It is surprisingly easy to find excuses for not playing golf. Too much work. Not enough time. Family stuff. Nevertheless on occasion there are opportunities that present themselves that are just too good to turn down.
And so it was that I found myself at the EasyJet check-in at Bristol Airport at 4am on a dank Monday morning for my flight to Belfast en route to the sacred Royal County Down. It was not going too well. I had planned the journey 6 months previously and driven across the country to pick up dad to share a trip of a lifetime. What could go wrong?
The unnaturally cheerful check-in lady was having issues. No record of us, she said. This turned out to be not quite true. They did have us on the system – £20 outward flights for the day before. F*** it said I. Not to worry, said the orange clad assassin with a smile, just pop across to the customer service desk and they will sort out tickets for this mornings journey. £300 (each) lighter and it was destined to be a quiet journey.
Fortunately this was all forgotten, when, after a decent nights sleep and some pampering at the adjacent Slieve Donard Hotel, the morning of the round dawned to a sparkling blue sky and light breeze. With a late morning tee slot, we had time to explore the town of Newcastle, a linear Irish settlement book-ended by the sacred RCD links and the majestic Mourne Mountains. A tourist paradise it is not, but I guess that if you spent your childhood holidays in Clacton-On-sea or Skegness, then your expectations will be met.
And so to the course. My best piece of advice for pre-round preparation at Royal County Down is to spend some time on the practice putting green before you head to the first tee. Several hours should just about suffice. For my October visit, the surfaces were so sloping and fast that the skills required to successfully navigate them without embarrassing oneself were some way out of my reach. The locals here must possess the touch of a fine diamond cutter.
Let us get a common criticism of RCD out of the way. There are a number of blind shots that some purists claim should eliminate the course from discussions about world top 10 status. I disagree. There are few finer emotions in golf than watching your ball sail over the crest of the horizon and then scampering up to see the results of your efforts. Nowhere is this more true than at the magnificent Par 4 ninth hole, which pitches and tumbles on an epic scale to the backdrop of the mountain range.
I cannot for one moment imagine that there are a better nine holes of golf than the front nine at Royal County Down. With perfect rolling duneland, links turf, gorse, heather and views of the Irish Sea and the Mourne Mountains this is golfing nirvana and a feast for the eyes. Do not underestimate the importance of course conditioning here – the quality of the agronomy is exceptional and a vital part of the experience.
The back nine holes move away from the coastline slightly with the topography now of a slightly more gentle gradient. This half contains a mere handful of world class holes rather than all nine and the finishing stretch is perhaps a slight anti-climax after the thrills of what has been before. This must be put into context however because what has come before has been all worldly good.
My long game had held up to the examination well. One of my playing partners even described this aspect as ‘a clinic’. As feared, however, nobody was as effusive about my performance on the greens and a horror show with the putter all added up to a score in the low 80’s. Royal County Down is hard – but if you can stay out of the long rough, gorse, bracken, heather and fearsome bunkers whilst combining incredible imagination and touch around and on the glass like putting surfaces then you may score well. Seriously though, whilst this aspect should not stop any level of golfer making the journey, you should be prepared for your game to be torn apart.
This is the best golf course that I have ever played. The best conditioned. The most beautiful. The most thrilling and the most memorable. Is it the best in the world? I am not qualified to judge but if the back nine matched the front then I would be prepared to stick my neck on the line and say most definitely. The truth is that it does not and so more experienced players than I may suggest alternatives that are superior. Whatever – if you ever get the chance – drop everything, sell a kidney if you have to – because this is the promised land – sheer golfing heaven – and one day I will return better prepared to take on old man Par.