Royal County Down Golf Club
Co Down.,Northern Ireland
Would Royal County Down be better or worse if it were built today on the same piece of land by any of the game’s living golf course architects? In the opinion of the author, the outcome would be more the latter than the former, which is ironic as part of the goal of this site is to highlight the resurgence in classic golf course architecture.
Yet, sadly, like The Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal County Down would never be re-created today. Even fans of Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design will admit their near steadfast aversion to blind tee balls. Holes like the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 9th, and 11th at County Down would likely not come into existence. More is the pity, especially as many of these are among the best holes on the course. A modern architect would either modify the dunescape or end up with a largely different routing, claiming that some of the features at County Down are anachronistic.
However, what for instance would be gained if the blind tee balls on the aforementioned holes were altered? What exactly is gained by ‘better’ visuals as defined by modern golf – anything of genuine substance? The author doubts it but certainly some of the uncertainty presented by County Down’s diversity of challenge would be undermined.
Also, some of its uniqueness would no doubt vanish. As with Oakmont Country Club and Pine Valley Golf Club, County Down stands apart as reminding one of no other course in the world in part because it was designed not by a professional architect but rather by strong willed people with a genuine love and feel for the game.
However, the first course at County Down does begin with Old Tom Morris who was hired for 4 guineas to build a championship course at Newcastle in 1890. His course started and finished by the railway station, which is to say that it played through the general area where the Slieve Donard Hotel now occupies. Many of the holes were on the grounds that the present day No. 1 and No. 2 courses at County Down occupy. However, as Old Tom Morris didn’t have the machinery at his disposal to move amounts of earth, he often stayed in the flatter areas of the No. 1 and No. 2 courses where it was easier to work.
In the extremely well researched centenary book Royal County Down Golf Club: The First Century by Harry McCaw and Brum Henderson (highly recommended and available at the office of The Royal County Down Golf Club), a map in the inside front jacket shows what must be Old Tom Morris’s routing. In the back, there is a map of the course in 1907, which bears little resemblance to Morris’s course. McGaw and Henderson credit member George Combe for much of the work and the general routing that the course now enjoys. An examination of this 1907 map shows that the 1st and 18th holes as three shotters and the 10th as a one shotter back away from the clubhouse have taken form. In addition, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th general playing corridors of today were in use.
So the question is begged: who is George Combe? McGaw and Henderson answer by informing the reader that Combe was an excellent golfer with one of the first plus handicaps in the country. He took great interest in all aspects of the sport and among other things, found the Golfing Union of Ireland, started the handicapping GUI system that was latter largely adopted by the Royal & Ancient and was the instigator of the practice of the lining the hole with a metal tin.
When Combe began his work on the course in 1900, it measured approximately 5,150 yards. The advent of the rubber core Haskell ball was now upon us and by 1903, the course had grown to 6,400 yards. The basis of the course of today had emerged, with the vast majority of the credit deserved by Combe.
Much like Fownes at Oakmont, the autocratic Combe was never satisfied and continued to modify and improve on his work. By 1906, he made significant alterations to the playing corridors for what are today’s 11th, 12th and 13th holes.
Combe was made a honorary life member in 1909 and continued to make improvements to the course for several more years, many times at a cost out of his own pocket. Illness and then World War I saw the end of his quest for perfection.
In 1926, the Club brought Harry Colt to inspect the course with for the clear purpose of eliminating blind approach shots and for improving the challenge offered by the greens at County Down, many of which were gathering in nature.
Some people refer to County Down as a Harry Colt course. Such a reference is simply not accurate as Combe and other Club members deserve the lion share of the credit. However, Harry Colt‘s visit did yield perhaps the course’s two most famous holes â€œ the 4th with its raised green and the famous 9th over the summit of a dune.
Prior to Harry Colt, the 4th ran parallel the 3rd and played toward today’s 5th green as a 515 yard three shot hole, which meant the first one shotter didn’t occur until the 7th hole. Colt, ever with an eye for finding ideal one shot holes, must have found today’s 4th without too much worry. A subsequent benefit was in the creation of the dogleg 5th, every bit the equal of the much admired 12th at Cypress Point which similarly plays over the shoulder of a dune.
Up ahead, today’s 9th was played as two holes prior to Harry Colt‘s visit. The first of those holes had a tee near today’s 1st green and the golfer â€œ with hickory clubs, mind you – had to scale the dune and play a long shot to a blind green. The next hole was a semi-blind 200 yarder. Harry Colt rerouted what is today’s 8th hole to stay atop the dune as opposed to returning back down near the 1st green. He then positioned the 9th tee whereby a cracking drive would clear the towering dune and fall down to the flat ground below. He lowered the dune that obscured the green and built today’s 9th green complex. In doing so, he created one of the game’s most photographed golf holes.
Harry Colt also brought the 11th green out of a hollow to its present position and relocated the 18th green to today’s position. Once again, Harry Colt‘s talent in building green complexes is much in evidence at the 18th as it appears as an extension of the fairway. In fact, it has sharp fall-offs on either side ala the 1st at Pine Valley Golf Club, making for many a testing recovery shot at the Home hole.
Harry Colt‘s reduction of blind approach shots coupled with the creation of several of the finest green complexes at County Down garnered high praise from all quarters. Like any links though, there were still changes to come, as now hickory clubs were being replaced by steel ones. First, the 12th green was moved back fifty yards and then after World War II, the 15th green was moved a similar distance back as well, creating the last of the world class holes that County Down enjoys.
Other than the continuing creation of back tees that now has County Down well over 7,000 yards, the final significant change to the course occurred in 2005 when the 16th was modified by Donald Steel into its present version. The new hole, infinitely more attractive than the old one, has good playing characteristics, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 540/505 yards; Voted by GOLF Magazine among the three finest opening holes in the game, the 1st has been in play in its current form for over one hundred years. Playing along side Dundrum Bay, a tee ball down the right can bring the sunken green in reach in two. The more one plays the course, the more one realizes how important it is to get off to a good start. The next three shotter isn’t until the 12th and the demand for quality golf is so high over the next ten holes, that a poor start weighs heavy upon the golfer.
Second hole, 445/385 yards; A course renowned today for its blind shots, there once were many more blind shots, including the approach shot to this green. Work in the 1920s saw the dune 45 yards short of the green lowered, the green raised (especially in the back), and the fairway slightly raised as well. The dune was lowered in such a manner though that only approach shots in the middle portion of the fairway gain a decent look at the green. Approaches from tee balls missed wide left or right can still be blind, a very clever design feature that puts a premium on accurate driving. With a tee ball that must carry over a dune to a blind fairway and an approach that must carry over the dune pictured below, good hitting is required. The golfer appreciates that the topped or missed shots that will occasionally suffice at other links won’t do so here.
Third hole, 475/455 yards; This hole stands side by side with the third at The Country Club in Brookline and the 3rd at National Golf Links of America as the author’s favorite 3rd in the world. Its great attribute is that there is no clearly defined ‘best’ way to play it. A long drive down the right of the fairway leaves the shortest approach but the shot is blind. A drive long down the left gives the golfer the best view of the green, though at the expense of a longer approach. With trouble both left and right, other golfers prefer the center line off the tee as at least some of the flag might be visible. Golfers play this hole for years before deciding a preferred course of action.
Forth hole, 215/175 yards; Harry Colt‘s hole, and the finest one shotter on the course, not because of the famous view over the links and toward the Mountains of Mourne, but because of Harry Colt‘s green complex.
Fifth hole, 440/410 yards; The golfer is given every opportunity not to play well at County Down as the design does more to disconcert the golfer than any other course with which the author is familiar. Though the blind tee balls on the 2nd and 11th are more confrontational than here, the diagonal playing angle for this blind tee shot creates more confusion. The length of the hole means that the player dearly loves to shorten it with a bold drive but the hidden fairway, gorse and five (!) bunkers guarding the inside of the dogleg suggest not.