Toward the middle of the last century, the English golf writer Henry Longhurst saw a piece of land in a rugged, picturesque part of southwestern Ireland called the Dingle Peninsula. The site moved Longhurst to envision splendid things. "Not far from Tralee, down on the Atlantic coast," he wrote, "is a stretch of sandhills on which everyone who has seen it knows instinctively there could be built the finest golf course in all the world—but I am afraid it is too remote ever to be a practical proposition. This place is Castlegregory."
On a cold, damp and windy day last winter, gray-black clouds spat squalls over the sandhills that had quickened Longhurst's imagination. The village of Castlegregory was somnolent. Most of its pubs and stores were closed and would be till the summer tourism season. The American golf course architect Tom Doak steered his rented Ford through the narrow streets, then headed north toward the sea along a narrow piece of land that juts from Dingle like a slender thumb into Tralee Bay.
Doak looked across the windswept water toward low, green dunes and whitewashed cottages. Beyond them were some rocky islets and the whitecapped sea. The rain let up and a few shafts of sunlight broke through the clouds. The dunes and cottages seemed to glow. A rainbow appeared in the sky, full and vivid. It touched down in the dunes, just about where a first tee might be.
Doak smiled. It would be hard to ask for a better omen. Maybe the sandhills he was approaching would, as Longhurst had imagined, be the site of the world's finest course, with Doak as its designer.
This is the way Tom Doak's career has been going for the past few years; if he hasn't found the end of the rainbow, he's within sight of it. His Pacific Dunes course on the Oregon coast opened in 2001 to rave reviews; one panel immediately ranked it among the top thirty layouts in the world. The acclaim cemented Doak's stature among connoisseurs of golf course architecture; indeed, he is at the vanguard of an emerging design movement away from extreme environments (think the TPC Stadium course at Sawgrass) and back toward natural low-key designs that fit effortlessly into their surroundings. His is not a name you will soon see associated with a course on the PGA Tour. Doak hasn't done the sort of green behemoth required to challenge modern pros and equipment; he does smaller, subtler, more thoughtful and traditional courses for the rest of us. I was along on this trip to see how.
Doak drove out of Castlegregory along a strip of blacktop barely four paces wide. He passed several trailer parks, vestiges of days when most Irishmen could afford nothing better in the way of a vacation property. He stopped at a farm gate under which the turf was muddy with bovine hoofprints. He and his associate Don Placek slipped on rain pants to go with fleece pullovers, boots and anoraks.
"This land is what the Irish call commonage," Doak said as he set out against a chill, damp wind toward the tallest dune. "Seven families had rights to graze their livestock here. That's one reason it's never been developed, even though people have been talking about building a golf course here for fifty years or more. It's hard to get seven Irish families to agree to anything."
The man who got the families to consent to a golf development is a nongolfing Massachusetts lawyer named Bob Bianchi, who while in Ireland for a different project was talked into the idea. Bianchi was conscious of one significant change at Castlegregory since Longhurst's day: It's no longer so remote. Airlines are offering discounted fares to western Ireland from the East Coast of the United States; to millions of American golfers, the Dingle Peninsula is now about as accessible as, say, the coast of Oregon.
Bianchi's plan was to develop two courses in the seven hundred acres of commonage north of Castlegregory. On the west side of the little road to Kilshannig village would be an elite private club called Maharees, to be designed by Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw's partner. (Coore and Crenshaw's Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska is another gold standard of "natural" design.) The other course, open to visitors, would be called Kilshannig Cross, after a landmark in the church ruins of the nearby village. To design it, Bianchi commissioned Doak's firm, Renaissance Golf Design, Inc. Bianchi picked his architects for a reason: "They are just the best—it's those two and then everybody else. Doak has no ego, no arrogance, not a hint of it." Indeed, though they are competitors, Doak and Coore collaborated with one another on their respective designs.
Doak pulled out a topo map, which flapped in the gale as we slogged up the breast of a sixty-foot dune. At the top, he stopped, savoring the panorama.
The land fell in uneven green bumps and swales toward the sea. Knee-high marram grass anchored the dunes. In some places, the wind had eaten away the sides of a slope or hummock, exposing the sand underneath—natural bunkers. The turf between the dunes and the bunkers, thanks to the foraging cows and rabbits, was tight and short. You could drop a ball and hit long irons off it.
"It looks cool, doesn't it?" Doak said, grinning. "These contours are ideal for fairways. You never see this kind of stuff in the States."