DOONBEG, COUNTY CLARE, Ireland - The day was heavy and gray, and the wind was sharp off Ireland's southwest coast as I walked to the first tee at Doonbeg Golf Club. The weather gods couldn't make up their minds to let loose rain or snow.
Standing on the tee, my group could catch the sea views to the left and the ribbon of emerald fairway creeping softly across the landscape to a green protected on three sides by tall dunes. Beyond that, the golf course stretched out along the Atlantic. Even in the impending drizzle, it was spectacular.
I was looking forward to hearing some good old Irish tales from my caddy, a lean, crusty-looking guy with a thin weathered face like a well-chewed caramel. Anticipating some pithy tales of Irish links lore from a quirky local, I asked, "Where you from?"
"New Jersey? Like New Jersey, America?"
How can you fly six hours across the Atlantic to Shannon, dust off your stick-driving skills, navigate on the wrong side of the road another hour to Doonbeg and end up with a caddy from New Jersey? Just didn't seem right.
But here you have a course designed by an Australian (Greg Norman) and a property owned by Kiawah Development Partners of Charleston, S.C., so why not a caddie from New Jersey?
Norman said when he first saw the land, "I thought this would be the last chance in my life to get a site like this: the sand dunes, water, beach, the wind blowing at 40 knots. The one thing I said when we started was, 'Guys, I am not going to Americanize this golf course, not one single foreign blade of grass.' Once we laid out the fairways, I just started mowing the grass that was there. The only major dirt we moved was for the clubhouse pad."
Still, Doonbeg, running along a 1.5-mile crescent beach and through swales defined by marram-grass dunes, has wider, more manicured, easier-to-hit fairways than courses such as Lahinch and Portmarnock.
But Norman let the land lead when he designed Doonbeg, creating a modern course with an old soul. Many of Doonbeg's greens and fairways are simply mowed, such as No. 13, which flows over the terrain as nature sculpted it. Add winds and horizontal rains known to lash in from the Atlantic on occasion and you get your authentic links experience.
Located in West County Clare near the small village of Doonbeg (from the Irish "Dún Beag" for "small fort"), the stunning $140 million private membership club opened in 2002, attracting well-heeled international buyers. Since then, as Doonbeg allows limited public access, word has spread that this is a track worth playing.
The architecture of the Elizabethan-style lodge and adjacent villas evokes an Irish country village. Buildings have mullioned windows, gables, fireplaces, rough-hewn dark slate roofs and muscular stack chimneys along with timber ceiling beams from 19th century Charleston buildings and Kentucky log cabins.
The golf course is the centerpiece of the club with a single loop of nine holes out and nine back, playing 6,885 yards from the back tees. To accommodate the dunes, there are five par 3s and five par 5s. All but two holes have views of the Atlantic. On clear days you can see the Cliffs of Moher from the seventh hole. The short par-3 ninth runs tight to the beach, while the sea runs along the right side on No. 18.
Sod-walled bunkers, old-stacked rock walls like on the third hole and views of cattle grazing on the hillsides recall older links tracks. Lying in front of the green of the second hole, you get your first look at one hazard you'd do best to avoid: the pot bunker. Play here a few times and you'll understand the wisdom of hitting out backwards.
The force and direction of the wind can play a huge role in club selection. For example, you could be using any club from a sand wedge to a 5 hybrid on the dramatic 111-yard 14th hole, a par-3 carry over a ravine with a huge ocean view to a cliff-hanging green.
"If I spent the rest of my life building courses, I don't think I'd find a comparable site anywhere," Norman said. "It's spectacular, land made by God."
Doonbeg's luxurious apartments are privately owned, and each is unique, but many are available for one-night to multiple-nights rentals. Ideal for groups are Links Cottages, which border the 17th fairway. Guests can use the spa, Darby's Bar and The Long Room Restaurant.
November 11, 2010