A quick trip, but an amazing one nonetheless. I met up with Jamie Kennedy of the European Tour, along with his buddy Keith Paterson in Belfast for a bit more than 48 hours of world class golf in Northern Ireland. First up was Royal County Down, followed by Royal Portrush, and capped off with Portstewart.
In addition to these summary posts, please check out the podcast that Jamie and I recorded after the trip talking about the experience.
Royal County Down
I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time in my life lusting over top 100 course lists, pictures of those courses, and dreaming of setting foot on them one day. As a kid, I browsed Links magazine and couldn’t even picture a world where I would get to walk the fairways of some of these places. I moved abroad in October of 2014 to travel around Europe for a scheduled 18 month period, and the plan was to actually get away from golf for awhile and start experiencing another continent with more of a cultural experience focus rather than a golf one. I ended up almost spending double the amount of time here than I planned, and because my travels were so heavily focused on other things, it took awhile for me to realize how much incredible golf I’ve been missing out on.
Royal County Down has always been near the very top of my list, as it would be with any self respecting player of any kind. I’ve never seen a top ten list without RCD on it, and I’ve even seen it ranked as the #1 course in the world (Golf Digest, 2016). Any course with this much of a pedigree is going to carry some rather large expectations with it, and unsurprisingly, Royal County Down lived up to the hype.
One of the many incredible benefits of living in Europe is the close proximity of so many other countries. Never in my life did I imagine that I could work a half day from home, hop a flight, and catch an afternoon tee time in another country, and comfortably get 18 holes in. This meant rockin’ the white pants straight onto the EasyJet flight, and throwing the clubs into a moving rental car as we frantically tried to make our 3:06 tee time. As the drive was a bit over an hour from Belfast International Airport, and it was already after 2:00, we knew we weren’t going to make it.
We rolled up into the parking lot and were immediately greeted with smiles and warm welcomes. We had called ahead that we were running late, and we were assured it was no issue. Shoes changed quickly, and we were on the tee trying to frantically stretch out in just a few minutes.
Keith on the par five opener
The first thing that catches your eye is the orgasmic shadow cut down the center of the fairway. The turf was pristine, and the despite the overcast skies, the colors of the layout most certainly did not lack pop. Are we really here?
Looking back at the first from the second tee
Despite the fact that you can play here 12 months a year, we were here a bit before the peak season really begins. After one hole, we were in absolute awe of how smooth the putting surfaces were, only to be informed by our caddie Stephen that they “hadn’t quite taken shape yet.” What!? One of the major drawbacks of links golf for me is that usually the sand based green surfaces roll rather impure. I don’t have the type of putting stroke that can survive choppy greens, and I end up missing every 8 footer I look at.
Looking back at the second tee with the water, mountain, and clubhouse views
I did not have the luxury of this excuse on this day. Royal County Down has, without any shred of doubt, the best putting surfaces of any links course I’ve ever set foot on. They were fast, but inherently fair. They rolled true, and with enough slope to challenge you, but not to make a mockery of you. This didn’t stop me from efforting somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 putts throughout the day (counting all the ones from off the green), but the fault lied entirely on the man yielding the blade.
The 3rd tee
The main drawback of playing this early in the year was that the tee boxes were moved up pretty significantly. This took decision making (and driver) out of our hands on a lot of holes. My game is nowhere close enough to demand to play from the tips, and the course provided plenty of other challenges that tripped me up, but I do feel like we missed out a bit on a key element of decision making on a really special course. While I really enjoy taking irons off the tee when fairways are running out, it’s less intriguing when you’re inherently forced to not take driver.
The 4th is one of the signature holes, as from the back tee you get the best view of the entire layout. The tee sits highly elevated, and you can see to the Irish Sea, the mountains, a church, and the clubhouse. From back there, it’s long (221 yards), but again we were moved up significantly, so we did not get the full experience.
The second par three on the front is the 7th, or as Stephen described it, “the shortest par four in the world…. 142 yards of hell.”
Challenge accepted! We stepped up, put three balls within 15 feet, and played it one under. Before we even made it to the 8th tee, Jamie busted out a flask of whiskey and we toasted to the darts we had just thrown, and playfully rubbed it in Stephen’s face that we had just dominated the 142 yards of hell.
In tight on the 7th
We made our way to the world famous 9th hole, a long par four with a separated fairway and a blind landing area well below the teeing area. Seeing the ball against the Mourne Mountains in the background was thrilling, and we piped drives that made it into the second fairway, leaving short pitches into the green. The church steeple in the Newcastle skyline served as a backdrop for our approaches, and the front nine ended in style.
Royal County Down 8&9 https://t.co/raMgzCm7EQ
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) April 21, 2017
The 10th is a cool par three, and the 11th through 13th work their way away from the clubhouse with a pair of par fours, and a par five mixed in. All really good holes, but again, holes I would have likely appreciated much more playing from further back. At this point, I should also mention that I played from the middle of every fairway (with the exception of two holes) and still shot 83. Even with 9-irons and wedges into these greens, once you add in the unpredictable bounces and the blustering winds, there’s so much that goes into actually getting the ball in the hole.
Looking back down the 13th
The 15th is a really good hole, with a fairway that runs out around 300 yards from the back tees. I couldn’t stomach hitting another 3-iron, so I pulled out driver from the forward tees and ran through the fairway, and found the ball way above my feet about 150 yards out. With a helping wind, I opted for a 7-iron punch shot rather than launching a stock 9-iron, and hit my best shot of the day, curving the ball in from the right and stopping it about 8 feet from the hole. Don’t ask about the putt.
Then came the 16th, and perhaps the most exciting hole of the day. Playing just about 290 yards for us, it was a green light special. After making an illegal adjustment to my driver and swapping in a Sub Zero driver head with my lighter shaft, I found a little something with the driver, and sent a heat seeking missile just left of the green.
It took me three to get down from there. Not my day around the greens. This is part of the reason why I want another shot at RCD so badly, because I would likely play the course so differently than I did on this day. The turf around the greens was a bit too firm to get comfortable standing over a 60 degree wedge, and when pulling out putter from off the green, I could not match the speed of the fairway with the green speed. Even around the greens, the wind played games with the ball, and I don’t remember knocking a single lag putt dead. Not good.
The driveable 16th
The 17th has a tiny natural pond that sits directly in the middle of the fairway, again limiting your options from the forward tees. It was not my favorite hole, but the 18th is a strong finishing par five back towards the city and towards the clubhouse. And then that was it! I couldn’t believe how fast the round went, and that it was over after being in the country for less than six hours.
With our cell phones on silent and our hats removed, we ordered the obligatory pints of Guinness, and sat in the quiet clubhouse reflecting on the opportunity we were just granted. We scanned the pictures in the clubhouse of past events, signed the guestbook, and looked out on the course that I had seen so many pictures of in magazines as a kid. The trip was off to a phenomenal start, and would only get better.