It is often said in the golf world that it is better to be lucky than good. My opportunity to play Royal County Down (RCD), the number one rated golf course in the world, required a full dose of luck. For several weeks, I told people that I planned to play RCD during my family’s vacation on the Emerald Island with is lush green terrain and breathtaking coasts. I took for granted that as a single, I could walk onto any public or private golf course open to non-members and get a tee time without a problem. That worked twice for me on the Old Course in Saint Andrews. It also worked several other times across the globe. My challenge now was to see if it would work at RCD.
During the summer of 2017, Erika, the kids, and I traveled to Ireland for family vacation. In the past, I didn’t golf during family vacations. I didn’t even play when I had to endure looking at beautiful golf courses with tree lined pristine fairways and deep blue ocean views just outside our hotel window in Hawaii. I didn’t even play when we were in Orlando, where golf courses cover the land like the bluebonnets flowing across the hill country in Texas during springtime. No never, not once did I play golf during family vacation. But this was different. We were so close to the number one golf course in the world and I was on a Quest to play the Top 100 courses in America as rated by Golf Digest for 2018. How cool would it be to experience the number one course in the world and watch each hole unfold right before my eyes. Yes, this vacation would be different. My wife and kids understood that. Sensing the opportunity and the anticipation, they granted me special dispensation. I had their permission to steal away in the wee hours of the morning and experience golf along the Irish coast where the Mountains of Mourne fall into the sea. It is one of the purest and most natural courses in the world.
After arriving in Ireland with its rich and storied history, castles, and Great Atlantic Way drives, we settled into our hotel rooms in the trendy Temple Bar area in Dublin. I sat at a black lacquered desk pushed against a window and studied the RCD website. As I stared at the small rectangular computer screen, I saw that non-members could play golf at the club on Friday mornings. That seemed perfect. Our drive through Ireland would take us to Belfast on Thursday through Saturday. RCD is located just south of Belfast. I could awake early on Friday, tee off by 8:00 and get back to the hotel as our teenagers opened their eyes and stretched to signify that they were ready to begin their day of experiencing the sites and tastes of Belfast. I found a an online form on the website to book tee times. I typed in my information and requested a tee time for Friday morning.
It was a brisk and overcast morning as I drove from our hotel in Belfast along narrow and winding roads through the Irish countryside to Newcastle. I drove through several charming towns. I wondered what live was like for the people who lived in these towns. Do they, like Americas experience the same pleasure seeing their kids grow and succeed and the same struggles as they work to make that happen. Is theirs a simpler life or a more complex one. During my drives across the U.S. I would stop and have discussions with the people that live in these types of towns, but today I was on a mission. By 7:15 small towns in the rural country side faded, and I was staring at the green monster. No not that infamous wall at Fenway Park just off the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts, the wall formed by the tall hedges that separate the grounds of Royal County Down from the surrounding town. Sitting atop one of these walls was an arched sign with five simple, but most magnificent words that almost every avid golfer dreams of seeing - ROYAL COUNTY DOWN GOLF CLUB.
I drove through the gates, a white building with black trim and a red stone tiled roof dominated my view. As I approached the building I was greeted by a gray-haired gentleman of medium build. I presumed he was the starter. My fifteen-year old son had repeatedly warned me that no one in Ireland says, “top of the morning.” He was right, as this middle-aged gentleman and I walked toward the black steps that led to the entrance of the clubhouse, there was no “top of the morning.” There was just a simple “good morning” followed immediately by an “are you playing today?” To which I replied, “I hope so!” He stopped almost in mid-step. He asked if I had a booking. Although he appeared to be ten years my junior, he looked at me with a sternness of a father chastening a son and told me that a booking would be required. I let him know in the most hopeful voice that I could muster, that I had no booking but desperately wanted to play the course. He informed me that the course was fully booked. I needed to see Head Pro who was inside the Pro Shop to see whether there was any possibility for a walk-on.
I entered the clubhouse foyer and walked through the door on my right into the Pro Shop. I approach the young dark-haired man standing behind the counter on my left. I introduced myself and told him that I looking to play the course. Like the starter who greeted me outside, he asked if I had a booking. I told him that I did not but was on a guest to play the 100 greatest courses in America in one year. I continued that I thought it would also be cool to play the number one course in the world during that same quest. He told me his name was John. He said that while what I was doing was fascinating and ambitious, I still needed a booking. John went on to say they’d been booked solid with foursomes since May and would be until October. He said there was no way to fit me in unless I had a booking. I was concerned but undaunted.
I have this childlike optimism that leads me to believe that things will always work out. Throughout my life I’ve faced challenges. More often than not, things have worked out in my favor. With a smile on my face, I looked directly but softly into his eyes and told him that I’d put in for a booking a few days earlier but had not received a response. He offered to check the system to see if a booking had been granted. I spelled my name for him. He typed it letter by letter on the keyboard and stared at the screen. His next words were not unexpected. There was no confirmed booking. What followed however lifted my sinking heart.
My new-found friend standing across the counter looked up and said, “you may be the luckiest man in the world!” maybe it’s that 6% Irish blood that 23 and Me says I have. He then told me that while he didn’t find a booking for me, he did see that there was potentially one available slot for the day at 10:00. He said that there was absolutely nothing before that and nothing after that. He however could not confirm the slot. He said I’d have to wait for the front office staff who wouldn’t arrive until 9:00, an hour and a half later. John offered to let me hang out upstairs in either the men’s locker room or the lounge until they arrived.
It felt as if I was floating above the pavement as I walked to my car with lifted spirits to get my iPad. I walked back into the clubhouse and up a stairway that led to the men’s locker room and lounge. I sat in a chair at a table next to a window overlooking the course and began working on the blog that chronicled my quest.
As I sat staring out the window at the contours of the fairways of Royal Count Down, a tall lanky guy with deep set eyes approached me. “Hi, I’m Chad.” I hear that you may be joining me and two other guys for the 10:00 tee time.” His accent was clearly American. “I’m very hopeful that I will be”, I said. “The golf pro told me you are on a quest to play the top 100 courses in America and want to play this course while you are here vacationing.” Yes, that’s right,” I replied. “Well, I am traveling across Europe and Asia playing golf, disc jockeying, and chasing women.” He went on to say that he found my goals to be fascinating. I found his description of what he was doing in Europe and Asia to be …. Well I’m not quite sure.
Chad and I talked more about his travels before he said he’d let me get back to what I was doing. He shook my hand and wished me luck. He turned and walked back through the door toward the stairs. I returned to my work and my occasional glimpses at the golf course at Royal County Down holding out hope that I would be able to join Chad and the other two players on the first tee at 10:00.
As the hands on the clock on the wall in the men’s lounge approached 9:00, I heard footsteps ascending the stairs. My heart started to race. John walked through the door, looked at me with a huge smile and said, “you’re in!” I sprang from my chair with joy and thanked him. He and I walked down the stairs to the Pro Shop where I handed some of my kids’ inheritance to the cashier. I headed to my car. I grabbed my clubs from the trunk and walked across the parking lot to the practice area. RCD has no practice range but does have a chipping and putting area to the right of the clubhouse just beyond neatly trimmed hedges. That may be because no amount of practice on my swing could prepare me for what lay ahead.
A burly young man approached and introduced himself as Ciaran as I walked toward the practice area. Ciaran had been assigned as my caddie. Ciaran gave me a few tips on links golf before we headed to the first tee. I met Ray and Stewart, from Plano Texas as they also practiced their putting and chipping in the practice area. They were the other two guys playing with Chad and me. I told them that I was born in Texas and that my wife spent her Junior High and High School years just north of Plano in Sherman Texas.
At 10:00, Ray, Stewart, Chad and I stood on the first tee. Ciaran’s dad, Colin stood next to us holding Stewart’s bag. He was taller and slimmer than Ciaran. He approached his job with the seriousness of a seasoned and dignified caddie. He wore his years of making loops at RCD well. During our round he advised all of us on lines for our shots and our putts. Duncan with his bright round face and jolly smile stood next to him with his hand on a push cart holding Ray’s bag. Chad carried his own bag.
The first hole at RCD is along the Irish Sea. Any ball hit to the right with more than just a slight fade, is likely to end up at the bottom of that sea. Mounds covered in heather and gorse separated the fairway from that disaster. There is also heather and gorse bordering the left side of a fairway that separates the tee box from the green by a mere 483 yards on this par 5 opening hole. We had chosen to play from the green tees which measured only 6250 yards. If the sea, the gorse, the heather and the 30-yard-wide fairway, were not enough to strike fear into my heart as I stood on the first tee, throw in a blind tee shot and a 25-knot wind. My knees almost buckled.
There I was on this unfamiliar course with unfamiliar clubs and those aforementioned elements to boot. I hit my drive 230 yards into the left rough. I hit my second shot to the right rough and my third shot a little short of the green. I chipped on and two putted for a welcomed first hole bogey. I had survived the first hole with my manhood intact.
I can’t say the same for the par four 2nd hole. The first half of this mere 344-yard fairway is about as wide as a walking path. The second half opens initially to about 20 yards wide, before finally widening to about 45 yards. The fairway ends abruptly at a bunker protecting the full front of the green. If my shot does make it over the bunker, but just to the left or right of the front of the green, there are green side bunkers to the left and the right to greet it. I saw the front bunker as a mouth, and the two tiny green side bunkers behind it, as beady eyes to watch it devour my ball.
My drive on the second hole started on a good line, but was pushed by the wind, deep into the gorse that lined the fairway on the right. The caddies dare not go into the thick and tall gorse, least they be gobbled up like your ball. This was one of only two balls that I lost all day. I took a drop and then hit my approach shot pin high, just off the green on the right. From there I three putted, with my first putt being from off the green. That resulted in a double bogey.
The third hole was our first test of distance at 425 yards. There is very little room on the right in the landing zone, but plenty of room on the left side of the fairway. Albeit there are some bunkers that await you. With the wind into us and pushing toward the sea, I started my ball on a line way right and let the wind bring it back to the middle of the fairway for my first drive to the short grass. I was 180 yards out. If I had my own clubs instead of rentals, I would have hit my 5 hybrid for the approach shot. I didn’t so for the first time in about 10 years, I hit a four iron. I hit it to just short of the green. I chipped to about 15 feet past the pin. Colin assisted Ciaran and gave me an excellent read on the line for the putt, but I left it 8 inches short of the cup and tapped in for a bogey.
After the 3rd hole, we looped back toward the club house for the 4th and 5th holes. The 4th hole is par 3 that measures 185 yards, but was into that 25 knot wind. I hit a 4 hybrid for my tee shot that rolled off the back of the green. The wind was now behind me. I putted my ball off the front of the green. I putted back onto the green and two-putted for my second double bogey with only four holes played.
The fifth hole was 420 yards into the wind. It has multiple bunkers to the right of the fairway. It was our second distance test. I passed by hitting a 260-yard drive into the wind. The ball landed in the right rough. My next shot was with a four iron. The went just sixty yards and to the right. My third shot justly narrowly avoided the greenside bunker. The ball landed off the green to the left. I chipped on and two-putted for my third double bogey. At this point, I was 8 over and things were not looking too good. We were now turning away from the club house. Maybe the helping wind would bring better shots and better scores.
The sixth hole was a short 338-yard par four with another very narrow fairway. I hit my drive left of the fairway into the first cut of rough. My approach shot landed pin high and just off the right side of the green. I chipped on to within five feet of the flag and made the putt for my first par.
On the par 3, 170 yards, 7th hole, we turned back toward the club house and back into the wind. I hit my tee shot to 35 feet and made the putt for a welcomed birdie. I had asked Ciaran to take pictures of the putt because I sensed a birdie in the making. He took a couple of shots but got excited as he watched the ball tracking toward the hole and forgot to continue taking pictures to catch the ball dropping.
On the 400-yard 8th hole, I hit what I thought was a good drive into the most generous and probably also the most undulating fairway on the front nine. My joy turned to despair when I discovered my ball had landed in deep rough. I punch out and followed with a sand wedge to the front of the green. I two-putted or another bogey one what is rated as the toughest hole on the course.
The 9th hole has the most beautiful vista on the course. The fairway is elevated. It falls off about halfway to the green. As looked toward the club house I saw a village with the Mountains of Mourne behind it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lens on my camera that could zoom out and I didn’t think to use my iPhone to capture this spectacular scene. I have included a picture that just doesn’t do it justice.
The hole plays 430 yards. It has a reasonably wide fairway that is not encroached upon too much by the gorse and heather. I hit a nice drive into the fairway to about 185 yards out. My approach shot landed on a hill about 35 yards from the pin. I pitched on and two putted to round out the front nine with a bogey and a score of 44.
The back nines took us away from the club house. We again faced a strong wind blowing across and toward the sea. I completed the front nine with a par, a birdie, and two bogeys. My knees were becoming more steady and my confidence was going. The course is very challenging, but the rating is not as high as the rating for Prairie Dunes. As a matter of fact, from the green tees, the rating is only a 122. Probably because the course from the green tees only measure 6250 yards, but it plays much longer. Also, the fairways are much narrower and the fescue or “gunch” at Prairie Dunes. Also at Prairie Dunes is more playable than the gorse and heather at RCD.
The 10th hole measures 172 yards from the green tees. By the time we reached it, the wind had picked up to about 30 knots. The hole was playing 185 yards. On the left, there is gorse from the tee box to the green. On the right between the tee box and green, there is rough then heavy gorse that separates the first hole from the 10th hole. There was a strong left to right wind. Colin advised us to aim way left over the gorse and let the wind bring the ball back to the green. That is exactly what I did. My ball landed on the green about 15 feet past the flag. I missed my birdie putt. The ball stopped just behind the hole. I tapped in for a par to open the back nine.
Hole number 11 plays 390 yards from the green tees. There is a 140 yard carry over the gorse and heather that separates the tee box from the fairway. Beyond the gorse and heather there is a bunker in the fairway at about 170 yards. The rough off the fairway was cut short. I easily cleared the gorse and bunker with my drive. My ball landed in the rough on the left. One of my playing partners was not so lucky and the small fairway bunker proved to be quite the challenge.
While I cleared the gorse and bunker, I was still 200 yards out. With a strong wind blowing across, I attempted to hit my three woods out of the rough and popped it up, leaving my ball in the fairway, but 80 yards out. Colin, yes Colin even though Ciaran was technically my caddie, advised me to putt with my hybrid from the fairway. This is something that I don’t have much practice with and it showed. I putted the ball to the right of the green, barely stopping short of the right front bunker. I then chipped on to 8 feet, but missed the bogey putt and ended up with a double.
The front nine on RCD has but one par 5. The 12th hole is the first of two par 5’s on the back nine. From the green tees, it’s a very short hole, playing only 455 yards. The hole has another very narrow fairway with thick rough off each side. I drove the ball to the right rough leaving 285 yards to the flag. The best I could do was punch a 7 iron to 195 yards out. I then hit a 4 hybrid to just short of the green and two-putted for a bogey.
The 13th hole, is enough to make a grown man cry. We were hitting into a cross wind. The fairway is very narrow and encroached on the right with very thick gorse for the entire distance from the tee box to the green. The left side of the fairway is littered with small bunkers. I thought his was the most difficult hole on the course, but it is not rated as such. I think this is a case of the back nine versus front nine rating. For those not as familiar with golf hole ratings, the front nine holes on a course all carry odd number ratings and the back nine holes carry even number ratings. This can result in the most difficult hole carrying the second highest rating if it’s on the back nine. Again, in my opinion, this is the case at RCD.
I hit a low drive, into the gorse right in front of the tee box. Initially, I thought I was fortunate in that the ball was sitting up in the low-cut gorse. This enticed me to attempt to hit the driver in my set of unfamiliar rental clubs. That did not go well. I hit the ball but it didn’t travel very far. I then went to what is usually the smart shot when hitting out of the gorse and that is a 7 iron. I was able to advance the ball to about 90 yards from the flag. I hit on with a wedge and two-putted for my second double bogey on the back nine.
The final hole on the back nine before turning to head in, is a 200-yard par 3. There is gorse and heather in front of the tee box for about 150 yards, but after that the hole is wide open and protected by three bunkers clustered on the front right and three bunkers lining the left side of the green. I hit my tee shot to the front right, just inches short of the green. From there, I three-putted for a bogey.
On the back nine, after turning toward the club house, the wind was now a slight help so the drives got longer. I hit my drive on the 15th hole which measured 410 yards, into the fescue, about 150 yards out. Fortunately my ball landed left of the fairway in the short fescue, just right of the gorse. One yard farther to the left and the gorse would have gobbled up it up. My approach shot landed right of the green. I hit my chip thin. The ball rolled off the back of the green. I chipped back on and two putted for a double bogey.
The 16th hole at RCD is short but treacherous. The hole plays only 276 yards, but that becomes irrelevant when you do as I did and hit your tee shot into the thick gorse on the left of the narrowest of fairways. Neither Ciaran nor Colin were willing to enter the gorse to look for the ball. I took a drop and a penalty stroke and hit my third shot just short of the green. Lost balls are played as laterals for speed of play. This saved me a trip back to the tee. My third shot land off the green. I chipped on to the green with my fourth shot. My putt for bogey skimmed the right edge. I recorded my last double bogey for the day.
On the 17th hole, Colin advised us to hit a 3 wood on this 374-yard hole, to avoid the two bunkers on the right of another very narrow fairway. It worked as my ball stopped just short of the bunkers, but left a very long approach shot into the green. I hit my shot very well, but 50 yards left of the flag with nothing between me and the hole but air and opportunity. I pitched on and one-putted for a par.
As we stood on the tee box of the final hole, Ciaran looked at me and said, “there are 21 bunkers on this hole, success is defined as avoiding all 21 of them.” I hit my drive to the left fairway, and I say that with the recognition that the fairway is only about 35 yards wide, so there isn’t much difference between the left, middle, nor right part of the fairway. My second shot landed in the rough on the right, and my third shot on the green. I had achieved Ciaran’s definition of success on the hole by avoiding all 21 bunkers. The par was just icing on the cake. I had closed out the back nine with two straight pars, but with four double bogeys, I scored a 46 for a total score of 90. I wish I could have broken 90, but heck, I was just happy to have had the opportunity to play the course since I didn’t have a booking!
Chad, Ray, Steward and I shook hand and posed for a picture together to cap off our round at Royal County Down.
I'm joined by Chad, Stewart and Ray following our round at Royal County Down