Rory McIlroy heads a star-studded field for this year's Irish Open which tees off on Thursday in Royal County Down. Sponsored by Dubai Duty Free and backed strongly by the Rory Foundation, this year's competition sees the likes of Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez come to these shores. Here is a guide to Royal County Down.
The introduction to the majestic links at Royal County Down is a straightaway par 5 with Dundrum Bay awaiting the errant drive to the right and a high dune guarding the left.
The sensible tee shot lands down the right side collecting the contours of the fairway to finish left centre.
Long hitters can take the left centre line from the tee, carrying the ball further reaches the downslope to gain a shoot forward and leave a medium to long iron into a narrow green some 100 feet in length.
The shorter hitter will have to negotiate well-placed bunkers to leave themselves in the 100-yard zone. The first green demands care with subtle contours and a leading slope from the left side.
Three putts are common when the pin position is near the back.
Running in the same north easterly direction as the first, a blind tee shot from the championship marker demands extreme accuracy as the landing area at its narrowest point is only 20 yards wide with a large depression to the right and dune to the left.
The ideal tee shot will come to rest on the right side of the fairway for an optimum angle to the green.
Long hitters will play for position with an iron, as there is little to be gained by getting to close to the cross bunker some 50-yards short of the green.
The approach shot, typically with a short iron, must carry all the way onto the green to avoid kicking right and into the grassy hollow. The second is one of the more sloped greens on the course, upwards from front to back and from left to right.
The first of the trademark long par fours and a great test from an elevated tee overlooking Dundrum Bay.
The shorter hitter will take aim between two sets of fairway bunkers allowing for the bounce to take them beyond the right hand hazard.
The longer hitter can fly the left hand bunkers to a plateau, giving a superb line into the green, albeit with a long approach.
This green is difficult from any angle as a knuckle guards the front left and throws any under hit shot to the right and short of the putting surface.
With a bunker front left the only bail out is pin high right.
This green is one of the slowest on the course and although relatively flat is also tricky to read.
Any putt from the front to back will follow the old adage of breaking towards the sea. It’s not unusual to witness long putts tapering off the saucer like edges and finishing in the fringes.
From the new championship tee the panoramic vista is surely one of the most breath-taking views in golf.
Par 3s don’t get much tougher than this one, especially if the wind blows.
A sea of gorse runs from below the tee to the multitude of bunkers protecting the uncommitted shot, some 190-220 yards away.
The green itself is long and narrow, rising slightly from front to back with large drop offs either side and to the rear.
Pitch shots around this green are varied and difficult except from the safe haven at the front of the green.
Putts will typically move towards the sea.
A blind tee shot over the white stone in the distance with a fade is ideal.
The longer hitter must be careful not to run out of fairway on the left and may select a fairway wood for position.
Anything leaking right of the stone may catch the well-placed bunkers.
From the fairway the second shot is to a well-protected green with a large natural bunker on the left, while to the right and rear heather encroaches close to the fast and sloping green.
Once again this green slopes dramatically up from front to back.
Short putts are not easy and three putts are common, especially if putting from behind a pin positioned on the front portion of the green.
Although not the longest par 4 the sixth makes up on the degree of difficulty, especially with the approach to a small, narrow green.
The tee shot is blind and needs to be played over the white stone from the championship tee.
Anything left flirts with the deep bunker protecting the seventh green.
There is every chance of running off the contoured fairway into the heather on the right, making a difficult approach even tougher as you now have to negotiate the bunker front right of the green.
Although the second shot requires much creativity and finesse it is usually with a short to medium iron.
The green is like an upturned saucer, which is not difficult to putt on but is extremely demanding to pitch on to.
The second par three and also the shortest hole on the course but requires great skill to find the target.
The slick green is protected by a deep bunker at the front, several small pot bunkers to the left rear and a large gathering bunker on the left side.
The target landing area is the front right hand quarter and stopping quickly.
Anything turning or bouncing left of the pin is sure to be swallowed up by the bunker after running off the steep slope.
Similarly, there is a drop off back right for any shot hit too long.
To miss this green on any side leaves an extremely challenging pitch to save par.
One of Royal County Down’s truly world-class par 4s, yet is often overshadowed by the more photographed ninth hole.
A par at this wonderful, testing hole heading towards the Mourne Mountains is acceptable every time.
If into the wind a good tee shot needs to carry the heather-clad dunes before making the fairway and must also avoid the prominent deep bunker protecting the right side.
Longer hitters can choose the distant cross bunkers as the line to allow the contours to take the ball onto the left side of the fairway for the best line to the green.
The approach is more difficult than the tee shot to an elevated green that slopes off either side and at the back.
There is no need to protect this narrow green with bunkers at one of the highest points on the course where the wind can become a factor.
For any golf course to be consistently rated in the world’s top 10, scenic beauty must also be one of the attributes, which the ninth hole has in abundance.
The midpoint on this hole is where the world’s photographers have captured the sheer magic of Royal County Down with Slieve Donard serving as the backdrop.
One of the most wonderful sights in golf, the ninth should not be overlooked for its strength as a golf hole either.
A blind tee shot needs to hug the large dune on the left of the fairway to set up the best approach.
There are two well-placed bunkers some 50 yards short of the green, which are level with a large mound to the right of the green.
With these obstacles safely negotiated, look out for a greenside bunker on the right and two deep pot bunkers on the left.
One of the more undulating greens on the course requires great care, especially when putting from back to front.
The elevated tee at this par 3 is adjacent to the clubhouse and begins the second loop of nine holes.
A short hole of great character requires accuracy to thread a way through the greenside bunkers.
On the approach to the green, large deepfaced bunkers await any uncommitted shots.
The safe area is to carry onto the left centre of the green to leave a reasonable putt to any pin position on this large, yet reasonably flat green.
Another strong par 4 with a blind tee shot requiring elevation over the marker post and leading onto a sweeping dog-leg right though the fairway runs off to the left.
A strong fade is the ideal tee shot to keep the ball on the fairway.
Any tee shot finishing left still gives the opportunity to reach the green from the semi rough.
Most of the fairway bunkers on the 11th don’t come into play but the two greenside bunkers left and right most certainly do.
Club selection for the approach is key due to the ‘dead ground’ short of the green.
The green has two humps on the first quarter and slopes from front to back with a number of subtle contours throughout.
Fortune favours the brave, especially on the second shot to this par 5.
Despite the narrower landing area the 12th is still a potential birdie hole.
First you must find the undulating fairway off the tee. Any tee shots left will be swallowed up by the cavernous bunker lying in wait.
Similarly, a cleverly placed bunker right of the fairway will also catch errant tee shots.
From the fairway longer hitters can reach the green in two, but the approach demands great accuracy through bunkers left and right.
The long, narrow green falls off left and right with a slight rise from front to back but is still a great opportunity for birdie or better.
A stunning par 4 that begins Newcastle’s version of Amen Corner.
A tough dogleg to the right where caution must be taken at every turn on one of the finest holes in golf.
The tee shot must find the fairway and the best line is down the left side.
The longer the tee shot the more it opens up the green, whereas tee shots to the right leave a blind approach.
Any approach shot short and right tends to get a favourable bounce off the slope and gathers to the front of the green.
The green offers some of the most varied and difficult pin positions on the course and the prospect of three putting is a constant threat.
Built up duneland around the 13th green creates a natural amphitheatre and ideal viewpoint for spectators.
The final par 3 before turning for home at the farthest part of the course.
Another excellent par 3, measuring over 200-yards from an elevated tee position and often plays the same distance as the 10th hole.
The green is well protected on either side by bunkers and short approaches gather towards the two lower bunkers on the left.
The green itself slopes from back to front and from right to left.
Great care must be taken when negotiating a putt from the back of this green.
Wild tee shots left can also suffer the fate of ending up in the water hazard on the left or out of bounds encroaches long and right.
One of the most under rated par 4s on the course, a wide fairway leads to an elevated plateau that must be reached in order to see the green for your second shot.
The best approach angle is from the left side of the fairway to give a clear line to the green.
A difficult green is like another upturned saucer that falls away dramatically on the right side and is protected by another, less severe run off left.
Like so many holes at Newcastle playing short is safe.
Wayward approaches at the 15th can be very costly.
The shortest par 4 on the course this is a great risk and reward match play hole.
Longer hitters may attempt to reach the well-protected green, or the alternative is to lay-up short of the first prominent bunker.
Any tee shot bouncing right of centre will gather into the deep fairway bunkers or heather on the low ground.
The approach shot demands supreme distance control to avoid overshooting a fast green, which slopes away from the player on approach.
Heading for the clubhouse now and the 17th into the prevailing wind presents some new challenges.
The line from the tee is the green in the distance, however, unseen at 260-yards lies a hidden water hazard, something for the longer hitters to consider.
The second shot is often played from a down slope to an elevated green in the form of a basin, gathering shots from the left and right.
Club selection is crucial here as all too often approach shots come up short. Although the green is well bunkered, none present too much of a problem unless the approach is wildly off line.
The green itself has many undulations where pin positions will play a key role.
A wonderful finishing hole that was further enhanced in recent years.
Pointing directly towards the Mourne Mountains and the sanctuary of the clubhouse, first the 24 bunkers, heather-lined fairways and one of the most severe greens on the course must be negotiated.
The tee shot should avoid bunkers right and gorse on the left.
For the second shot, the further you hit it the narrower the subtle dogleg left fairway becomes.
If it’s a three-shot strategy it is imperative to find the green with a short iron as everything slopes off left, right and behind the putting surface.
The green itself slopes severely from back to front so anything short and straight leaves a desirable uphill putt.
Course Graphics courtesy of Golfgraffix