The spectacular view on the ninth hole at Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. (Getty Images)
The 6th ranked course in the world, Royal County Down, in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, scored a major coup this week when it was awarded the 2015 Irish Open. Cheers and roars erupted everywhere—except perhaps a few kilometers away, at the 15th ranked course in the world, Royal Portrush. There, the reaction must have been shocked surprise.
Often battling sponsorship issues, the Irish Open has a long, wonderful, though uneven track record. First played in 1928—at Royal County Down, no less—the event has twice taken absences of nine years or longer, first from 1954 to 1962 and again from 1963 to 1974. In recent years, strong fields have helped mitigate the iffy title sponsor situation. The greatest success story was the 2012 edition, which returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1953, and to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947. With records set for European Tour attendance, 112,000 for the four days, 131,000 for the week, it seemed a given that Portrush would hold the event again when it returned to Ulster. Instead, the Irish Open of 2015 goes to its quirkier, stuffier rival, Royal County Down.
Mind you, few are complaining.
“Royal County Down is another great golf course,” said Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy to the BBC. “In my opinion, it would be a good idea to alternate between a course in the south (of Ireland) and one in the north every second year.”
Countryman Graeme McDowell echoed McIlroy’s sentiments, in comments to the BBC.
“Royal County Down is one of my favorite courses in Ireland,” McDowell said. “It’s a bit more of an acquired taste (than Royal Portrush) and you’ve got to play it a few times to find your way around those blind tee shots…I always support the Irish Open wherever it is played but it is particularly special to play at Portrush or County Down.”
Though Royal County Down is one of the more exclusive clubs in Ireland, it has witnessed a fair number of big-time tournaments. Among them were the 2000-2002 British Senior Opens and the 2007 Walker Cup. In the latter event, the talent-rich U.S. squad led by Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson and Billy Horschel, among others, edged the McIlroy-led Great Britain and Ireland team 12.5 to 11.5.
Royal County Down’s combination of beauty and brawn is unparalleled in golf. Designed by Old Tom Morris in 1889, it was perfected by H.S. Colt in 1926, who created two of the most difficult, stunning holes in golf, the 228-yard, par-3 4th and the 486-yard, par-4 9th. Each sports unforgettable vistas of the curve of Dundrum Bay, the mist-covered Mountains of Mourne and of nasty, deep bunkers fringed with all manner of thick sea grasses.
There’s no official confirmation yet from the European Tour about Royal County Down’s place on the schedule, nor has there been any comment from Royal Portrush about the snub. This is Northern Ireland, however. Expect a strong reaction—and soon. In the meantime, the game’s top golfers and course connoisseurs everywhere are counting the minutes until one of earth’s greatest layouts takes center stage again.
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