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The Adventure Of A Lifetime

A golf trip to anywhere on the planet? Our man makes a case for Royal County Down

February 2014

If you could take just one golf trip, anywhere in the world—the golfer's version of the Three Wishes Problem—where would you go? You might feel almost a moral obligation to choose the Old Course at St. Andrews, but there are other possibilities. I once told some golf buddies that if my wife ever threw me out they'd find me circling the West Links of North Berwick, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, waiting for her to beg me to come home. But if I truly had a single-destination global golf pass I'd do what I did recently: I'd travel to Northern Ireland and lose myself on the course that native players call Newcastle and the rest of us know as Royal County Down. (It's No. 4 on Golf Digest's World 100 Greatest Courses list.

I first played it in 2000, on a trip with five friends. Our itinerary was mediocrity-free—it included Portstewart, Royal Portrush, County Louth, The Island, Portmarnock and The European Club, all wonderful—but County Down stood out. The opening holes run along the Irish Sea, but you mostly infer the presence of the water, rather than observing it directly, until you climb to the fourth tee. The Mourne Mountains loom to the south like something out of The Lord of the Rings, and the bunkers, which are savagely rimmed with marram grass, could be portals to another dimension. I returned three years ago, at the end of a trip to a different part of Ireland, after realizing that if I spent an afternoon driving halfway across the country I could play it twice before flying home. I took a photograph that appears at the top of each page of my Golf Digest website (myusualgame.com), and every few weeks someone emails me to ask: Where is that golf course? This past November, I went back.

Golf was first played at Newcastle in 1889, on nine tiny holes that ran partly over land now occupied by three clubhouses and the Slieve Donard hotel. Soon afterward, the founding members of the County Down Golf Club agreed to pay Old Tom Morris "a sum not to exceed £4" to double the number of holes. Morris is often given credit for the course we play today, but it's not certain that anything significant from his era still exists, with the possible exception of the practice green, which might have belonged to Morris' 17th, a one-shotter called Matterhorn. In the early 1900s, a member named George Combe lengthened the course and made many lasting improvements, and Harry Vardon and Harry S. Colt made more. For all that, much of the course seems self-designed: On the first nine, especially, you feel as though you are exploring a linksland dreamscape rather than advancing through a sequence of holes. The most photographed, painted and talked-about hole is the ninth, a long par 4, on which you drive over a precipice to an unseen fairway, 80 feet below. When my threesome first played it in 2000, our caddies stood at the top of the dune on the ideal line, to give us a target and to spot our drives, and after each shot they swept their arms back and forth in front of their chests—a signal that in baseball means "safe" but in Irish (we discovered) means "You'll never see that ball again." After that, we knew.

VIEWS SO WONDERFUL THEY'RE DANGEROUS
To get to Newcastle, I flew to Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, and drove north. (Belfast is closer but has fewer non-stops from the United States.) The car trip is just over an hour and a half if you stick to the motorway, but I had time so at Newry I turned southeast, onto the A2, which in that part of the country is also known as the Mourne Coastal Route. Irish roads are narrow under any circumstances; they become narrower if your eyes are repeatedly drawn to the hills and out to sea—a danger that day, because the sky was so clear that I could see the Isle of Man, halfway to the English mainland. My parents once visited Ireland with another couple, and on an especially harrowing stretch of road my mother, who was sitting in the back seat with the other wife, yelled at my father to stop steering so close to the edge. He innocently raised both hands, to remind her that, in Ireland and the United Kingdom, the driver sits on the right, not the left.

A benefit of entering Newcastle from the south is that, as you approach the town, the curve of Dundrum Bay unspools before you. The steeple of the Slieve Donard, which opened in 1897 and was named for the tallest of the Mourne Mountains, stands out like a navigational beacon, and the dunes that enfold Royal County Down are visible just beyond it. The Slieve Donard has one of the coolest features of any hotel I know: signs in the lobby that point to the golf course, which is a short walk down a hallway, past the spa, out the backdoor and across a parking lot. As soon as I'd checked in, that's where I went.

I had arranged beforehand to play with Kevin Markham, an Irish writer, photographer and freelance marketing guy, whom I'd met at Portstewart in 2012, when he joined my friends and me for a game while his wife waited in the clubhouse, reading a book. Markham has done something that I would like to do: He has played every 18-hole golf course in Ireland, plus virtually all the nine-holers—and he has written a guide based on that experience, called Hooked. (His Royal County Down entry is subtitled "perfection every step of the way.") Kevan Whitson, the head professional, joined us for nine holes, though without his clubs. He was nursing tendinitis in both arms and was saving his elbows for an upcoming two-week golf holiday in Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. With guidance from him—he told me where to aim my drive and my second shot—I eagled the first hole. (In journalistic jargon, withholding an article's most important fact until well into the story is "burying the lead.")

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