Rory's Royal County Down battle: "It's like he's saying, 'I'm a big puncher and you're a good defender'"

Rory's Royal County Down battle: "It's like he's saying, 'I'm a big puncher and you're a good defender'"
Rory McIlroy gets some advice from fellow Co Down man Ronan Rafferty at Royal County Down in 2007

Rory McIlroy gets some advice from fellow Co Down man Ronan Rafferty at Royal County Down in 2007

The great Australian professional Bruce Crampton might never have won a major but with four runner up finishes to his credit, all of them to Jack Nicklaus, he clearly knew a thing or two about the game and what makes a golfer tick.

“Golf is a compromise between what your ego wants you to do, what experience tells you to do, and what your nerves let you do,” he once said. Nowhere is that advice more apposite than at majestic Royal County Down, which will host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at the end of next month, ending a 76-year wait for its return to the storied links that shimmers and shines in that corner of Co Down where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

They say it's one of the greatest courses in the world — ranked number one outside the United States and only just behind fabled venues Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Augusta National. No wonder Kevan Whitson, the club’s head professional, has to pinch himself every time he turns up for work in the morning.

The ninth fairway at Royal County Down

“The back tee at the fourth,” he says when asked to name his favourite spot on the links where he’s been at the helm for 24 years. “I never tire of it. When I stand there and look at that view, it brings me back to when I first came here more than 20 years ago. It’s still the same, still absolutely magical - one of the great views in golf with the mountains sitting behind the golf course. It is just amazing. My time here has blown by.”

If Whitson, born and bred in East Lothian on the east coast of Scotland, considers himself a lucky man to have made the trip across the Irish Sea with his young family to take up the professional’s position in Newcastle back in 1992, the club itself has been equally blessed. 

When he qualified at the Royal Burgess Golfing Society in Edinburgh, he was one of the youngest professionals in the history of the PGA.

“I trained there for four years and I believe I was one of the youngest pros in the country when I became fully qualified at the age of 19,” her recalls. “I took my first full pro’s job at 20 and then spent 11 years at Turnhouse Golf Club in Edinburgh before I came across to Royal County Down at the age of 32.”

It was at Turnnhouse that the met Neil Manchip, currently the National Coach to the Golfing Union of Ireland and just one of a growing group of assistants — Simon Thornton is another — who have learned from the master and gone on to carve out highly successful careers around the world.

Ronan Rafferty and Rory McIlroy 

Ronan Rafferty and Rory McIlroy 

During his time at Royal County Down he has helped the club host many of the game’s leading championships, including the Amateur Championship, the British Ladies’ Amateur Open Championship, three Seniors’ Open Championships and, in 2007, the Walker Cup.

Now the Irish Open is about to arrive and Whitson is more excited that he can say at the prospect of seeing the world's best players take on a course many rate as one of the world's best.

Having already seen his boyhood heroes Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer play in the Senior Open at Royal County Down, he’s keen to see how the links at Newcastle stands up to world No 1 Rory McIlroy and the likes of US Open champion Martin Kaymer; Ryder Cup stars Luke Donald, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Rickie Fowler; home grown major winners in Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke; and a host of international stars including four-time major champion Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.

Ronan Rafferty, the last boy wonder to emerge from County Down, walked the course with McIlroy and the GB&I Walker Cup squad in May 2007 to better help them prepare for the matches with an American team that boasted Fowler, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Billy Horschel to name just four of the stars to emerge.

Rafferty, who had beaten McIlroy's future coach Michael Bannon 8 & 7 in the 1980 Irish Close final at Royal County Down, advised the British and Irish team to play conservatively to the front of greens on a brute of a course that punishes you severely if you go on the attack and get it wrong.

“It’s very exciting for a golf club that hasn’t hosted an Irish open for more than 70 years and for me, after 24 years the job here,” Kevan says in the comfort of his office, tucked behind the busy reception and professional’s shop. “It will be wonderful to see the best players in the world come to play this grand old lady of a golf course especially going back to the 2007 Walker Cup and the nice connection we have with some of the players are are coming back to play.”

An 18-year old Rory McIlroy sweeps an iron shot off the ninth fairway at Royal County Down. 

Whitson has seen it all at Royal County Down over the years but having witness Tiger Woods shoot in the 80s on his first visit only to learn his lesson and shoot a 74 and eventually an unofficial 64 on subsequent visits, he can’t wait to see how the game’s elite combine attack with defence on a track where blind shots and horrible outcomes are frequent.

Egos may get bruised.

“It’s a fact that playing to the front is far easier,” Kevan says.” And I think it is the sign of a great golf course. There are two things about this golf course that I think stand out. If you hit a very bad golf shot you will end up in a very bad place and recovery is very, very difficult and it’s generally a case of just trying to get back onto play.  

“There is also a high risk-reward tariff here, so if you take on the pins and try to get up to the pins, the penalty for a missed green at the back or the sides is so much more severe than a missed green short.

“The golf course is bating you and saying, ‘If you want to get around me safely around par, play to the front of the greens and I will give you a par score. If you want to take me on, you may do it, but there is a double bogey lurking just around the corner.’”

Royal County Down’s heather, its gorse and those famous fringe topped bunkers are just waiting to take their toll and while the greens are flat and easy to read, many are small and well protected greens, especially to the sides.

The view from the 16th tee at Royal County Down. (Please click to expand)

The amateur course record is still a mere four under par 67 and a look at past championship winners shows that technical, steady players do well — such as 1996 Irish Close winner Peter Lawrie or 1999 British Amateur champion Graeme Storm.

“Guys who are pretty steady and won’t be flapped by the golf course that is going to throw up strange lies in bunkers and trouble not too far from their target,” Whitson says. “That’s who you are looking for. It will seriously test their patience. They won’t be used to it so you need an individual who is prepared to roll with that. Somebody who is pretty accurate, not long necessarily. The greens are quite flat so not a brilliant green reader, bit someone who is good at pacey. A player with a patient demeanour.”

That sounds more like McDowell than McIlroy and Whitson nods but says he’s keen to see them take their game plans to the course.

“Graeme loves it because it is that type of challenge,” he says of the chess game mentality that yields results. 

“But Rory loves it because he has this battle with the place, as if he is saying, ‘I am a big puncher and you are a good defender’. It is such a great contrast and he loves the battle. He takes it on. He doesn’t play to the front of greens. He goes for it. 

“He’s a bit like Tiger, who came and took it on and shot 83 or 84 the first time he played it. Then he came back and shot 74 the year after and then a third third he shot 64. He was determined in an ‘I’m-going-to-have-you’ sort of way.

“He had a fight with the golf course and had to wait for his opportunities. And Rory is the same. It will be interesting to see those guys who attack and those who know when to pull back.”

A prediction? Wait for the title to be decided on the 18th and don't bet on the guy who needs a birdie four.

“The 18th - generally it comes out as our toughest hole in tournaments,” he says. “There is so much trouble on 18, so you are not finished until you are finished.”

A fascinating week lies in store and one thing is certain: this venerable “old lady” can still swing a handbag.