DOONBEG, IRELAND -- The coastal landscape along Doughmore Bay in west County Clare was too perfect for it not to someday be a links. The question wasn't "if," but "when."
"When," however, was a long time in coming.
Doonbeg Golf Club now resides amid the steeply matted dunes that the founders of Lahinch recommended for golf as far back as 1892. This might have been their first choice for a club but because of its remote location and lack of access to major rail lines the site was passed over.
For a century the savagely beautiful linksland lay dormant before the golf explosion of the 1990's finally overtook it. The Doonbeg Community Development Company resurrected the golf talk in the early 90's and convinced a company known as Shannon Development to purchase 377 acres of the property from the local farmers who owned it.
Kiawah Development Partners acquired Shannon Development's options in 1997 and along with Greg Norman Golf Course Design began construction of the course in December of 1999.
KDP had little problem financing the course - over $25 million was raised from private investors - but building Doonbeg proved to be anything but smooth. As if not willing to give in so easily to the golf it had successfully resisted it for over a century, the land confronted Norman and crew with complications that resulted in serious routing dilemmas.
Certain prime areas of real estate were off limits because a tiny endangered species of snail known as Vertigo angustoir was discovered living in the soil of the dunes. This coupled with another protected asset, 51 acres of ancient grey dunes, meant that the routing was forced to take a few less than ideal turns around areas that were off-limits. These fenced off sections near the shore will certainly cause players to look in and wonder "what if," but welcome to golf design in the 21st century.
Snails, grey dunes, and 100-plus years of obsolescence aside, Doonbeg opened for play in July 2002, instantaneously dropping jaws and stirring conversation. The unique land formations and sleek architecture are at once haunting and daring.
The routing gallops through the vales and saddles of the 100-foot dunes, only occasionally interloping over the top (the fifth hole's dramatic descent from crest to the ocean comes immediately to mind).
Six holes play directly against Doughmore Bay while a total of 16 tees or greens afford some view of the Atlantic beyond. Many of the ambitiously shaped greens are set idyllically inside natural amphitheaters, notably at the regal par 5 opening hole, the three-shot 10th, and the long par 4 15th. In keeping with traditional links formation, as well as to soothe environmentalists, Norman utilized a non-interventionist approach to the design and claims that many of the greens and fairways were simply mowed from the native grasses. Scottish-style sod-faced pot bunkers dot the course but more impressive and equally as penal are the nasty, roughed out explosion bunkers.
Doonbeg has not been immune to criticism, however. Common among the more candid initial reviews were reports of severity, particularly the inescapable rough and over-the-top green contour, while some view the crossovers from holes five to six, 14 to 15, and 17 to 18 as dangerous.
Apparently the routing restrictions made these crossings necessary; the optimist would insist they add quirk to the course. As for the accusations of severity, member Padraig Harris of Dublin (11 handicap) disagrees.
"Look at this," he says, sweeping his hand across the horizon of the endlessly wide par 5 fourth, a hole where there's scant place to lose a ball unless it's hit entirely off the course. "What's too severe about it? You can almost hit it anywhere, and there are many holes out here like this. I just don't see (the severity)."
The high, fescue rough of Doonbeg, if you can call it rough, is impenetrable. Caddies simply will not waste their time looking for shots that miss most fairways, but the key is that the fairways are wide. Those at the fourth, eighth, 10th, 12th, 15th, and 17th are possibly as broad as fairways can be.
Nonetheless, for all its beauty and flair there are still a few kinks to be worked out. The 9th and 14th, two of the most picturesque par threes in the universe, will always be controversial despite their beauty (the 14th, for instance, may be impossible to finish in certain conditions). The bunker in the center of the 12th green seems to be hated with the same emotion that the 15-foot deep bunker guarding the 11th green is feared. And the author is still trying to figure out how to hold short approach shots into the small, elevated greens at the third and sixth holes.
If the greens are exaggerated they're not out of character with the immense personality of the course. In fact the world of golf could use more greens with the panache of Doonbeg's, rather than the milquetoast efforts we so often get in America. In any evaluation, challenge is what Norman wanted to create and in that regard they are more than adequate.
"He was out here all the time trying to change little things on the course," Harris says of Norman, relaying a story of how, against ownership's wishes, the architect tried in vain to have a dune behind the sixth green removed because it helped to stop bad shots from rolling into trouble. "Norman said he didn't want some 8-handicapper to come in and tear up his course."
Anyone playing in Ireland. Doonbeg is modern golf in an old world setting and a good bet to claim several magazine awards as best new international course for 2002. The green contours are exceptionally bold - excitingly so - and a greater diversity among the short holes cannot be found. Regardless of whether the course is too severe (get a caddy), sites such as this can be counted on fingers and toes. If you're bringing your sticks to Eire, don't miss it.
Architect: Greg Norman Golf Course Design
Yardages: 6,885; 6,407; 5,894; 4,808
Green fees for non-members are 185.
Doonbeg is located near the village of Doonbeg on the west coast of County Clare, 30 minutes south of Lahinch. The club entrance is between Doonbeg and Kilkee on route N67.
This is a course of great scale with wide swaths of fairways and a fair amount of climbing. However walking is encouraged and not overly difficult, and most players (should) hire a caddy for around 35.
Accommodations in the village of Doonbeg are less diverse than in nearby towns of Kilkee or Kilrush. Of course in Ireland bed and breakfasts are the rule and there are no shortages of these in either area.
On-site lodging will be available at Doonbeg in spring of 2006 when a luxury hotel of 91 rooms is completed along with a golf village of up to 80 cottages.
Those who have visited Ireland know that it does not typically make for a superlative culinary vacation, however, Morrissey's Seafood Bar and Grill is the place to eat in Doonbeg. The nearby towns of Kilkee and Kilrush sport the usual assortment of taverns and pubs: in Kilrush try Kelly's Pub, a clean and well-lit restaurant serving American and Italian-influenced dishes.
February 4, 2004
Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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