In County Clare, tucked between two of Ireland's most magical ports of call—Ballybunion and Lahinch—is the tiny parish of Doonbeg, a town of 215 that boasts five pubs, a ruined castle and perhaps the most seductive stretch of coastline on the Emerald Isle. Framing the roiling waters of Doughmore Bay is a tangle of towering dunes reaching as high as one hundred feet toward the heavens, the kind of evocative linksland that for more than a century has beckoned would-be golf course designers. According to one of Doonbeg's local legends, officers of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment, stationed in Limerick, considered these dunes in 1892 the perfect place to build the golf course of their dreams. The idea was eventually abandoned owing to the remote location—the SBWR instead built the famous links at Lahinch, which was much closer to the rail service of the day. Now Kiawah Development Partners, in association with Landmark National, has rekindled the plans, bringing in Greg Norman to find the layout within the land and create Doonbeg Golf Club. "It was an awesome responsibility," Norman told T&L Golf in August. "Nothing on this earth compares to Doonbeg."
The course will officially open for play next spring, but this summer I was one of the first outsiders allowed to tour the links. It has taken more than a century for a golf course to arise on Doonbeg's coast, and I am happy to report that it was well worth the wait.
Doonbeg couldn't have a more pastoral vibe—the kind of rural setting where Ned Devine still slumbers. From the aerie of the elevated first tee, it is as quiet as a cathedral save the pounding of the waves. The view, too, is epic. A mile-and-a-half-long crescent-shape beach overwhelms the senses with a sweeping grandeur that makes you want to pound your chest.
Somehow the course is equal to the majestic surroundings. Astonishingly, Norman made eighteen site visits during Doonbeg's creation, and the result is a course that is splendid yet wild and woolly, like a supermodel the next morning. Doonbeg couldn't feel more natural, no doubt because, at Norman's insistence, there was no machine grading. The superb bunkers were built by hand. And the course's proximity to the townsfolk means there is always a rumpled old man out walking his dog, cheerily offering his salutations.
Doonbeg gets off to a rollicking start, with a long, serpentine par five that plays to a green gorgeously bordered by some of the tallest dunes on the property. It must rank with those at Spyglass Hill, Bel-Air and Castle Pines as among the best opening par fives in the world. From this initial salvo there is no letup. After some truly great inland holes, Doonbeg provides another jolt when it turns back to the sea, beginning at number five. This midlength par four requires an uphill drive to a saddle pinched by dunes, then opens up to reveal a downhill approach to a green set against the sparkling Atlantic. The back nine features three holes—the fourteenth, fifteenth and eighteenth— that will rank among the most captivating in golf. The par-four eighteenth doglegs along the coast and plays to one of the testiest in a collection of outstanding green complexes. Is there a course anywhere that begins and ends with such grand holes?"Not that I've played," says Norman, who is already dreaming out loud that someday this risk-reward masterpiece will host a Ryder Cup.
One word of warning: The rough, right now, is beyond penal. But Doonbeg was built hard with the idea that it will soften over time; hopefully by the official opener the rough will be more reasonable. A few other kinks, like the layup shots on eight and ten, can be dealt with later. These few quibbles aside, Doonbeg is destined to become golf's next must-play destination.
For information call 011-353-65-90-55246 or visit doonbeggolfclub.com. The green fee will be around $165.