Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Royal County Down – Inspiring The Soul (Part 2)

The 3rd hole (from the back tees)
David Owen flew in from the United States, landing in Dublin before sunrise. He drove his hire car ever northwards, heading for the rust-coloured Mourne Mountains that slide into the Irish Sea. Once there and in glorious sunshine he teed it up on the par five 1st hole of one of the world’s greatest courses, and split the fairway with his drive.

It doesn’t get much better than that… but it did. Two shots later, David sank an eight foot putt for an eagle. Royal County Down (RCD) doesn’t give up many eagles, and one on the 1st hole is as good as a trophy on the mantelpiece.  The Head Pro, Kevan Whitson, picked David’s ball out of the hole and expressed his admiration… I was still going from one side of the hole to the other, feeling like a spare wheel. David took three shots to get into the hole; I three-putted and still hadn’t found the cup.

There is something perfect about playing links golf on a raw autumn day. The wind like sandpaper against your cheeks, the sun carving shadows across the dunes, the sea trembling over sand and rock.

This is the time of year that links courses are at their most generous, with softer fairways and more forgiving greens… more forgiving green fees too (£50 from November to February). And unlike some links that insist on you playing off mats, RCD is playable in all its glory every day of the year. It gives the club a magical charm, a superiority richly deserved and the type of aura that rises through the soil and into your very being. 

Approach to the par four 2nd hole. Right hand side of the fairway please.
The first time I visited RCD, I got a shiver down my spine as I drove through the gates. The sense of wonder and mystique that embraces one of the most famous names in golf gave me goosebumps – it still does.  

It is said that St Andrew’s is the home of golf… if that is so, then Royal County Down is its soul. The names of Old Tom Morris, Braid, Vardon and Sayers, alongside Harry Colt in the 1920s and Donald Steel in the 1990s and 2000s, are ingrained in the club’s history as well as in the turf beneath your feet. When you step through the white gate to reach the 1st tee, you pass between two practice greens: the expansive, rolling Himalayas on your right and a smaller, almost inconsequential green on your left. Kevan, the Head Pro, had agreed to walk the opening holes with us (David is writing an article for Golf Digest. You'll find his blog here) and he pointed to the smaller green. He told us it is one of Old Tom Morris’s original greens, dating back to the 19th century. It will, he said, give you the exact speed of the greens on the course.

The 10th green and a good look at the bunkering.
The dune behind behind the flag is what you face on your 11th tee shot.
David and I played from the forward tees, a reassuring 6,675 yards (par 71). It made the course more manageable. That said, unless you’re playing from the Championship tees (7,186 yards), Royal County Down is not insurmountable. Famous it may be for its blind shots but it is not ungenerous. Assuming, that is, you stay clear of the fabled bunkers with their beards of marram grass and heather.
Kevan proved an excellent caddie/guide.

“Aim to the left of the white stone,” he said on the 2nd tee box. David went very left; I went very right; Kevan stayed very quiet.

The 2nd... and the errant tee shots.
A caddie will prove invaluable here as there is much to fool the eye. There are no hard and fast rules for Royal County Down, but the one thing to remember is that you can (and probably should) land the ball short of the green. It is bump-and-run heaven, but it is also prudent. The par three 4th is a case in point. At 200+ yards it is both the best viewing point of the round and one of the most intimidating shots you’ll face. The sea is to your left, the Mourne Mountains dead ahead. The only thing between you and them are the golf course and the tower of the Slieve Donard Hotel. The surroundings are drenched in gorse and the hole is presented like a canvas, with fall-offs around the green creating swirls of shadow… yet there are 15 yards of unseen landing area short of the putting surface. 

The 4th hole. 200+ yards... and just Index 15
Royal County Down is laid out in two loops, the front nine being closer to the sea. Many would say that the opening nine holes are among the best on the island and, with holes like the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th and 9th, it is hard to argue. The 9th is par four Index 1 and is a more intimidating tee shot than the 4th… in fact, it may be the most intimidating drive in the game of golf. It is a blind shot that rises up an enormous dune’s shoulder and then drops sharply to a valley before streaking straight to the green. The drive needs to be long and straight or your ball may never be found. There will be some golfers who simply won’t have the distance to breach the dune and will have to play it as a par five.

And it was on the 9th tee that Kevan said he would be leaving us, but he didn’t go without offering us each a quick piece of advice. He started with David, taking no more than 20 seconds to address a couple of small tweaks to his game.

I wasn’t so lucky. Five minutes later and Kevan had left my confidence reeling.

A good view down the 13th from the 7th green
The back nine starts in much the same vein as the front, with the 11th offering another tall dune to be hit over and climbed. The 13th is the favourite of many golfers, a sliding dogleg right, tucked low between gorse-infested ridges. A pole indicates the green position, but it can only be attacked from the left hand side of the fairway. Royal County Down is, blissfully, not as harsh as some links courses in this regard (holes 2, 13 and 18 being the most demanding) which makes it all the more playable… and enjoyable.

We were hit with a quick squall on the 13th, which didn’t last the length of the hole. Some golfers cut across from the 7th hole, which sits above the 13th tee box. It turned out to be the club’s Touring Pro, Simon Thornton. That meant we had a Pro behind us and four Canadian Pros in front of us. Exalted company. Fortunately, Kevan’s advice was paying dividends and the wheels started turning. I finally made some pars. David is a quick player so the four Canadian lads were holding us up for the closing stretch, but there was no point rushing on a course that demands respect and appreciation. We talked about Tiger Woods for some time – David wrote a book about him (The Chosen One) – and it was intriguing to get a genuine inside track on golf’s greatest player… not simply reading the theories and conspiracies in the papers. David’s book was published in 2001; I forgot to ask him if he was planning a follow-up on the back of all the triumphs and disasters of Tiger’s past decade.

Simon Thornton tees off on the par three 14th... it's him, honest!
There’s an entertaining picture of Tiger in the clubhouse, alongside all the other greats of the game. In it Tiger is playing out of the RCD rough, taking a divot the size of a politician’s head… considerably bigger than normal and a lot more dense. It is inspiring stuff, very much in keeping with the remarkable golf course that is Royal County Down.

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