It is a tricky business, building new links golf courses in Ireland. The standards for comparison, such as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Portrush, and County Down, are quite lofty. In fact, two highly touted recent entries could not quite reach the bar: The European Club in Wicklow is a pretty good course with a so-so setting, and Old Head near Cork offers a marvelous setting but only a so-so course. Then there is the Doonbeg Golf Club.
Doonbeg’s setting, in County Clare on the wild west coast of the Emerald Isle, is without peer, and the golf course installed by Greg Norman, which opened in July, matches the drama of the site. Tucked into the hills and valleys formed by the wind-shifted sand, the course at Doonbeg fits like a custom-made cabretta glove. The half-moon beach and rugged surf of Doughmore Bay provide a visual and audible background, while the gusty winds riffle the marram grass and quickly blow away the occasional rain squalls. Despite the course’s many ups and downs, the soft, springy turf makes for an easy walk, especially when one of the local lads is carrying your bag.
Those with experience in Irish links golf will detect some familiar notes as they make their way around Doonbeg. There are holes that will remind you of Lahinch, Ballybunion, Enniscrone, and Sligo. Some of the bunkering is reminiscent of Royal Portrush or Royal County Down, and a few of the greens contain severe shelves and drops, such as those encountered at Portmarnock and Royal Dublin.
Doonbeg offers the links aficionado all of the other pleasures as well: hard, bumpy fairways; openings that permit the run-up shot to most greens; deep swallowing bunkers, many faced with bricks of sod; and the usual assortment of unfair bounces, impossible putts, and unlucky lies.
Greg Norman, who made 18 visits to the site during the construction, wanted the course to be especially difficult, and so he surrounded the fairways with deep swatches of marram and fescue. But the severity was peeled back a little, against Norman’s wishes, when some of the early members began losing too many balls. Even the eagle-eyed caddies are often defeated when a wayward shot lands in the knee-deep gunch.
Norman also designed in some typically Irish quirks: There are two holes where players must crisscross another fairway, leading one wag to claim that the word “Doonbeg” is Gaelic for “duck!” In truth, however, the transitions are easy and part of the blind-shot, aim-for-that-distant-farmhouse charm of playing amid the wild dunes.
Doonbeg is one of a new generation of projects in Ireland and the United Kingdom designed with an American market in mind. Developed by Landmark National and Kiawah Development Partners, Doonbeg is marketing memberships primarily to U.S. golfers, presenting the club as a home-away-from-home course. Development plans call for the construction of three- and four-bedroom golf villas grouped around an elaborate, full-service clubhouse. This will provide visiting members with a base from which to enjoy not only Doonbeg, which is located less than an hour’s drive from Shannon International Airport, but also other fine Irish links nearby, including Lahinch, just 40 miles north, and Ballybunion to the south, across the River Shannon.
Doonbeg Golf Club, 866.DOONBEG, www.doonbeggolfclub.com