Royal County Down in Northern Ireland is one of links golf's most intimidating courses. (Brandon Tucker/Golf Advisor) The par-3 4th hole plays over a sea of gorse, but when the course had rabbits, these dunes were sandy and bare. (Brandon Tucker/Golf Advisor)

Royal County Down in Northern Ireland: No better theater in golf

Originally an Old Tom Morris design dating back to 1889, Royal County Down G.C. in Newcastle is a great play for travelers on a Northern Ireland golf trip.

NEWCASTLE, County Down, Northern Ireland -- The seaside town of Newcastle, Northern Ireland is famously described by Irish songwriter Percy French as the place where "The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea."

Capped by Northern Ireland's highest peak, the Slieve Donard, these ominous mountains are what set the stage for one of the game's finest theaters: Royal County Down.

This summer, this golf course will be the focus of amateur golf as it hosts the Walker Cup. For a course that's been around since the 19th century, it's been a long time coming to host an event of this magnitude.

"It's the premier amateur event," said Kevin Whitson, head professional at Royal County Down. "We've hosted many of the top events, but the pinnacle of them all is the Walker Cup. We're very excited about it."

The golf course is undergoing a few minor changes, including a few new teeing areas and pathways to accommodate the estimated 8,000-9,000 spectators. But for the most part, the bulk of the course's tweaking had ended by 1927 when Harry Colt was called on to make it what it is today. He's also credited for the current-day 4th and 9th holes, two of R.C.D.'s most famous.

Originally an Old Tom Morris design dating back to 1889, the golf club was built coinciding with the new railroad coming through Newcastle that caused much or the northern coast's growth. For the next three decades, the course was under almost constant change as the townspeople continued to develop the course and the game of golf itself.

Royal County Down's theater is as unique and dramatic as you'll find in golf, as the Mountains of Mourne loom over the town of Newcastle and the golf course. The course steers through tall dunes and several elevated tees perched atop them offer fine views of the town and coast. These views are especially welcoming when you consider the many blind shots that exist here.

The most famous of these views comes from the top of the ninth fairway, one of the course's most intimidating - but fantastic holes, beginning with the blind tee shot over the crest of the dune which requires about a 190-yard carry. From the top, the fairway drops steeply down to the green that sits back at the base of the clubhouse.

The 4th hole is also one of the course's most iconic, a 200-plus yard par 3 that plays from an elevated tee over heavy gorse to a tabletop green.

The gorse has an overwhelming effect on much of the golf course, which wasn't the case until the 1920s. Before then, dunes were sandy and bare, until a decision was made by the club to remove rabbits from the land. Rabbits were responsible for chewing on the roots of gorse and other plants, not allowing them to grow. Rabbit holes all over the course were also causing havoc for play. Shortly after the rabbits were sent packing, the gorse was flowing.

RCD's first and last holes are both par 5s. The former rolls through a chute between massive dunes right along the coastline. It's a fine prelude to the ensuing 17 holes of drama. The 18th plays back towards the Mountains of Mourne and while on the course's flattest, most inland terrain, still features enough dunes and rough to the left of the fairway to warrant extreme caution.

Royal County Down: The verdict

Links golf doesn't get any better than RCD. It has it all: tradition, beauty, variety and difficulty. The greens are also large, undulating and lightning fast and will reach will peak speeds this summer for the Walker Cup.

Once known for having a relatively weak finish, that has gotten better with the completion of a new 16th hole in 2003. It's short at only 319 yards but features an elevated green guarded with plenty of deep bunkers.

Newcastle hotels

Opened in 1897, The Slieve Donard Resort & Spa is a historic four-star hotel located next door to the property and is easily the best choice in Newcastle. The original golf course used to lay on the land that is the hotel until increasing visitors from the railroad caused need for upscale lodging. Aside from it's location within walking distance to the first tee, not to mention beautiful views of the coast, the Slieve Donard has multiple fine dining and bar options, along with a full-service spa.

May 04, 2007

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Brandon Tucker

Managing Editor

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.