Tuesday, December 11, 2012

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN- The Beauty and the Beast

After four days of most enjoyable  golf around the environs of Portmarnock, the plan was to give Lisa a breather,   take a day off from the links  and motor north  to Newcastle in Northern Ireland for the second stage of our Irish  holiday. But when Tuesday morning dawned  clear, it was rough and ready Lisa who suggested  we find a place to play on our journey north.   We selected Laytown and Bettystown Golf Club  and it proved to be a   challenging venue.  R.J. Browne, the club's long-time professional and a former European tour competitor,  warmly greeted us. R.J. cautioned us that hitting the short grass  off the tee is paramount to success at  L & B.  Following Browne's advice, Lisa found the downwind first nine to her liking  firing  a flawless 43- an all-time best  for her. Turning back into the wind, she foozled a couple, then became irritated with my apparently misguided efforts to cheer her on to a record 18 hole score. Suffice it to say that after the dust cleared, Lisa failed to break  100.  Single malt in the clubhouse lifted her spirits, and we piled into our Volkswagon to complete our journey to Newcastle.

At some point on the drive north, we crossed  into Northern Ireland. But where  is the signage indicating the location of the border?  There is none!  Obviously some political accommodations  are at work here. The coastal road approach to Newcastle took us through  the Mountains of Mourne. Our first glimpse of Newcastle is from high above the city.  The imposing red-brick  tower of the Slieve Donard Hotel-  our home for the next two nights- dominates the vista below. Our room at the  Slieve,  a great  old railroad hotel, had  been extensively renovated in a decidedly modern fashion  that   was very pleasing to two weary travelers. After a brief rest, there was still plenty of sunlight so we explored our environs. We found that the rear of the Slieve had a footpath entrance into Royal County Down.

We trespassed onto the club property and snapped a picture of the clubhouse. RCD has been on my "bucket list" as a must play for many years, so viewing the grounds at twilight only added to my excitement. But golf at RCD would have to wait for awhile  as the following day's loop was slated for the Ardglass Golf Club, a half-hour north of Newcastle.

Ardglass was a late addition to our itinerary.  However, it was an unexpectedly  inspired choice. For starters, the clubhouse is housed in a 14th century castle- undeniably the oldest in golf. Multiple cannons protecting  the castle  aim toward the course.  Many clubs in GB& I brag about the warm welcome provided visitors, but the friendliness  we encountered  at Ardglass was  particularly special. From the club secretary's personal greeting to the round of whisky purchased by an engaging   member post round who regaled us with  club lore, we could not have been treated better.

But enough about the clubhouse, let's talk about our tour around this clifftop  links hard by the Irish Sea! We were not prepared for the series of dramatic shots we were required to play over and around the jagged rock formations. The first tee shot was daunting enough with the drive  hugging  the cliff's edge with the foaming sea  hissing  sixty feet below. But the second hole allowed no bale out whatsoever. Fortunately the hole played  downwind because the 200 yard forced carry over the sea would have been a borderline situation had the wind blown in the opposite direction. We dawdled our way around stymied  behind a society of twelve french folks who seemingly  felt  that slow play ought to be  a virtue.

 Ardglasses's most visually intimidating hole is the 11th -"St. John's" - a short dogleg  par 5. The sea gobbles up  any shot that is slightly mishit to the right - especially  when the wind is screaming across the line of flight toward the water as was (unfortunately for me) the case this day. But an overcorrection to the left brings an  unplayably dense thicket into play!  Lisa was once again the story of the day. Despite a  brisk  wind, she parlayed solid  ball-striking with an improved short game and scored 95- her best score ever  on either side of the pond! Playing with some Canadians we joined  on 17, she carefully played the tricky 18th back toward the castle-clubhouse securing her bogey 5 for her PB.  

I have to say that Lisa,  basking in the glow of a wonderful round and   downright giddy,   was in no hurry to leave the friendly confines of the Ardglass Golf Club. So we extended our time there with fish and chips before we took our leave. Some have likened Ardglass to an Irish Pebble Beach. This is a stretch, but I would still say that if you are in the area to play RCD,  definitely  play Ardglass!

However, there is no question that the crown jewel links of this sojourn north is the aforementioned Royal County Down, and that was our destination at 12:06 PM on Thursday, May 31st. We were paired with two Americans from Utah who were bent on setting a blistering golf pace through GB & I playing 17 different courses in 10 days. To each his own, but to me that is way  too much to savor the experience let alone get acquainted with the locals. Faced with a plethora of blind shots, we elected to employ a caddy. Ken was an outspoken lad who informed us that we were going to be playing behind three groups of french tourists- yes- the same slowpokes that frustrated us at Ardglass! Ken was free with his opinions noting that he had no use for the french or germans  for that matter. Fortunately,  Americans were deemed  OK by Ken. Despite the fact that he does not  golf, Ken demonstrated skill  at his craft, always providing good guidance on yardages and targets. With clouds wreathing the  Mountains of Mourne, and  a little Irish mist to add some flavor to the proceedings, the golf  took on a rare  mystical quality.  Undeterred by the ever-present gorse and yawning pot bunkers, I striped my shots around this classic links with an air of competence  not previously demonstrated.  Buoyed by a birdie at the 6th, I turned for home in 38. All went well until I was victimized by a bad bounce into a fairway bunker on the par 5 12th. Four poor shots later, I finally emerged from this hated trap that ruined   my hopes  of shooting RCD in the seventies. I managed to rebound  with some pars coming in, and a good scrambling par on the long 18th salvaged a very respectable  83. I am sorry to say that Lisa suffered  a fearfully bad round as  she momentarily forgot how to make contact. And RCD can be  unforgiving! But Lisa  is smiling in the picture below so she was able to  bear  her gruesome play  with  good grace. My verdict: RCD has to be one of my top 5 all-time golf experiences:  breathtakingly beautiful with  trouble lurking everywhere.  Each hole is unique and belongs on a picture postcard.  The iconic view on hole number  9 is where Lisa and I took this year's Christmas card photograph.

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