When tee times at the legendary golf courses of Ireland and Scotland that spawned the game are not being used by professional golfers, I always pictured them to be overflowing with freemasons, ex-presidents, famously transient exiles or Bill Murray. Having just arrived back from a whirlwind tour of golf course greats, including Royal County Down, Turnberry, Carnoustie and St. Andrews, Wandergolf is happy to report that normalcy is abound and plentiful on the Emerald Isle and the banks of the North Sea.
Nestled against the Mourne Mountain range within the town of Newcastle located an hour southeast of Belfast, Royal County Down is one of the most picturesque golf courses I have ever seen and by far the most difficult links course I have ever played. The front nine holes along Dundrum Bay were so windy that the roots of the purple horse and golden heather rough extended an extra foot to snag shots with extra spin on them before swallowing golf balls whole. Landing on a green in the windy conditions from any elevated lie brought to mind SAT prep questions involving gum wrappers thrown from moving airplanes. Assuming it was findable, advancing a golf ball from the wall of one of the famously “bearded” sand traps abundant on the course was apropos to hitting a round needle in a living haystack off of a hippie’s face. The freshly mown walkways through the hills and the fairway outlines were beautifully showcased by the virtually untouched negative space comprised of the Murlough Nature Reserve and were fairly accessible as observation points by placing well thought-out and executed shots. The views from the tee box at the 9th hole of Royal County Down are photographed more so than any other golf hole in the world.
The opportunity cost of course ignorance when playing famous “bucket list courses” almost necessitates the use of caddies when available. The numerous blind golf shots at Royal County Down would have been daunting without guidance, and the performance I turned out on the front nine would have been unbearable if not for the humorous stories of my predecessors. I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed with score-changing caddie advice given to me in matters of when and when not to snack, proper body hydration, noticing and handling pre-shot agitation, and the uselessness of smoking cigars during a round. Your caddie will probably not tell you, but 85 percent of the time he is a single-digit handicapper, and ten percent of the time he is a scratch golfer.
The shock value of the course diminishing some and the hills insulating the back nine from the bay winds allowed me to score better during the second half of the round, contributing to the good taste the experience left me with. On a random note, everything from the simple ivy-covered iron welcome sign to the humble clubhouse hammered home the future our country simply hasn’t yet seemed to evolve to: namely, that the size of the yard is more important than the size of the house. It was also intriguing and a testament to Royal County Down to observe and listen to the citizens of Newcastle take pride in their landmark. In times of political upheaval in Northern Ireland, adventurous and prosperous golfers would helicopter in to play a round here. The cost of getting my clubs to Glasgow from Dublin via Ryan Air the next day in order to play Turnberry may have been more expensive.
The Ailsa Course at Turnberry has hosted four Opens, most notably the 1977 “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. The course is named for the Ailsa Craig, a volcanic island whose rock is famous for its uses in making curling stones. The view of the clubhouse on the hill, the Ailsa Craig, the Turnberry Lighthouse, and the beach itself create some of the best backdrops in golf.
Most memorable golf events, trips, and spectacular moments have been hugely enhanced or ruined by the people I have shared them with. While people do seem to make the difference, the morning round I played on the Ailsa course with just my caddie was my favorite of the trip. The visual ease with which the course intertwines itself amongst natural water and rock outcroppings along the coast makes you feel like the whole thing was just left behind in the recession of some large wave of the past. So deep was I lost in the guided meditation that my only really major error occurred when playing through a noisy foursome on the 15th tee.
Turnberry is not by itself among the country’s great golf courses, in that your non-golfing companion can walk the course with you if they choose to. My wife walked part of most of the courses I played and enjoyed the experience (or so she said). Turnberry Resort is an 800-acre Starwood Luxury property, and such a world class destination by itself that even if you don’t play golf there are a wide range of things to do including spa activities, horseback riding, shooting stuff, 4 by 4 offroading, and water zorbing. Yes, water zorbing, the art of hurtling yourself heedlessly around on the high seas in every imaginable direction and position within the confines of an oversized, puffy Christmas ornament.
There is no substitute for visiting something in person that you have seen on TV, read about, or, in this case, played a virtual reality round of online (although, unbelievably, this is kind of cool). Playing Royal County Down and Turnberry was part of an incredibly enjoyable trip to Ireland and Scotland, and I look forward to talking more about the Links at Carnoustie and St. Andrews next month.
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