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More than just challenging links golf, Royal County Down is a life experience

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,

NEWCASTLE, Northern Ireland - It may be an ocean away on Ireland's northeastern coast, thousands of miles from the States, and far from the typical tourist trail. But do yourself a favor, and don't let your golf career peter away without a visit to Newmarket, Northern Ireland, and its extraordinary links course known as Royal County Down.

A great golf writer once wrote of the futility of the profession. He said there's not a description, sentence or paragraph that can do justice to a single hole of great golf. How then, does one do justice to an entire links course, particularly one as astonishing as Royal County Down?

Bernard Darwin is one of the legends in the golf writing business. He once said of County Down that it's "the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams." That's an apt description to be sure, but lacking in the particulars that help define the surreal golf experience that awaits.

One can refer to County Down as a green and golden moonscape. It's something otherworldly, with massive gorse covered hills in different hues of indigo and dark green, with terrifying blind tee shots and gaping acreage of sand. One might suggest that the course is a bit like a primeval forest, where straying from the path, or in this case the fairway, will result in an unpleasantness better left to the imagination.

You could focus on an unceasing, unyielding collection of bunkers. These bearded sand chasms are as deep as they are plentiful, covered with heather and Marram grasses. They are as lovely as a dream from close observation, but most often a nightmare when stuck deep within the confines.

The course sits beneath the imperious gaze of the Mountains of Mourne, which loom heavily in the sky just west of the links themselves. Close by Dundrum Bay, an inlet of the Irish Sea, you'd be remiss not to take heed against the vagaries of the weather. Rare is the day without some wind or rain, and if the sea is boiling, watch out. The gusts on this magnificent will topple the trolley (pull cart), bend the flagstick, bend the ball flight and bend, perhaps even break, a player's will to continue.

The wind can blow so hard, and I speak from personal experience, that it will jostle the contact lenses across your pupil. Caught in a fight I couldn't win, I caved in mid-fairway. I removed said contacts between strokes and continued the game by squinting.

Why then does this potential chamber of horrors, at least to the average player, come so highly recommended, while occupying a worldwide top 10 ranking by most of the mainstream golf publications? Renowned English golf writer Peter Dobereiner said it best. "The essence of golf is to say that it enhances the feeling that it is good to be alive. That's the first priority and absolute justification. The links of Royal County Down are exhilarating even without a club in your hand. This strip of dune land was 90 percent along on the road to being a golf course long before the game was invented."

The course is some 30 miles south of Belfast and 90 miles north of Dublin, but it's the remote quality of the grounds that helps to explain why County Down is so special. It's the feeling of splendid isolation as one ambles the foot paths or mounts the wooden steps to the next teeing grounds and encounters yet another stirring vista. This, arguably the greatest of links courses, is the polar opposite of a typical American golf experience. It's as different as George Will and Will Smith.

It's normally gray, brisk and windy, not hot, muggy and sunny. The surroundings are a color carnival of ochre, lilac and bottle green, without a condo, road crossing, out-of-bounds stake or lagoon to be found. The turf runs fast and hard, not soft and spongy. Target golf, the aerial game, is left behind like golf carts and sunscreen. Here you must learn to play the bounces. Prepare to hit a mid-iron 230 yards downwind, but beware a driver that can't surpass 190 when turned back into the breeze.

Dobereiner goes on to praise the easy informality of the club members as well, a rarity in the often stuffy world of top echelon golf. After all, how easy is it to let one's hair down at places like Augusta National, Cypress Point, Seminole or Muirfield?

"The Irish are the custodians of the genuine spirit of golf," states Dobereiner, author of numerous golf books. "They like to sling a bag across the shoulders and have at it, with no fuss or formality. I have never felt embarrassed or uncomfortable in an Irish golf club or golf course, which is more than I can say for any other golfing nation."

In short, a course like County Down is a thrill ride, joy and panic, a fearsome but fabulous trek through one of the most memorable golf vistas imaginable. It's a journey and an experience no matter how tough or trifling the conditions. It's an expedition that any serious player or lover of the game should make at least once in their lifetime.

Visitors are welcome at Royal County Down parts of each day besides Wednesday and Saturday. Contact the Secretary's Office to plan a visit at 44 (0) 28 4372 3314.

The most convenient lodging also happens to be the most full service hotel in the area. The Slieve Donard Hotel is just two minutes drive from the links itself, and offers 130 rooms, restaurant, bar and other amenities.

Call 44 (0) 28 4372 3681 for further information. Other choices in Newmarket include the Burrendale Hotel with 68 rooms, Glassdrumman Lodge with 14 rooms, and Enniskeen Hotel with 12 rooms.

For more information go to www.royalcountydown.org.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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