Three years after the Irish Open smashed European Tour attendance records when it was staged at Royal Portrush it seems the Irish Open will again head North to Newcastle…Newcastle Northern Ireland that is.
For the 1st time in 75 years the world famous Royal County Down will host the Ireland’s national open and while it was no secret that it was likely to head back to Northern Ireland after a brief visit to Fota Island this year, Royal Portrush was expected to be reinstated as tournament host. After all, it did a pretty good job last time out!
While Royal Portrush can be rightly disappointed not to get another crack at the whip – perhaps an Open Championship is next in line for the County Antrim gem and if not the Irish Open will surely return in the not too distant future – Royal County Down is hardly a bad alternative.
Ranked by countless leading publications as one of the Top 10 Golf Courses in the World, Royal County Down has taken shape over the last century and a bit thanks to the expertise of some of golf’s most legendary names.
A Scottish schoolteacher called George L. Baillie originally laid out the first nine holes here and in the very same year, Old Tom Morris extended the course to a full 18 holes. Around 20 years after originally opening for play, Harry Vardon was asked to sprinkle his magic dust on the layout and since 1908 – the year King Edward VII bestowed the “Royal” moniker on the club – the course has been refined by a handful of leading architects including Donald Steel.
With Dundrum Bay to the East, the imposing Mountains of Mourne looming large to the south and an endless labyrinth of gorse-clad dunes through which rippling, pot bunker riddled fairways run, there are few more intoxicating places to play golf than Royal County Down and yet it remains an acquired taste.
Not all golfers are fans of blind shots and at Royal County Down there are quite a few. “You’ve got to play it a few times to find your way around those blind tee shots,” said Graeme McDowell in a recent BBC interview. “The more and more you play it, the more you recognise it for the class place that it is,” added the 2010 US Open Champion.
Coping with blind tee shots isn’t all a golfer has to do at Royal County Down though. The massive dunes are clad in purple heather and yellow gorse which can be quite spectacular when the flowers are in bloom…but don’t be fooled by their rugged beauty. Stray too far off line and the impenetrable clumps of heather will quickly ruin your scorecard!
Like any classic links course, the fairways have been shaped naturally by the hands of time and, on the odd occasion really test the golfer with uneven lies, all the while allowing for creativity and a huge variety of shots.
The greens are small but surprisingly flat, however don’t be surprised when your ball takes the odd wicked borrow that you didn’t see coming! They are also well guarded by the Royal County Down’s amazing bunkers, many of which are framed by choppy strips of marram grasses. Err on the side of caution when hitting approach shots and try to decide where you can and can’t afford to miss before pulling the trigger.
As of yet, the European Tour hasn’t provided official confirmation of the decision to award the tournament to Royal County Down but it would seemingly prove a popular decision among the country’s most high profile players.
“It’s a great golf course,” said Rory McIlroy.
“One of my favourites in Ireland,” said McDowell.
The club also has experience when it comes to hosting high profile events – the Senior British Open was staged here from 2000 to 2002 and the Walker Cup was also played here in 2007 – but hosting the Irish Open for the 1st time in 60 years will be a significant coup for the Newcastle course, especially if it replicates the success seen at Royal Portrush – this was the 1st ever tournament to sell out on the European Tour – when it hosted the event in 2012.
“In my opinion, it would be a good idea to alternate between a course in the South and one in the North every second year,” said Rory McIlroy.
If the European Tour do indeed award the tournament to Royal County Down Rors may well get his wish after this year’s event at the stunning Fota Island in County Cork.
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