NEWCASTLE, County Down, Northern Ireland – Royal County Down Golf Club remains one of the most beloved -- and most feared -- golf courses on the planet.
Intertwined within this links course, located roughly an hour south of Belfast, is a seductive beauty and an intimidating beast.
And it all comes to a crescendo at the ninth tee. From the elevated perch, players can gaze beyond the first green and the dunes near Dundrum Bay beach out to the Irish Sea. Straight ahead, an impressive scene rises over the spire of the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa to the towering Mountains of Mourne in the distance.
This intoxicating setting in the Murlough Nature Reserve was immortalized by Percy French, the Irish musician who penned the ode, "The Mountains of Mourne," in 1896. It is one of the most photographed holes in golf and widely recognized among the best par 4s in the game.
One thing conspicuously missing from the setting, however, is the fairway. It is blind, hidden well below the 60-foot-high dunes. And therein lies the challenge of Royal County Down. It's a maze of gorse, dunes and blown-out bunkers that can only be solved with a steady swing and a little luck.
Golf Digest ranks Royal County Down as the No. 1 course in the world outside the United States. It can play as difficult as legendary Carnoustie for those who aren't familiar with its blind shots and subtleties. Yet it appears as idyllic as a painting. The vivid colors and mesmerizing natural beauty come alive in sparkling sunshine.
Golfers flock almost religiously to Royal County Down, akin to a Catholic making a holy pilgrimage to the Vatican.
"Golfers love the combination of the layout and the scenery," said Bryan Smyth, the course's senior assistant PGA Professional. "The scenery is what separates us from Royal Portrush and Carnoustie. That impacts the day. The scenery. The walk. The whole experience. There are no weak holes."
Tim McCoy of Massachusetts calls it his favorite course in the world.
"It's absolutely one of the toughest courses I've played with the length (of the course) and the speed of the greens," he said.
Royal County Down dates to 1889, but the natural dunes date back 5,000 years, long before man picked up a stick to whack around a little white ball. Old Tom Morris expanded the first course to 18 holes before legends Harry Vardon, James Braid and Harry S. Colt all had a hand in configuring its narrow, zigzagging fairways through treacherous dunesland.
In 1997, noted British architect Donald Steele added extensive bunkering to make the par-5 finishing hole more formidable. And in 2004, he returned to create the new 16th hole, a short drivable par 4 specifically made for match play.
RCD, as locals call it, has a reputation as a "driver's golf course." Translation: If you're not hitting it long and straight -- or at least straight -- you're done. The men's tees are a staggering 6,697 yards, and that's just playing as a par 71 with three par 5s. The fairways are choked tight by purple heather and golden gorse. Even a shot six inches off the short grass can be swallowed and forever lost.
Five blind tee shots in the first 11 holes make RCD's long par 4s play even tougher. Aiming posts and white rocks positioned atop mountainous dunes are sometimes the only indication there's a golf course out there ... somewhere.
"The first shot is the most important on this course," McCoy said. "You have to keep it in play and listen to the caddies."
A handful of the greens are domed, rejecting shots from certain angles. There are a few oddities not found on links courses, too -- a pond near the green of the par-3 14th and in the middle of the fairway of the par-4 17th.
Royal County Down has hosted its share of championships over the years, although never an event for pros in their primes on the European or PGA tours. The British Senior Open was contested from 2000-02 during the heydays of senior golf with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player fighting it out. In 2007, a young American Walker Cup team -- stocked with future stars Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jamie Lovemark -- played inspired golf to beat Rory McIlroy and the rest of the Great Britain and Ireland team. American hero Jonathan Moore chased a 4-iron onto the 18th green to three feet for eagle to clinch the match.
Smyth said he believes the Walker Cup proved that the course can stand up to the best players in the world, calling it a "mini Open."
"It showcased the golf course," he said. "It gave the impression that the standards here are seven stars. It re-established the club among the best in the world."
Not many golfers would argue with that statement.
Royal County Down Golf Club: The verdict
Hiring a caddie is absolutely required to play Royal County Down Golf Club, unless you've played the course at least three times. There are no yardage markers in the fairways, and the blind tee shots are impossible to decipher without professional help. It is one of the most coveted tee times in the world for public players, right in the mix with the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch and Turnberry in Scotland; Ballybunion, Royal Portrush and Lahinch on the Emerald Isle; and Pebble Beach Golf Links. Visitors are welcome Monday, Tuesday and Friday all day, Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon.
Lodging near Royal County Down G.C.
Staying at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, a four-star hotel next door, should be a part of every visit to Royal County Down. The location is ideal, just a short walk to the beach, town or the course. Guests can grab their bags from the hotel storeroom and walk through the gates that separate the course from the hotel. Following a $20 million renovation (U.S.), the iconic Victorian hotel, owned and operated by Hastings, now features one of the premier resort spas in Europe. Dining in the Oak Restaurant might turn out to be the best meal on your trip.