‘This is a course I want to be identified with, one I will be able to say with pride - I did that one.' Greg Norman
Stretching along a curving beachfront ridge at Doughmore Bay in the tiny town of Doonbeg, the spectacular new Doonbeg Golf Club is surrounded by some of the giants of Irish golf and is destined to become one itself. The links occupies ancient sandhills that tower up to one hundred feet and were first considered for golf by the founders of the nearby Lahinch Golf Club, who ultimately felt the town was too isolated for their club. A century later, and though still remote, the magnificent Doonbeg dunes were finally bequeathed to golfers in 2002 with the opening of Greg Norman’s remarkable modern links.
Norman spent an inordinate amount of time on site during the design of Doonbeg, immersing himself totally in the project for several years, aware that this was an opportunity to create something very special. Importantly his big dune landscape was also blessed with natural playing corridors and smaller internal ground contours so essential for interesting golf. With such a suitable canvas, the design team built the course with a shovel rather than a bulldozer and merely mowed down the fescues to uncover holes already laid out in the dunescape. Only a handful of fairways and greens were shaped to any degree, while the bunkering was dug by hand, the hazards left rugged and generally either sod revetted or fringed with shaggy tufts of native grass.
The design process was hamstrung, however, when an endangered microscopic snail was discovered in some of the principal dunes, preventing their development and forcing the layout to be re-routed several times. A key design decision for Norman then became whether to sacrifice any further duneland by focusing on a logical and coherent layout or using all of the available drama through design to create as many spectacular holes as possible and living with a few routing issues. Norman chose the latter and, despite tees that hit over greens and awkward cross-fairway walks, so dramatic and visually compelling are the best moments here that, on balance, it is hard to argue with his decision.
Arranged in a single loop that continually ducks in and out of the towering sandhills, the course begins from a high tee looking out over the site’s stunning coastline, the sense of excitement heightened by a wonderful par five that ends with a target tucked into a huge sandy amphitheatre. From here the course shifts onto flatter inland farming ground that skirts the edge of the dunes, reemerging after some solid but subdued golf into the heavy hills at the par four 5th, its approach heading through a sand saddle and over a gorge toward a green resting before the ocean. The next is played across the 13th green and along wild beachfront dunes, while aside from a diabolical green site on the long 8th, the talking point of the remaining outward holes is the short par three 9th with its sublime target set beside the sea.
The course then again skips along former farmland for three holes, including the controversial 12th and its donut-shaped green, before moving back into the big dunes at the reachable par five 13th, an audacious hole semi-blind across a crest and then into a narrow target resting atop a ridge and beyond a vast expanse of sand. Softening the landing area and shaving part of the driving dune has helped the playability of this hole enormously. Remaining back nine highlights include Norman’s favorite hole, the strong par four 15th with its green sitting within a massive sand crater, and the demanding finishing hole played blind along the beach to a well-bunkered fairway and wildly contoured green. The star attraction, however, is the 14th, an evil 100-yard par three played straight at the ocean and a slender shelf of green shaved into the side of a soaring ridge. Despite its infancy this hole has already become a legend in Ireland.
With as many glamour holes as any links in the British Isles, Doonbeg is a terrific experience and thanks to sensible modification has improved considerably in the few years since opening. Not surprisingly it has polarized popular opinion, with many highly critical of its seemingly dangerous and illogical routing and others convinced that, by virtue of its many highlights, it is one of the golfing achievements of the 21st century. While it is unfair to compare Doonbeg with famous neighbors like Lahinch, and its one hundred years of maturity, there have been few more impressive virgin courses built in this region during the last half century.