DOONBEG (Co. Clare), Ireland -- What do you get when you cross a pristine tract of Irish linksland with a premier resort development company and one of the greatest golfers of all time? In the case of Doonbeg Golf Club in Co. Clare, you get a course that has gotten more tongues wagging than The Blarney Stone.
Greg Norman's 6,870-yard, par-72 Doonbeg Golf Club is not only the newest true links course in Ireland, having opened for play just three years ago, but arguably one of the nation's highest-profile tracks, having already rocketed into the top 20 of many golf publications' best courses world-wide.
Despite Norman's big name and the clout of Kiawah Development Partners (the driving force behind the property since 1997), there was never any guarantee that Doonbeg would succeed as impressively as it has. Any time a big-name course designer teams up with a big, foreign company and develops an enormous resort property in a remote town of 500, there is no telling what problems and animosities might arise. To be sure, Doonbeg had a few along the way.
Way back in 1892, the founders of Lahinch Golf Club remarked on the vast potential of the linksland near sleepy Doonbeg. But the town was so isolated, it was deemed impractical to develop.
Fast forward a full century and Doonbeg was still isolated, so much so that it took nearly a full decade to open purse strings, buy out four local farmers and begin development of 405 acres of what may be the last remaining linksland on the Emerald Isle.
Once Norman began routing the course, other environmental issues arose. It was discovered that a population of microscopic snails (vertigo angustoir) inhabited some of the dunes on the property and also that more than 50 acres of the land consisted of protected ancient "grey dunes." Both obstacles had to be circumnavigated in re-routing after re-routing.
The end result, however, is almost characteristically links golf: a quirky, figure-eight out-and-back routing and several protected areas that, thanks to that darling little gastropod, afford free drops to players who hit wayward shots into their territory.
These quaint eccentricities aside, American players touring the great links of Ireland will immediately recognize - and appreciate - numerous resort amenities of the sort they are used to at the top golf destinations in the world.
Kiawah Development has ensured that visitors to Doonbeg feel that they got their money's worth out of the 140 Euro ($182) green fees. Even though the luxurious Lodge at Doonbeg and clubhouse are not yet completed, guests are greeted curbside and their clubs are taken for them to the caddy master (caddies are HIGHLY recommended for a number of reasons to be elucidated later). If players so desire, they are shuttled over to the expansive practice tee, where golf balls await at each station arranged in the shape of the club logo.
After a nice warm-up (in itself, a luxury not found at older Irish links courses), players are shuttled back to the waiting caddies. Ann Marie, a school teacher in the off season, was double looping with Yvonne for our foursome. Both women wore white jump suits, reminiscent of Augusta National and worked throughout the round in perfect harmony. Their efficiency and personability stood in sharp contrast to caddies at Ballybunion, whose job, it seemed, was to shuffle players around the course as perfunctorily as possible and to curse every time a shot went off-line.
Ann Marie and Yvonne, on the other hand, not only knew all the reads on the greens, and the lines off the tee, they forecaddied, they chatted, they joked and they literally ran ahead so that their players themselves would not feel rushed. As a result, we finished in three and a half hours without a hint of hurry. All caddies at Doonbeg are trained by caddies flown over from Kiawah Island Resort, and it shows.
More importantly, Ann Marie and Yvonne, as native Doonbeggers (I don't think that's the right term, actually), were able to assess the impact of this major development on the tiny burg. "It turned the place around," said Ann Marie. "The jobs and the pride it has brought to the town cannot be measured."
If there ever was the perfect balance between a demanding course and a playable course, Doonbeg is it. Early criticisms were that the track would play too hard, especially under harsh weather conditions.
Take, for example, the diminutive 111-yard 14th, the narrow appendix-like green of which clings tenuously onto the side of a towering ocean-side dune. Due to the wind on opening day, Norman hit a 6-iron here. Leonard Long of Kiawah Development reports having hit a 3-iron at times. With only a tickle of breeze in my face, I hit a sand wedge to the back of the green.
The point is, simply, that as in all links golf, weather can change everything. Play Doonbeg on a day with no wind, and at least two of the par 5s will be reachable in two, and the aforementioned 14th will feel like a pitch-and-putt. If the wind is blowing, however, as it usually is, then all bets are off.
Moreover, you will simply not find wider fairways or more generous landing areas on any links course than at Doonbeg. Again, on the days when the wind is howling, you will need every inch of room, too, as the marram grass rough reaches waist-high in some places.
Notably, for such a modern design, almost no earth was moved in the construction of Doonbeg. According to Long, "three fairways were built. The rest were just mowed." Norman himself contends that 14 of the greens were simply discovered, not constructed.
Head Professional Brian Shaw concurs: "You can't move around the dunes, because they'll move back." In other words, you shouldn't mess with Mother Nature.
What were built were the sand bunkers, which populate the course with seemingly endless variety - sod-faced bunkers, gnarly-faced explosion bunkers, pot bunkers, flash-faced fairway bunkers and even a bunker in the heart of the otherwise defenseless 12th green. The 592-yard fourth is pocked by a 10-foot deep bunker located directly in the middle of the landing area. If your drive goes in here, all you can do is play out backward and aim for par.
The 405-yard 15th is reportedly Norman's favorite hole. From the elevated tees - the highest playable point on the property - golfers geta complete view up and down the 1.5-mile stretch of shoreline upon which the course is built. The wide fairway lies invitingly far below, capped off by an amphitheatrical green complex that is simply a work of art.
What most people will remember, though, are the impressive bookends that are the first and last holes. The opener, a 566-yard par 5 runs away from the tee downhill through a corridor of dunes and farm buildings to a green nestled into the bosom of a great sandhill.
The closer, a 437-yard par 4, requires from the tips an almost completely blind tee shot over the corner of the adjacent beach and a tall dune to what turns out to be a generous fairway. Take the wrong line and I guarantee you'd pay another green fee just to play this hole again the right way.
It's difficult to believe that Doonbeg has been in existence for only three years. Aside from three immature greens that suffer under extreme conditions, the course could have been here for decades. In fact, the land, by and large in its present configuration, has been.
From the moment visitors step out of their cars to the moment they drive away, they are taken care of, catered to and utterly immersed in some of the best golf in Ireland. The greens alone stand out as the smoothest, most American in their combination of fescue and bent grass and the most puttable that you will find on any links course in Ireland.When the Lodge and the clubhouse are completed, this will rank as one ofthe premier golf resorts in Europe.
At time of press, only three smaller units of the 47 total one to four bedroom suites put on the market less than two years ago remain available. Prices for the suites range from 600,000 to two million Euros. Club membership runs $40,000, with yearly dues of between $1,350 to $2,350. After 30 years of membership, members are refunded their initial $40,000 deposit.
Of the two foursomes with whom I visited Doonbeg, it ranked at the top of nearly everyone's list of courses we had seen, outstripping Ballybunion by far and edging out Lahinch for most. Tralee was the only course we played that kept pace with Doonbeg in terms of both quality of golf and aesthetics.
Doonbeg's combination of memorable holes, dazzling scenery and superior service simply overpowered the historical value of its venerable competition. Assistant Pro Brendan Murphy's assessment of the layout, though certainly biased, is nevertheless accurate: "There's not a boring hole out there."
The answer, then, to the initial question posed here is simply: A classic.
As everywhere in Ireland, bed-and-breakfasts and inns abound in west County Clare.
For groups of golfers, particularly men, a true diamond in the rough is Keane's Oyster Bar (keaneskilkee.com). Just nine miles from Doonbeg, Keane's can sleep up to four foursomes in comfort between one three-bedroom cottage and several apartments. All rooms have bathroom en suite and smoking is allowed.
Accommodations may be a bit rustic for some tastes, but for a group of guys, they are absolutely ideal for kicking back, lighting a cigar and rehashing the day's round.
The best part of all is that you can drink and play cards in Keane's own pub into the wee hours and then not have to worry about driving backto your room.
While numerous dining venues exist in west Clare, according to the locals, very few establishments can compare with Keane's Oyster Bar. Proprietor, owner, chef, local historian, peat-cutter and oyster-farmer Michael Keane is a jack-of-all-trades whose family have been on this very spot since 1641.
From the outside, the casual observer might think to stop in for a pint and a sandwich. Once inside, however, you find a fully-stocked bar and, more impressively, a gourmet menu featuring only the freshest seafood and local meats.
Keane farms his own oysters, so they are always fresh, and the locally caught crab claws are succulent. The entrees of brill, monkfish, stuffed duck, or fillet of pork will not disappoint.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: It was announced Feb. 11, 2014 that the Trump Organization purchased the Lodge at Doonbeg and Doonbeg Golf Club. The course's new name will be Trump International Golf Links Ireland. Click here for more.]
January 16, 2006
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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