In his inaugural round at Doonbeg Golf Club four years ago, Buddy Darby recalls, Greg Norman lost seven balls in the 2-foot-high marram grass covering nearly every inch of the course that is not a green or fairway. Doonbeg is a links layout that plays over, around, and through a series of seaside dunes (some as tall as 100 feet) along Doughmore Bay, on the western coast of Ireland. If the course could confound even Norman, the pro who designed it, then, Darby feared, it might intimidate more casual golfers, especially those accustomed to America’s manicured tracks. At the festivities this spring for Doonbeg’s new lodge and residences, Darby, president and CEO of Kiawah Development Partners, the company that owns the club, recounted a conversation he had with his designer shortly after Doonbeg opened. “I need to get middle-aged Americans around this course. And I need them to want to come back,” Darby told Norman.
Lesser players than Norman would come off the 18th as exhausted as the Spanish Armada sailors who, in 1588, abandoned their sinking ships and swam ashore a short distance north of Doonbeg, to what now is known as Spanish Point. Although golfers can recuperate and commiserate with pints of Guinness at the end of their rounds, the sailors met with an end more bitter than any stout: Each was hanged before his clothes had a chance to dry.
The Irish, in general, have warmed up toward visitors in the intervening centuries, and in the last four years, Doonbeg, too, has become more hospitable toward its guests, including middle-aged Americans. Darby’s concerns regarding the difficulty of the course have been addressed, but in a subtle manner that retains Doonbeg’s character—and many of its challenges. A number of greens have been enlarged, making them more conducive to approach shots, especially in the gales that frequently blow off the Atlantic. The marram grass that was Norman’s undoing has been cut back on a number of holes, although misplayed shots invariably still lead to unplayable lies or lost balls. Indeed, this may be the only course where you can drop a ball at your feet and then spend 10 minutes looking for it.
While the course remains a stern test of any golfer’s skill, Doonbeg’s new facilities—three adjoining buildings (the Lodge, Garden House, and Norman suites) housing 56 suites—are most accommodating. Set on a windswept bluff, they overlook the 18th green, the Atlantic Ocean, the Skivileen River, and the pastureland around the club. The member-owned suites, which are let to guests when the owners are out of town, have a full kitchen and spacious living room and include from one to three bedrooms. (Darby’s company also plans to build 17 residential cottages, each priced at about $1.9 million.)
These new structures, as well as the attached clubhouse, have all the hallmarks of an Irish country estate: The rough-hewn dark slate roofs and exterior stone walls were quarried locally, and most of the buildings’ furnishings are 18th- and 19th-century antiques collected over the years from Ireland and Scotland. In the Lodge, blazing fireplaces, the aforementioned Guinness, and a heroic collection of Irish whiskey await golfers, whether they are returning from the course or from across the Atlantic.
Doonbeg Golf Club