Thursday, February 15, 2007

Everywhere I go, I always seem to run into someone who is either just about to go to Ireland on a golf holiday or has just returned from one, and is now anxiously awaiting a liver transplant. A couple of months ago, I started writing with every intention of telling you about my favorite golf course, but I got hijacked by thoughts of the evil McCord, so this month I'm going to follow through and take you inside the fairways and dunes of Royal County Down.

Now obviously, being a son of Down myself, this will be a heavily prejudiced, sometimes exaggerated, often moist-eyed account. But, hey, I'm a bogtrotter, so get over it.

As a lad, I used to look forward for weeks in advance to any chance I got to play at Royal County Down. From my hometown of Bangor, my friends and I would set out across the head of the Ards peninsula and through places like Comber and Killyleagh to Downpatrick, where the patron saint of Ireland lies flattened under a huge rock in the cathedral graveyard, and on to Newcastle County Down. Beneath the purple-green shadows of the Mountains of Mourne this little seaside town is home to the world's greatest golf course.

It was laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris, who charged the princely sum of £5 for his services, and I doubt if more than one square inch of dirt was moved, with the exception of the tees and greens. Thankfully, precious little has been moved since, for this is one course that God made. Mind you, He already knew what was on the other side of that hill.

All of Ireland's truly great golf courses are of the links variety, and they each have their own special character. Some are beautifully bunkered, some have fabulous shorelines, and some have mountain backdrops. Royal County Down has all of the above, plus a variety of colors, textures, and fragrances from the heather, gorse, and brambles that are so incredibly close to the fairways.

For me, there is no golf course on earth where the sweetly struck shot is so easily remembered, and the duff so quickly forgotten. It must be so, otherwise no one would ever play there more than once.

The first fairway is easy enough to hit, but after that, Royal County Down will test parts of your golf game that other golf courses cannot reach. Like your ability to get out of bunkers. That is, you and your golf ball. And, it will examine your sense of direction, too.

Numbers eight and nine might be the two hardest back-to-back par fours in the world. The eighth is an old-fashioned, dead straight, uphill, well-bunkered, disturbingly long hole with a violent drop-off to the left of the green, which, thankfully, like most of the greens at Royal County Down, is mercifully flat. God knows, by the time you get to the green you should at least have a chance to hole a putt.

The ninth is played toward Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in the Mourne Range, and the tee shot, weather permitting, is played over a precipice that is invisible from the tee. A marker pole, which will often lie to you, is the only indication as to where the fairway might lurk below.

I have stood at the top of this ridge and let my gaze fall upon the gorse on the right, the Irish Sea on the left, the mountain behind, and the thin ribbon of fairway so far below, stretching up and over a saddle between two dunes to a perfect little lawn and I have wondered what Old Tom must have thought when first he saw such a sight. I bet he just about pooped in his plus-fours. As I said earlier, God made the ninth, not Tom, but then again after you've played all 18 you could be forgiven for thinking they might be one and the same.

The 10th is a medium-length par three with a tee perched right in front of the window to the members' bar. Chances are, as you address your tee shot, some gin-sipping, strawberry-nosed old codger will be predicting to one of his cronies the degree of difficulty of your next attempt.

Chances are he will be correct, for even though this green is one of the bigger targets to hit, the combination of the clubhouse behind that shelters the tee, and by this stage, your disconcerted and precarious emotional state make the right club harder to pick than a broken nose.

That, of course, is all well and good, but when a player reaches the 11th tee, he will be generally uncertain as to whether he should play the hole or rope himself and his partners together and attempt to climb it instead. The tee shot is played at a white marker stone that looks like a wart on the north face of the Eiger.

This mountainous dune must be cleared at all cost with your tee shot, otherwise you could be searching for the 11th fairway for the rest of your natural life. Once the hill has been successfully negotiated, the hole turns right, just as the fairway decides to slope left. As a result, most people find themselves approaching this green from the sheep fodder on the left.

The last three holes have often been criticized for being a little weak, but taking into consideration the strength of those that precede them, I think that by the time most people reach the 16th tee, they are overjoyed to see a hole or two that they may actually be able to finish. The 16th is a short, very downhill par four which is sometimes drivable; the 17th is a straightaway par four with an odd water hazard in the middle of the fairway and a saucerlike green; and the last is a par five which doglegs gently to the left. Phew.

One thing they have got right here, though, is the pace of play. Alternate shot, or foursomes, is the preferred discipline and they seldom take more than 31/2 hours to play. I remember years ago, a couple of friends and I were playing a quiet threesome and had reached the 12th hole without seeing another soul on the golf course.

We noticed over on the eighth fairway, a foursome, one of whom was waving as he strode through the undergrowth toward us. It turned out to be the club president, who informed us that he fully expected us to let his group play through when they caught up.

We, of course, forgot about the pompous old goat until we were putting out on the last green. A ball rolled up, followed by another, and without saying a word, he and his cronies marched in between us, putted out, and made their way to the clubhouse.

Every golf course in the world that has been awarded the dubious honor of the Royal Charter has two things in common: They have some of the best courses with some of the worst members. For some reason, Royal County Down stands head and shoulders above the rest in both categories.

Dress regulations in the clubhouse are enforced Nazi-style and the atmosphere is early Victorian. You must wear a coat and tie, preferably an egg-stained one, and if there is no dandruff on the shoulders of your coat, dandruff will be provided.

Ladies have a separate clubhouse and the lower classes are relegated to membership of the "Mourne" club, which is reserved for those who are officially known as "artisans." They are allowed to play the course, but cannot achieve ownership of the coveted club necktie.

Like most of its counterparts on the mainland, Royal County Down -- at least within the walls of its clubhouse -- remains one of the last bastions in institutionalized British mediocrity. To be fair, the club has many great people as members, some of whom are friends. Unfortunately, it has some social climbers of the alpine ambition. As they say down here in Texas, people of that type are, "All hat and no cattle."

Fortunately, in all the times I played at my favorite course, I only visited the clubhouse twice. Both times turned out to be a mistake. It's a good thing we don't rate golf courses by the behavior of their members.

Or else I'd be telling you about my new favorite course -- the Royal and Aging and Insufferable Verbal Flatulence Club. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like my friends at Scrought's Wood -- who, of course, had the good sense to refuse the Royal charter.

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