Doonbeg is a study in contrasts: the rugged and quintessentially Irish beauty of the Clare coastline with the 2006 American-built stone castle that overlooks it, the flat farmland that stretches for miles around with the towering sand dunes that dominate this visually stunning golf course.
And yet anyone who has stood here, felt the power of the ocean forcing its way along the coastline and tasted its rain washed air, knows what a special piece of land this is. The backdrop is Doughmore Bay and its crescent-shaped beach which clings to the golf course like a child to its mother – 16 of 18 holes in sight of the Atlantic at some point. It’s hard to go wrong with this canvas.
Nature is, however, both a friend and an enemy in this part of the world.
The course has been battered by a two huge winter storms since 2013, a timely reminder not only of the power of mother nature but also just how much this golf course and the land on which it sits, is at her mercy.
In recent years, the fairway on the 18th has been significantly narrowed by the erosion, while the course’s two best par 3s the 9th and 14th were badly damaged. That none of that is even remotely noticeable during our round is down to the tireless work of Director of Golf, Brian Shaw and the work of the highly-regarded architect Martin Hawtree, who has updated Greg Norman’s original design.
Between them, they have produced a golf course that feels like it has been built with hands and shovels, not bulldozers. It is immediately clear that this entire resort makes the most of the incredible natural beauty of the land. And although we know that greens have been ripped out and replaced, tees moved and bunkers added – you would never know it.
Whatever your political views (and this is a piece about golf and not politics) the resort is hard to fault. Some 300 jobs now exist here where they did not before and no detail has gone unnoticed. The isolation of this resort is part of its allure.
The resort is modern luxury meets manor house, chimneys everywhere and tall glass windows set beneath granite arches. The public areas as beautifully done, the restaurants are excellent and there are a multitude of diversions for non-golfers, including dolphin watching, treatments in the spa, or the simple joy of drinking a pint while watching golf and the endless ocean beyond.
I was, however, here to play golf and not watch it – thank the Lord. And having eaten a hearty lunch overlooking the 1st tee, it was our turn. I had heard the opening hole here described as the most beautiful in all of golf. Quite a claim.
It’s a gentle 567 yard par-five that plays slightly downhill to a green surrounded on three sides by towering, 10-storey sand dunes. From the fairway the Atlantic Ocean can be glimpsed through gaps in the dunes.
The bunkering challenges you off the tee and on your second shot, whether you go for the green in two or not. There are no fewer than eight bunkers within 50-yards of the putting surface. And the natural amphitheatre created by the dunes does make it a stunning way to start.
The 3rd is a short par-4 with a large bunker at the elbow of a gentle dog leg left before the gargantuan 4th, measuring 659-yards (one of the longest holes in Ireland) from the back tees comes into view. Our day at Doonbeg was brought to life not only by the beauty of the landscape and the excellent golf course but by the two brothers who carried our bags.
It took us 7 holes to work out that our caddies Douglas and Odhran Lynch were brothers. Their stories, humour and wit kept us laughing even when the course was punishing our wayward drives. It was an education – in golf and life. And a pleasure to spend a few hours in their company. You could do worse than to ask for them. Although if Douglas tells you a putt comes from the left it may well come from the right! That’s my excuse and I am sticking firmly to it!
The pick of the front nine are the tremendous par 4 6th and the spectacular par 3 9th. At only 365-yards, the 6th it is not long but accuracy from the tee is paramount and anything left will end up on the beach, which the tee sits directly above. The 9th is a challenging par 3, with the stunning beach running the entire length of the hole. Anything left and you will be shouting down to the dog walkers and surfers to ask for your ball back. Good luck with that.
Anything right and you will end up blocked out by a vast sand dune. It’s a really terrific par 3, although not the best on the course. That is to come.
The back 9 begins by turning away from the ocean but really gets going with the brutal 13th that should, on the face of it, be a birdie opportunity at just over 500-yards but in reality is anything but. Likely to play into the prevailing wind, the second shot requires a big carry and a piercing ball flight to avoid the bunkers and dunes that line the way. A 3-shot approach is a good idea.
But it’s the 14th that really steals the show. Another stunning par 3. This is and perhaps always had been the signature hole here at Doonbeg. Writing in his terrific book, “A Course Called Ireland”, Tom Coyne described it as “perhaps the most beautiful 100-yard hole I’d ever played, the green stuck into the side of the beach head like a saucer of grass hanging over the ocean.”
And that describes it beautifully still. It’s a 150-yard hole these days but it’s still breathtaking. The tee high above the green. The ocean just five steps to the right. On that day, I knocked it to six feet. I missed the putt, of course, but I was already surprised and delighted at how much I was falling for this place.
There are six sets of tees at this golf course, the largest difference from back to front is 161 yards. So although it is like wrestling a bear from the back tees when the wind is up, it doesn’t have to be for everyone.
The 18th is an excellent finishing hole, with the ocean once again back at your side for the final 432-yards of your round. A good tee shot up the left side should leave a mid to short iron into a green that slopes sharply away to the left and that is protected by the beach and the ocean to the right.
The windows of the clubhouse are a pitch-and-run away and the overriding emotion as you walk off the 18th green and back past the 1st tee on your way to the bar, is ‘is it OK if I just go out and play that again now, please?’
I genuinely didn’t think I would like Doonbeg as much as it did. I was prepared not to , I was prepared to be critical, if I am honest. And yet all that melted away not because of the luxurious resort but because of this magnificent golf course. It may not have the history or even some of the subtle charm of its near neighbours, Lahinch and Ballybunion, but make no mistake, this is first and foremost a really tremendous golf course and then a fabulous resort.
All I can suggest is that you, like me, park any preconceptions (and I had plenty) you might have at the door and let the golf win you over. Because it will.
- Best hole: The 14th – 138yd Par 3. The best view on the golf course, the 14th is without bunkers but there is plenty of protection elsewhere. The green is some 20 ft below the tee, framed by dunes and with the ocean only a few yards to the right of the putting surface. When the wind blows, good luck…
- Most memorable hole: The 18th 432 Yard Par 4. A fantastic closing hole. Once again the ocean runs down the entire length of this par 4, shades of Pebble Beach, with well -placed bunkers down the left to catch the careful tee shot. The approach must be long and straight. Anything left will catch the slope and run away or the bunkers. Anything right and you will need your bucket and spade to get it back. As impressive a sight as you will find.
- Best par 5: the gigantic 4th will test the very best golfers with challenges and hazards off the tee, in the landing areas and around the green. A really excellent par 5 that never lets up until the ball is in the bottom of the cup.
Phone Number: +353 65 905 5600
Designer: Greg Norman and Martin Hawtree.
Green Fee Range: €95 – €180
Length: Par 72 – 7,026 Yards
Where it ranks: Voted the best golf resort in Ireland 2017.