this picture.  Notice how the hole opens up over the two bunkers on the left…
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But go too far left and this magnificent dune with its magnificent bunker will block your view of the green (especially if you go in it!).  Also, take note the gigantic dune behind the green, which dwarfs the flagstick.

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.

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A look from behind the par-3 fourth.  It’s a beast, though it does give the golfer some margin of error with its long green and bailout area short of the green  But any tee shot that misses on either side or long will require a heck of an up-and-down to save par.

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.

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The tee shot on seven will be just a wedge or short iron for most players, but still provides a scare.  That’s my ball left of the pin…pretty good shot!

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.

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A view from the top of the hill after the tee shot on the great ninth hole.  The green is straight away where you can see the group in front of us.  The clubhouse is to the right.  Behind the fog are Dundrum Bay and the Mountains of Mourne.

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.

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Here’s a great look from behind the 13th green.  From the tee, golfers can stay well left of the dunes and face a longer approach, or can try to smash a tee shot over the dunes, which will end up near the fellow on the far right of the picture.  Also note all the room to the right of the pin, though a shot up there leaves a slick play 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.

Conclusion 

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.

Report card

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+.

-AB

 

 

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My golf goals

I’ve been off the golf blog-o-sphere for a while.  My initial thought was to post about what my goals are for the golf season.  And I’ll get to that soon.  But I wondered to myself as I was writing, why do I enjoy golf so much?  I play as often as I can and think about the game all the time when when I’m not playing.  What’s the deal?

Continue reading My golf goals

Poppy Hills (Pebble Beach, CA)

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Poppy Hills is one of the best public tracks in California, but gets overlooked in favor of the other high profile courses in Pebble Beach.

I truly believe that if Poppy Hills was located anywhere else in the US, it would rank as one of the top public courses in the country.  It’s a beautiful course with a great layout…the kind of place where you remember every hole after one round.

But Poppy Hills’ *problem* is that its located in Pebble Beach, the greatest golf region in the world.  As a result, it gets overshadowed by top shelf courses like Pebble Beach and Spyglass.  Poppy Hills is one of the best public courses I’ve ever played, but it’s probably the sixth or seventh best course in its area code.

Even though the other courses in the area are the big stars, I highly recommend squeezing in a visit to Poppy Hills during any trip to Pebble Beach.  Here’s why…

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Prestwick Golf Club (Ayrshire, Scotland, UK)

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Prestwick is full of iconic holes, like the par-4 17th, the “Alps.”

As a total golf experience, Prestwick is as good as it gets.  It’s a wonderful layout with a collection of some of the best golf holes in the world.  It’s rich in history, having hosted the first 12 British Opens.  And it’s the most welcoming golf course I’ve ever visited.  I wish I could have spent a week there instead of playing the course only once.  But I’ll be back one day, and I encourage any serious golfer to journey there, as well.

Continue reading Prestwick Golf Club (Ayrshire, Scotland, UK)

Silverado Resort – North Course (Napa, CA)

 

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Silverado hosts the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open, and is one of the best golf getaways in California.

Any road to my heart is paved with golf and wine, and perhaps the easiest road to take is the one leading to the Silverado Resort in Napa.  Silverado’s North Course is a great course in the heart of California’s wine country and, for my money, is one of the best golf getaways in California outside of Monterey.

Silverado is also hosting the Safeway Open this week, the PGA Tour’s opening event of the wraparound calendar.  Even more exciting is that the Safeway Open marks the re-return of TIGER WOODS!  If you’re watching the tourney on TV, or if you ever plan to visit Silverado, here’s everything you need to know.

Continue reading Silverado Resort – North Course (Napa, CA)

Why I love the Ryder Cup, even though the U.S. always loses

The Ryder Cup is golf at its best–high drama, national pride, and great golf.  Team USA has broken my heart most of my adult life, having won only two of the past 10 Ryder Cups.  But every two years, I look forward to the Ryder Cup more than just about any sporting event.  Here’s why.

I get to root for America:  I’m a well-traveled, cultured guy and all that stuff, but let me be frank…I love America!  So anytime I can root for the Stars and Stripes, count me in!  The World Cup?  Check.  The Olympics?  Check.  World’s Strongest Man competition?  Bill Kazmaier for life!  Granted, great U.S. Ryder Cup moments have been rare in the last 20 years.  But I’d be lying if I said I still don’t get pumped up watching clips of Justin Leonard draining his putt at Brookline in 1999, or Anthony Kim destroying Sergio at Valhalla in 2008.

I get to root for an underdog:  Americans love rooting for an underdog.  In fact, our most memorable moments are when the underdogs have won.  There’s the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and Rulon Gardner winning the wrestling gold medal over the undefeated Russian Alexander Karelin in 2000.  When it comes to the Ryder Cup, the U.S. is the underdog, even on home soil.  Will they beat Europe?  Probably not, which is exactly why a win would be incredible.

Match play enhances the players’ personalities:  To me, the most compelling part of watching professional golf isn’t watching great golf shots.  It’s watching the psyche of the different players.  During the average tour event, the players’ personalities sometimes seem like they are in remission.  But at the Ryder Cup, they are out in full force.  There are frontrunners like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods (in his prime) who like to get a big lead and essentially force their opponent into submission.  There are scramblers like Jordan Spieth and Graeme McDowell who can spray the ball all over, then drain a 30-foot putt that demoralizes opponents.  There are robots like Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson who can take the same great swing over and over without being phased.  And then there are the highly emotional guys like Patrick Reed and Ian Poulter who seem to perform better the more animated they get.  It’s fun to watch.

http://www.rydercup.com/usa/videoembed/video/cvp/video/24657

NBC has excellent coverage and a great theme song:  Dan Hicks is great in the lead role on NBC.  And Johnny Miller, love him or hate him, recognizes the big moments and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about them.  There’s also NBC’s Ryder Cup theme song, which has to be the best music in sports television.

During the 2014 Ryder Cup when NBC had the theme song played with the bagpipes, I almost lost my sh*t.  So good.

Does everyone else get excited about the Ryder Cup?  Feel free to share what you think makes the event great (unless you’re with Team Europe, I already know you’re answer).

AB

Links at Bodega Harbour (Bodega Bay, CA)

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The par-5 fifth hole is the highlight of Bodega Harbour, it’s a fun hole with great views.  For the most part, however, the rest of the course is not as interesting.

I’ve lacked the inspiration to put together a review of the Links at Bodega Harbour, mainly because it’s an uninspiring course.  The course has some great views of Bodega Bay and the Sonoma County coast, but otherwise it’s an average course with some unmemorable holes.  It’s the kind of course I’d play if I was already visiting the Sonoma area and found a good rate, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to play there.

Continue reading Links at Bodega Harbour (Bodega Bay, CA)