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V: Royal County Down

This morning was one of those times where it really hit home that I was living in a day which I wouldn’t trade for anything. The feeling that at that moment in time, there really wasn’t a single pair of shoes I would rather be in – contentment, gratitude and anticipation to get amongst it. We woke up at a hotel we really had no business staying at and had a tee time at a course which I had thought about every other day for the last year- amongst a trip jammed full of bucket list moments, this one felt like the jackpot.

Royal County Down: The most beautiful golf course in the world?

Across the Northern Irish border, squeezed between the base of the majestic Mourne Mountains and the edge of the Irish Sea, the town of Newcastle boasts a truly spectacular setting. On this day however, rolling into the town you could hardly see your hand in front of your face through the dense mist and sideways rain, it seemed the weather gods had come back for their luck.

 

With a 5pm tee time, we spent the afternoon eyes glued to the windows. There’s something strange happening with the weather gods this trip, and I’m sure balance will be restored but just as it had at Cal Club, the clouds parted on our departure from the Slieve Donard Hotel, giving way to the big yellow.

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The majestic Slieve Donard Hotel backs onto the links of Royal County Down Golf Club

Sitting pretty at number six in Golf.com’s 2023 world rankings, Royal County Down sits in rarefied air and it comes as no surprise given the layout is stained with the fingerprints of Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt- two legends of golf course architecture.

The moment I set foot on Royal County Down, I couldn’t believe my eyes- perhaps the most beautiful and natural site in the world of golf. There is a truly unique layering to the views at RCD, Dunes meet the sea, which the town clings to with the Mourne Mountains looming overhead- there is no way to describe in words or capture through images what this looks and feels like, the type of feet on the ground experience where every degree you turn yields something uniquely stunning. For the first 9 holes as we hiked through the dunes and along the sea, waves crashing, seagulls laughing, my head was on a swivel, trying my best to take in every single angle, every single step.

The Mourne Mountains, Slieve Donard Hotel & gorse in bloom frame up the fantastic fourth hole

The land at Royal County down is perfect for golf. Towering, otherworldly dunes frame fairways with ideal micro-undulations, slopes and tilt. These large dunes are the centrepieces of RCD’s strategy and challenge- blind tee shots and obscured approaches their strategic spawn.

 

The dunes can make for some exceptionally uncomfortable shots with only the iconic marker posts as targets, however no feeling matches the anticipation of cresting a dune to reveal a phenomenal green site amongst a sea of wild undulations.

The wonderful rises and falls of the eighth

Have you ever tried so hard to slow down a moment in time but just couldn’t find the brakes? The front 9 at RCD is an absolute whirlwind and probably my favourite stretch on the planet – at the time I did all I could to soak it up and since we walked off the course I haven’t stopped thinking about the feeling of being out there. I wanted so badly to just stop time and drag it out as long as possible, extracting every drop.

 

Multiple thrilling variations of blind tee shots up and over dunes, constant changes of directions, and the most underrated aspect of RCD’s layout -the variation of green sites. Benched into and sitting atop dunes, level, below and above fairway grade and sitting a range of different angles, RCD’s greens perfectly complement their landscapes- subtle, strategic and thrilling.

Cresting the hill on the 9th: One of the great moments in the world of golf

Comparison is the thief of joy and there is something of an urban myth going around that the back 9 at RCD, occupying the less dramatic land is something of a let down. When the 9 next door may well be the best on the planet, it becomes awfully difficult to appreciate the quality of the back, however in reality we found that some of the most compelling holes were on the back side including the blind par 4 11th and the 14th a sharp dogleg right winding through the valley with a big kicker right of the green.

What jumped off the page most to me was how different RCD was to any modern course, it’s design principles would never be replicated- perhaps a sad reality of the intolerance of todays golfers to detach from their scorecards. We had opportunities across all 18 holes to hit shots which will live longer in our memory than any number- the sight of a tee shot soaring over the crest of the 9th hole and the gorgeous reveal it presents is worth the price of admission alone. Royal County Down’s perfect balance of quirky eccentricities, challenge and downright fun is what makes it so compelling, memorable and a treasure in the world of golf.

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The view back down the par 3 10th

Our day at Royal County Down was the type of fairytale golf I will lie in bed thinking about at nights for the rest of my life. It’s majesty, aura and sense of place is unmatched and I would drop anything for another loop.

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