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Irish links: Taking a longer look at Doonbeg

By Tom Mackin,

DOONBEG, Ireland -- So you finally made the pilgrimage to Ireland. You and the guys, 10 courses in six days, different weather every hour, more pints than birdies. And it was great, wasn't it? Until a few weeks later, when all those holes kind of blurred together, when the sore neck you got from constantly nodding off in the van is still not 100 percent, and the names of your very funny caddies are very forgotten.

There's nothing wrong with buddy trips or organized golf tours, especially if it's a first-time visit to another country. But for the second time around, do to your itinerary what you should do to your swing - slow down. Why? Because links golf, especially in Ireland, is meant to be savored, like a properly poured pint. You can't do that if your days are full of high-speed dashes along narrow roads rushing to make the next tee time. Focus on one course, like Doonbeg, a private club on Ireland's southwest coast that allows limited public play, and you'll enjoy it as much if not more.

Now before you spit out your Smithwick's at the thought of going all the way to Ireland just to play one course, hold on. First, Doonbeg is well worth multiple, albeit expensive, rounds. The layout is decidedly Irish links (set along a 1.5 mile crescent shaped beach facing the Atlantic Ocean), the designer is pure Australian (Greg Norman, who made 23 visits to the site during the design process), and the owners are Americans (Kiawah Development Partners). That international flavor has proved to be a winning trio since the course opened in July 2002.

Second, it's not in a place overrun by tourists (a la Killarney). Yet it' s only 40 miles from Shannon Airport and 15 minutes north of the resort town of Kilkee.

Finally, there are also plenty of good courses nearby if you feel absolutely compelled to play more (like Ballybunion an hour south; Lahinch 30 minutes to the north; Adare Castle and Dromoland Castle, the latter with its renovated parkland course, both near Shannon Airport).

Doonbeg debuted two years ago to gushing praise, yet most also mentioned the difficulty of the layout. Wind alone makes all links courses tough, but other playing conditions here were addressed last winter. Four greens (the third, fifth, 13th and 15th) were rebuilt, primarily to accommodate more pin placements. Several new tees were built, most noticeably a back one at the par-4 sixth, and two others were extended. Walkways between holes were enlarged and improved (still best to watch your step, especially when looking for balls among the thick dune grass). Finally, and you will be most grateful for this, some of the dense rough on a variety of holes was mowed down to more manageable heights.

The tweaking will hopefully continue on some other holes. The layout loses a bit of steam at the beginning of the second nine, with the awkwardly-shaped 585-yard 10th, a borderline unfair elevated green on the 142-yard 11th, and the fairly bland 12th, a 466-yard par-4. But those are overwhelmed by holes that are equally thrilling and memorable, starting with the opener, a 567-yard par-5 that starts from an elevated tee and ends with a green surrounded by towering dunes. The sixth is an excellent short par-4 at 373 yards. And then there's the stunning 14th, a 111-yard par-3 with a plateau green and ocean backdrop.

You won't be bored here if you played 10 days in a row, let alone three, thanks to both the design and the ever-changing Irish weather. During your first round, whether it's in brilliant sunshine or a misty shroud of precipitation, you'll be overwhelmed by the scenery, jet lag, combined with the soaring dunes (51 acres of which are fenced off permanently for preservation) and seemingly bottomless bunkers, will have you staggering. The second round you'll likely be frustrated by the funky bounces and lost balls. Which is where Doonbeg's caddies earn their tips. During the third round the light bulb will click on. You'll know then what clubs to hit, that hitting backwards out of a pot bunker is almost always the proper play, that the wind can more times help than hurt, and that your caddy invariably pulls the right club.

The course itself was just the first phase of what the owners feel will eventually become Ireland's first modern, upscale golf course development. This past May construction started on a sprawling new clubhouse and a group of Lodge Suites. The latter were so popular that on the first day available, 17 were sold for approximately $20 million in total. In all 56 suites will eventually be built, along with a series of Links Cottages, creating a small village unto itself just steps away from the first tee.

The golf isn't cheap: 185 Euros (approximately $220 U.S. dollars) for 18 holes, with a same day replay rate of 75 Euros. If the green fee cuts too deeply into your suite-buying funds, there are other more affordable and low-key accommodation nearby.

Within view of the course is the 12-room Links Lodge run by Tony Pender and his wife Maeve. Pender was one of four local farming families who owned the 377 acres that Doonbeg was built on. After selling the property, he gave up the farming life and became a hotelier. He's not sure yet which is tougher, but he proudly displays pictures of Norman visiting with his children in the lobby.

Just a few miles down the road in the small village of Doonbeg, Francie and Connie Killeen run the An Tintean Guest House. He's a local and she's originally from Georgia. Their seven-room place, which is pronounced "Awn Tin Tawn," opened in 1994 and is just up the street from Morrissey's Pub, where dinner should be capped off with the world's greatest sticky toffee pudding. Then head just across the street for pints deep into the night at Comerford's Bar.

At the course itself the upscale atmosphere is belied by staff who will make you feel as welcome as you would at your home course, regardless of your income level. Like Frank Garrihy, the locker room manager. When he's not tending to his duties, you might spot the Clare native (from Ennis) and runner putting in his miles around the edges of the course or along the beach below it.

Or Joe Russell. Plenty of people thought this proud Tipperary native was crazy to come to Doonbeg. He was running the prestigious Berkeley Court Hotel in Dublin when he took the position of general manager here, enticed by ambitious plans for a clubhouse and lodging that were mere sketches at the time. Now that construction has started, Russell has his hands full overseeing what will no doubt become a much-talked about destination in golf circles. Plus, he's your man for any questions about hurling, an Irish sport (think lacrosse meets rugby) you should check out in person.

Head pro Brian Shaw is intimately familiar with fine tuning American swings. The Dublin native came to Doonbeg from Adare Manor in County Limerick, but prior to that played college golf at LaSalle in Philadelphia and worked at clubs in Milwaukee. Which makes him one of the few head pros anywhere who can knowledgeably discuss the finer points of cheese steaks, bratwurst and a proper Irish breakfast, all in the same conversation.

And if you see a helicopter landing near the current clubhouse, a fairly frequent occurrence, it could be bringing in a golfer named Buddy Darby. Five years ago Darby, who also happens to be the CEO of Kiawah Development Partners (the master developer of the 10,000-acre Kiawah Island south of Charleston), was asked by colleagues at Landmark National to fly over from South Carolina and check out the property here. At the time Darby expected nothing more than to walk the land and enjoy a few pints. But then he saw the property, and like countless visiting Americans, fell in love with a piece of Ireland. Unlike most, he went a step further. KDP partnered with Landmark National to build the course, and eventually bought them out to become Doonbeg's sole owner.

So bag the whirlwind schedule. Slow down your itinerary like you should slow down your swing. Doonbeg, while pricey, is worth a longer look. And your neck won't hurt a bit.

As an Associate Editor at GOLF MAGAZINE for three years, Tom Mackin wrote about golf destinations in the United States, Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Brian Shaw

    Barbara Larkin wrote on: Jun 14, 2007

    Hello Brian, Our family will be playing Doonbeg on June 26th and two of the guys played at LaSalle U in Phila. Hope we get to meet you