(This is the seventh and final in a series of columns from Rick Cleveland’s bucket-list golf tour of Ireland.)
NEW CASTLE, Northern Ireland – For the seventh and last episode of our Irish golfing odyssey we eight tired Mississippians ventured across the border into Northern Ireland.
A winding country road brought us to the village of Newcastle and esteemed Royal County Down, which you will find on most all experts’ lists of the top 10 golf courses in all the world.
The famous writer Bernard Darwin described it this way: “The kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams.”
A far less famous writer, me, would describe it this way: “Harder than any golf course I ever played in my worst nightmare.”
Royal County Down is a lovely place that will blow you away with the scenery and then break your heart with what it does to your golfing ego. After this round, I have none.
On the first tee, I asked the starter: “What’s the course record?”
He replied: “Seventy.”
So I asked: “Nobody has ever broken 70?”
And he replied: “Not from the back tees.”
Any advice, other than don’t play the back tees?
“Steer clear of the bunkers, my friend. They are rather deep and will break your heart.”
Royal County Down holds more golfing history than any of the courses we have played this trip. Start with the fact that the legendary Scottish professional and course designer Old Tom Morris helped design the golf course in 1889, 37 years after he won The British Open by a record 13 shots.
When the Irish Open was played here two years ago, Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, shot a first-round 80 and missed the cut. And McIlroy knows Royal County Down as well as anyone.
As with any links course, wind plays a significant factor. The day we played, rain did, as well. We seemingly played through four seasons in one 18-hole round. We were alternately cool, warm, hot, cold, wet, dry and then wet again. I changed into and out of rain gear so many times, I finally said, “The hell with it, I’ll just get wet.”
Always, we had warning of approaching rain. We could see it coming from over the Mountains of Mourne, which define the course on one side, or Dundrum Bay, which borders it on the other.
The wind blew and blew and blew some more. At least we Mississippians called it wind, preceded by some creative adjectives that will not be repeated here. The Irish caddies assured us it was just a breeze.
With the “breeze” behind us, I was able to reach the 528-yard, par-5 12th hole with a driver and a 5-iron. (Anyone who has ever played with me knows there was far more than a “breeze” helping.) I two-putted from 20 feet for my only birdie of the day.
Further proof of the wind: On a short par-3, played into the “breeze,” I hit a 4-iron where I would normally hit a 9-iron and came up short. Some breeze.
The bunkers are more than penal. As McIlroy put it, “Many have tried to replicate the bunkers, but it is impossible for man to replicate creations of nature.”
Nature apparently likes them deep.
For my money (and my pain), the hardest hole is the par-4, 460-yard ninth, which we played back into the wind. As the course guide book tells us: “A tee shot into the mountain over the black post sets up the best approach to the green. There is little room for error on the left as any shot drifting too far will be trapped by the large dune. There are two well-placed cross bunkers some 50 yards short of the green, look out for the green-side bunker on the right and two pot bunkers on the left. Once again there is a great premium on hitting the target, as pitching around this green is particularly difficult.”
It took me driver, 3-wood, wedge, a sand blast and two putts to complete my double bogey.
We came to the par-5 18th, again into the wind, and a quick look at the scorecard told me I was headed for my highest score of the trip and needed a bogey or better to break 90. From just off the front of the green, I got up and down for 6 and an 89. I limped to the clubhouse where the eight of us licked our wounds – and a pint of Guinness never tasted so fine.