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Royal County Down's 144-yard seventh is referred locally as "the shortest par 5 in the world."
Royal County Down's 144-yard seventh is referred locally as "the shortest par 5 in the world." (Kiel Christianson/TravelGolf)

Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland is where links dreams come true

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

NEWCASTLE, County Down, Northern Ireland -- Imagine this: You're playing golf. It is 38 degrees Fahrenheit. You are hitting off of a little plastic mat you're carrying around with you. You are playing very, very badly. Yet, when you hole out on the 18th green, you can barely hold back tears because you're so sad that the round is over.

There are few courses in the world where every step feels like a dream. Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland is one of these precious few courses.

None other than Bernard Darwin described golf at Royal County Down as "the kind of golf people play in their most ecstatic dreams." And no matter what the conditions or your score, you simply do not want to wake up.

The links at Royal County Down nestle into the undulating dunescape with a natural ease that belies any human intervention. Nevertheless, in the clubhouse, you will find a photograph of Old Tom Morris and the original 1889 document that contracted him to lay out the second nine holes of the links "for a sum not to exceed £4." That was a hell of an investment.

Royal County Down Golf Club hosted the 2015 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in May. The field was naturally top-heavy with European PGA Tour stars such as Northern Ireland native and world no. 1 Rory McIlroy (who actually hosted the tournament, too) and fan favorite Sergio Garcia. But it also included PGA Tour stars such as Rickie Fowler, who is a big fan of the links at Royal County Down.

Frankly, it is difficult to see how anyone fortunate enough to tee it up here would not immediately become a big fan.

Playing Royal County Down Golf Club

Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, the worst trouble (i.e., out of bounds) at Royal County Down lurks to the right, punishing slicers.

The most claustrophobic OB stakes are found on the first few holes, in fact, so try to warm up a bit before your tee time. Unlike the Old Course, however, these links feature shaggy, tumultuous dunes and explosions of gorse throughout the layout. These features give the links a barely tamed feel without veering into unkempt wildness.

Unusually for historic links courses, Royal County Down opens with strong holes. The 539-yard, par-5 first ushers you down the rabbit hole and offers views of the Slieve Donard Resort and the town when you look back up the fairway. The green of the 475-yard, par-4 third hole is tucked into a gorsey knoll and protected by a treacherous front bunker. The best views of the sea and shoreline come early, on the elevated tees of the 229-yard, par-3 fourth.

The deceivingly evil 144-yard seventh was described by my caddie as, "the shortest par 5 in the world." When I looked quizzically at him, he explained how everything runs off the putting surface into the back-left bunker. When I landed short right and tried to chip to the back pin -- and ran past the hole into that very bunker -- he just nodded and muttered, "See what I mean?"

The 483-yard, par-4 ninth is one of the most oft-photographed holes in all of golf. From the tips, the tee shot must find the right-to-left canted fairway some 260 yards off the tee. If you play more forward tees, a long drive can run off the end of the top part of the fairway, and the approach downhill to the raised green will have to be played from a terrible stance in thick rough. Good luck with that.

The 446-yard, par-4 13th is the no. 2-handicap hole, but it feels much harder. If your drive isn't perfect, it'll need to be played as a par 5. And even if your drive is perfect, the blind approach to the gorse-encircled green is never a picnic, especially if the wind is blowing (which it almost always is).

Finally, the 548-yard 18th is relatively straight, relatively trouble-free. Perhaps this is because Old Tom intuited that so many future golfers would tread this fairway with misty eyes as they emerge from the dreamy, linksy wonderland. The course is open to visitors Monday, Tuesday and Friday all day, and Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon. With green fees between £50-£190, it is a magical journey every golf enthusiast should take.

Stay-and-play options when playing Royal County Down

The Northern Ireland seaside town of Newcastle has plenty of quaint bed-and-breakfasts and historic hotels, but a room at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa is the ultimate stay-and-play experience when playing Royal County Down.

The hotel was built by the railway to entice city folk to take a train ride to the coast to play golf and opened in the same year as the back nine of the course, 1897. The famed linksland lies directly behind the back parking lot of the resort and can be seen from some of the rooms.

Slieve Donard's red-brick Victorian facade is simultaneously inviting and a bit foreboding. There are ample views out into the North Sea, and the interior has been completely refurbished with all the modern amenities, including a five-star spa. Nevertheless, classic details have been preserved, such as the enormous carved wooden mantelpiece in the Oak Room.

Venturing beyond the exquisite confines and cuisine of Slieve Donard, gastronomes will be richly rewarded by a dinner at Brunel's in Newcastle. The stout-braised ox cheeks absolutely melt in your mouth, and the local mussels are probably the meatiest I have ever eaten anywhere in the world.

For more information, visit discovernorthernireland.com.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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

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