County Down Golf Club, Northern Ireland
Royal County Down: the finest combination of beauty and
challenge in golf.
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 Doakís 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 Morrisís routing. In the back, there is a map of the
course in 1907, which bears little resemblance to Morrisís 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
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
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
Some people refer to County
Down as a
Colt course. Such a reference is simply not accurate as Combe
and other Club members deserve the lion share of the credit. However,
Coltís visit did yield perhaps the courseís two most famous holes
Ė the 4th with its raised green and the famous 9th over the summit
of a dune.
Colt created today's
one shot 4th hole in 1926. The raised green with its five foot
and back is one of the two or three finest green complexes
on the course.
Prior to Colt, the 4th
ran parallel the 3rd and played toward todayís 5th green as a
515 yard three shot hole, which meant the first one shotter didnít
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, todayís 9th
was played as two holes prior to Colt's visit. The first of those
holes had a tee near todayís 1st green and the golfer Ė 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. Colt
rerouted what is todayís 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 todayís 9th green complex. In
doing so, he created one of the gameís most photographed golf
This view looking 250 yards back up the 9th hole
highlights the epic nature of the hole that Colt created.
Colt also brought the
11th green out of a hollow to its present position and relocated
the 18th green to todayís position. Once again, Coltís 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.
Coltís 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
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
1st 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 isnít 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.
On a course famed for
its difficulty, the view back down the 1st shows the fairway to
be in a natural
valley that helps to collect either of the golfer's first two
shots, a fine attribute for a 1st hole.
After this benevolent start, the challenge steadily increases.
2nd 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
Thanks to work done to
the dune shy of the green in the 1920s, the golfer in the middle
section of the
fairway gets a view of at least a portion of the 2nd flag as well
as some of the putting surface.
However, as seen below, once the approach was not blind, requirements
for accuracy increased.
One result of the 2nd green being built up is that
recovery shots from either
side of the green are among the trickiest on the course.
3rd hole, 475/455
yards; This hole stands
side by side with the 3rd at The Country Club
in Brookline and the 3rd at National Golf Links of America
as the authorís 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.
A view down the long 3rd from the tee benched
into the dune. Dunes on both sides squeeze
the fairway 140 to 60 yards from the green and these natural landforms
used to great effect in creating different playing strategies.
A tee ball hit long down the right yields this view for
The ideal tee ball is
long down the left, yielding this view.
Of course, heather and gorse are down the left of the fairway.
Tom Paul likens playing County Down
to playing Oakmont because of their shared 'high demand' architecture.
As such, some golfers
opt to play down the center line, yielding the partial view of the
flag as seen above.
4th hole, 215/175
yards; Coltís 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 Coltís
The view from the elevated back markers at
the 4th: a 200 plus yard
one shotter over a sea of gorse to a green...
...ringed with difficult
recovery shots, be it from gorse, heather, bunkers
or the tightly mown swale around the green.
5th 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.
The classic symbol at County Down:
a white stone marking the way off the tee.
Once around the
bend at the dogleg right 5th, the sight of the green opens up to
Dogleg holes in windy sites force the golfer to account
for the wind from two
different directions on the same hole, a good thing.
The backdrops to
the greens at County Down are the equal of those
that have long
been heralded at the Cypress Point Club. As with many approach
when in doubt at County Down, the miss is often straight and short.