Many new courses in Ireland have attempted to combine the traditions of Irish golf with the sport's modern innovations (Carton House, near Dublin, and the K Club, farther south, are two successful ones). But some venerable courses hold charms and challenges that newcomers have yet to surpass, particularly the Championship Links at Royal County Down in the Northern Ireland town of Newcastle. It abounds in elevation changes, blind shots, and plateau greens, and the course can easily be called one of golf's most beautiful. (Fairly short by today's standards, the layout has been chosen for the 2007 Walker Cup.) There are few low-value shots here and no truly easy pars, challenging long hitters to stop short pitches on the fast greens. Placement is the key to this course.
The sixth and ninth holes (I think they're the best here) are among the game's great par fours. The 369-yard sixth opens with a blind tee shot over a heathered hump, aiming at a carefully placed white stone. The fairway narrows, heather and deep bunkers pockmarking both sides. Using the driver may leave a short approach, but a less than perfect shot brings double bogey into play. The second shot is to a hard "inverted saucer" putting surface, with a steep swale to the left and a bunker to the right. Choose an iron or three-wood off the tee and you face a middle iron to get onto this unwelcoming surface—a classic dilemma. My second shot rolled off the green to the left and my recovery chip failed to make it up the swale, leaving me with a scrambling bogey.
The 425-yard ninth hole is also blind from the tee, but as you walk up the hill, one of golf's most spectacular views reveals itself: the tower of the Slieve Donard Hotel and the buildings of Newcastle nestled along the sea, huddled below the imposing hills. A shot to the left of the fairway flirts with an intrusive dune but offers the best angle for a long iron between the bunkers onto the green (from the right, a difficult shot onto the green proves impossible when the wind picks up). In a 40 mph gust, I used a perfectly struck four iron to split the bunkers and roll nine feet past the hole. A gentle, breaking downhill putt fell in. It was a birdie I will never forget. Greens fees, $185-$240. At Golf Links Rd.; 44-28/4372-3314; www.royalcountydown.org.