The name Doonbeg is derived from 'Dun Beag', which roughly translated means small fort. So it's no surprise that this pretty seaside village grew up beside a castle, which was built in the 16th century for the Earl of Thomond. You'll find Doonbeg 40 minutes or so due west of Shannon airport. Just keep going until you reach the Atlantic. You can't miss the golf course – just look out for the mountainous dunes and keep your eyes peeled. Somewhere around these spectacular 100ft high sandhills, you might get a glimpse of the Great White Shark. Because this is the course that Greg Norman built – his one and only architectural ensemble in the whole of the British Isles.
Apparently Norman made 23 visits to this amazing piece of links-land, which curves and tumbles for a mile and a half around the crescent-shaped Doughmore Bay. "When I first looked at this site, I thought I was the luckiest designer in the world," Norman said. "If I spent the rest of my life building courses, I don't think I'd find a comparable site anywhere." Norman's design is totally in tune with nature - 14 greens and 12 fairways were simply mown - not much earth moved for Greg here at Doonbeg. The look and feel of the layout is old-fashioned and the routing follows an out-and-back style, synonymous with traditional links architecture. Not bad for a course which opened on July 9, 2002, marked by an exhibition match between Padraig Harrington and the Great White Shark. Norman won 2 & 1.
According to legend, officers of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment planned to turn these dunes into a golf course in the early 1890s, but they settled on Lahinch because it's located closer to the railway station. When Norman got his hands on this land a century or so later, he said: "I'm not going to Americanise this golf course - not one single foreign blade of grass". Norman remained true to his word, but the club is American-owned and their membership philosophy is that Doonbeg is the ultimate home club for the discriminating international golfer. Ah well, at least Doonbeg is open for green fees and it's also open for local residents.
The layout is unusual in that it has a combination of five par 3s and five par 5s - the par 72 course measures 6,885 yards from the back tees. The signature hole is probably the 14th, a par three and one of the most sensational short holes in Ireland, although there are many memorable holes on this remarkable course. The 14th measures a mere 111 yards, but hitting the green is easier said than done because there are numerous distractions... the Atlantic stretches out beyond the green and the wind will dictate your club selection. Expect to take anything from a sand wedge to a 3 iron and hope for the best.
The Doonbeg project is believed to be the largest single investment in this part of Ireland and this amazing golf course has a magnetic appeal for thousands of golfers. Doonbeg is a priceless jewel between Lahinch and Ballybunion and one that simply must be played.
In February 2014, The Trump Organization bought the Doonbeg property in a deal said to be worth €15 million. The facility was renamed Trump International Golf Links & Hotel, Ireland and the course was redesigned over a two-year period under the architectural stewardship of Martin Hawtree at a reputed cost of €5 million.
The above aside, the development at the lodge is spectacular, and even though some consider its presence and eye-sore on the landscape, it is nonetheless an impressive structure. Doonbeg is the brainchild of the people at Kiawah developments (I am planning to visit the Ocean Course this winter, which I am very excited about!). They wanted to create a first class golf luxury golf destination on Ireland’s west coast, situated brilliantly right between the hallowed grounds of Lahinch and Ballybunion, and with Greg Norman’s incedible hands on approach to golf design, this place was sure to be a home run! (maybe I am becoming too americanized!) However one miniscule snail, made its best efforts to spoil the party.
Before visiting Doonbeg, I was assured by a number of people, that it was indeed a terrific golf course, that the snails hadn’t disrupted things as much as speculated and that it was anything to rival Lahinch, others told me not to waste the journey and head straight for the grand old lady! Upon reflection I fall somewhere in between. I must echo and wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Jim McCann’s comments below, where he states that every time you think you are about to delve right into the heart of the towering dunes that shape the landscape, you merely skirt around them. The view from the opening hole is tremendous, the back tee stands right on the doorstep of the lodge and overlooks the 18th hole with the waves crashing beyond, it is a very good, easy on the eye par 5, with an incredibly natural green-site, set in an amphitheatre styled location (ala the 12th at Enniscrone). From the second onwards the front nine meanders its way straight out away from the clubhouse, with only one hole playing back toward it. In my opinion, a mixed opening nine, with 4 good holes and 5 nondescript ones, the pick of the bunch being the par 5 first as mentioned along with the 4th and 5th (two very gamey short par 4’s, the former played out toward the beach, with the ocean as its backdrop, while the latter is a nice risk reward driveable par 4, running along the bay, with a viciously sloping green. The 9th is also a pretty par 3, again pitched along the strand, with a very narrow and well guarded green.
After you play the long par 5 tenth, you make the turn for home where the routing is old school straight back in towards the house. Again this nine contain a mix of some good holes and some less than memorable ones. The 12th sticks in my mind for its, Riviera styled, mid green bunker, a feature I actually quite like, having experienced the one at the Links at Fancourt (pre-removal) also the European Club’s par 5 13th, for it is something which to punish the golfer who becomes lazy on their approach. The 13th and 14 th are two great holes, definitely the two best on the course, a sweeping dogleg right uphill par 5, followed by the courses signature, Tiny Tim hole, played to a perilously dangerous greensite, with the waters of the Atlantic in full view for all to see. This hole is just the right length, it was a ¾ gap wedge for me on a day with no wind, playing about 110 yards, any longer and then it becomes slightly Disneyland like, especially if you throw the mandatory breeze into the equation. The courses finishes with a hole, that I am fully certain Mr Norman had plenty of great ideas for. The tee shot is what can best be described as unfit for a course of this nature, for a strat it is dangerously close to the first fairway, and is squeezed claustrophobically, into a small parcel of land with the sea wall to the left with the outcrop of a false dune some 100n yards in front. I am certain Mr Norman, had a much better site for this tee, located 50 yards back and towards the beach, but the powers that be would never have allowed this. After you get the tee shot away, the second half of the hole is actually quite good. The ocean means anything too far right is dead, while a large well guarded, sloping green can throw up some great hole locations.
At Doonbeg, I cannot but help feel sorry for all parties involved in its development. Leave my opening rant aside. I have great respect for people who have a vision and it is a great pity that legislation prevented without doubt the best holes on the property being constructed. The dunescape at the centre of the property that the holes skirt around, is phenomenal, falling short of Ballybunion but definitely in the category of the Glashedy course at Ballyliffin. O ne can only live in hope of the rulings being one day overturned and Norman returning to finish, what I believe would be his masterpiece. Oh and by the way there is no danger of the Species of Snail, dying out, since the course was built the number of them has grown TEN-FOLD! Nick
Standing on the elevated 1st tee, looking at a distant green sitting on the edge of the dunes, you think, “here we go, great looking 1st hole, can’t wait to get in there amongst those sand hills” but it never really happens! Thanks to the environmental lobby – and, God help us, snail lovers, in particular (of the narrow- mouthed whorl, if you must ask) – the course routing never gets into the type of terrain that sets nearby Lahinch and the Ballybunion courses apart from all the others.
Admittedly, the course guide does say that Doonbeg “was routed AROUND the oldest intact dunes to protect what nature carved out centuries ago” but I’m afraid there was none of that talk heard when other great contemporary Irish courses like the Glashedy and Sandy Hills were built in the recent past – just before the green brigade put dunes off limits - and here at Doonbeg, to reinforce the point, two huge plots of sand hills have electrified fences round them to keep golfers out!
Greg Norman must have drooled when he first saw the potential of this place but I’ll bet he cried tears of frustration having to forego 50 acres of prime golfing territory to use more prosaic land instead. I’m sorry, but the Doonbeg course just does not live up to the slick PR and razzamatazz of the multi million euro infrastructure created off course by Shannon Development and Kiawah Development Partners – and the least said about that ostentatious ensemble, the better!
It didn’t help that the greens were off on holes 5 and 6 when I played, nor did it fill me with great joy to hear that the signature 14th hole and hole 15 were out of play too, so my round never attained the rhythm or balance necessary to properly review what is meant to be one of the very best tracks in the country. I thought the horseshoe green on hole 2 and the bunker in the middle of the 12th would have added a few revs to Old Tom Morris spinning in his grave, but, in fairness, he might have appreciated the positioning of many of the bearded bunkers around the course as well as raving about the design of the best hole on the course, the par five, right dog legged 13th – a really wonderful hole.
I’d love to return – if they’ll have me back! – to play Doonbeg in all its glory, but until then, it will have to remain in my mind as a good track that, if built 20 years earlier, could have been a great one.