What we say
Doonbeg has arguably the best opening hole of any golf course in Britain and Ireland, and the quality continues throughout.
It is difficult to recall a better opening hole in British and Irish golf than that at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, also known as, rather less of a mouthful, Doonbeg.
Portstewart would have its supporters and so too would the likes of Royal Aberdeen, St Enodoc, Machrihanish, Saunton (East) and Royal Porthcawl.
Each, and others, have its merits, but Doonbeg might just edge them all.
Because while even the very best courses usually offer you an aperitif and an hors d’oeuvre before moving into the more interesting land and serving up the main course, Doonbeg wastes no time in setting down in front of you a slab of steak with all the trimmings.
Some may prefer the slow-burn build-up that is the norm, permitting a chance to loosen limbs and awaken senses before the highlights arrive. But equally, others will delight in the high-octane start delivered by Greg Norman, in association with Mother Nature.
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All will surely agree that, after climbing the steps to the 1st tee, the scene which greets them is something special. Eyes drawn to the left will take in the crescent beach that stretches well over a mile in length. Look straight ahead and a horseshoe of huge dunes frame the green of this stellar par 5, the flagstick appearing like a matchstick set against the sand hills.
The elevated tee from which you drink in this intoxicating scene is – a la Royal Aberdeen – just a couple of yards from the clubhouse and members enjoy watching the reactions of visiting golfers to their first glimpse of Doonbeg. They are also known to relish a small wager on where each opening tee shot will end up…
They’ve been watching the good, the bad and the ugly off that 1st tee since Doonbeg opened on July 9, 2002, when Norman defeated Padraig Harrington 2&1 in an exhibition match. Yet the first ball could have been struck on this land 110 years earlier after officers of the Scottish Black Watch examined the site for their new course. They also cast their eye over similar terrain 20 miles up the coast at Lahinch, however, and its proximity to the railway line was decisive in its favour.
A century later, the Doonbeg Community Development Company began promoting the concept of a course. Kiawah Development Partners took the plunge, purchasing 377 acres of linksland from four local farmers in December 1999. Construction began immediately, with private investment in the course totalling £20million. Within three years it was open, a stellar addition to the glittering list of links in the south-west of Ireland.
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Doonbeg is situated on the main coastal road between Ballybunion and Lahinch, one hour from Shannon Airport.
So although it is not in Co. Kerry (along with Lahinch, it belongs to Co. Clare) it has thus become one of the essential aspects of a trip to this almost mystical part of the Emerald Isle.
Norman told Golf World he did not have to try hard to make Doonbeg great; perhaps his greatest skill on this project was in not over-egging what nature had presented to him.
Some will point to a couple of occasions where this iconic shot-maker may have been unable to resist the temptation to throw in a grenade and raise the temperature just that little bit higher.
On the whole, though, links purists will approve of Doonbeg. The bunkers are penal, the turf is deliciously tight (a fine mix of native fescue, bentgrass and ryegrass, with thick marram on the dunes) and the running game is very much the order of the day.
They may have nodded with even more vigorous appreciation had Norman not been hamstrung by environmental concerns in the largest dunes (a rare snail, would you believe, was the issue).
This meant some of the terrain that would have excited the most remained off limits. The effect was not to leave the links without highlights – that is unquestionably not the case. Its consequence was that there are a few holes on more modest land which might not otherwise have been used.
Rather like those who have worked on Pyle & Kenfig, Norman must have looked wistfully at the huge, untouched sand hills he was not permitted to navigate his new superstar course though.
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That said, Doonbeg’s current owner Donald Trump secured all the thrilling land on his site to the north of Aberdeen and some critics believe it lacks a change of pace; holes on more sedate terrain during which one can catch one’s breath. It is a course designer’s lot; no matter what they produce, us amateurs will debate its merits.
Only the churlish, though, will question at length the work of the two-time Open champion at Doonbeg – and it is his work, Norman being said to have made over 20 separate site visits. His only design to date in Great Britain and Ireland has an out and back routing, but in a very loose sense. Faced with the environmental constraints and the possibility of losing yet more of the most compelling terrain, he opted instead to compromise the sequence of holes. It is difficult to argue with his decision and although you fire some drives over some greens and there are some odd cross-fairway walks, it almost adds to the authenticity of the links. This kind of apathy towards Health & Safety only existed in a bygone era of course design.
Furthermore, Norman has also managed to produce impressive variety, with five par 3s and five par 5s. Add in five tees on each hole that mean the course can be played anywhere between 4,729 yards and 6,911 – as well as the inevitable variation in wind speed and direction – and you have the archetypal links that never plays the same way twice.
One factor that is almost constant are the views of the Atlantic. They are available from 16 of the 18 holes, starting as we have described on the 1st. But after you have hit your drive on this dreamy opener, you do not see the ocean again as the dunes begin to rise as you walk down the fairway, building to a majestic crescendo behind the large green complex.
From there you hit a blind tee shot on the 2nd – while trying to block out the watching eyes of those putting out on nearby 17 – then try to feather an approach into a quirky green that will bewilder many. The next is a sporty two-shotter in a less linksy setting that asks for a well-placed drive to avoid the bunkers on the left and marsh on the right. Most fun, though, will be had on this hole in and around the domed green…
The 4th allows us to open our shoulders again, although the snaking nature of this 592-yard par 5 – allied to the number of bunkers – means we must plot our way astutely to the cool green complex.
Then come magnificent back-to-back par 4s. After being exhilarated by the 5th you have a chance to go for the 6th green from the elevated boxes off the white or yellow tees. As you leave the tee, you move past the green of the 13th, and it is worth making a note of what you see there for later.
The 7th is a strong par 3 played slightly downhill to a green framed by a large dune while the par-5 8th dog-legs to the left and concludes on an elevated green that loves to reject approaches. It is a hole where you wonder how you have made such a mess of it, then glance at the card and realise it is stroke index one. It is a tough hole, well disguised.
Then comes the best short hole on the front nine, playing 175 yards with the beach hard to the left of the small green and a large sand mound and bunkers to the right. Make a par here (the furthest point on the links) and you will savour even more the view back along the crescent beach to the clubhouse and Lodge.
The next two are arguably the weakest at Doonbeg, a par 3 and par 5 laid out on terrain that is edging into farmland.
The par-4 12th brings us back towards the duneland again. It begins with a drive up the right then an approach to a green that sits between a dune and a rock-and-sod wall. It is here that Martin Hawtree’s renovation of the greens is keenly felt; most enjoy his work although some lament the uniform nature of the surfaces now compared to Norman’s movement.
The 13th is a magnificent, reachable par 5. A long tee shot down the left affords the best angle from which to try to drop a fairway wood on the small, elevated putting surface, with rough to the right and a coffin bunker to the left. Career shots can be produced here and career lows can be plumbed in the evil sand pit.
Then to the re-worked 14th. Once an infamous short hole to a tiny target played towards the ocean, erosion meant it had to change and it now plays along the coastline rather than towards. It remains thrilling, if not as hair-raising.
Norman’s favourite comes next, a strong par 4 with its green sitting within a huge sand crater. The 16th is a solid short hole where you must bravely hang your tee shot out the right and wait for it to filter in. Even once on the putting surface, there is still much work to be done on a green with acute ridges and no mercy.
The penultimate hole is indifferent, with lodges to the left and random bunkers up the right that appear in place to push golfers away from the 2nd fairway that runs parallel with 17’s. Perhaps their presence is Norman’s sole nod to Health & Safety…
It is pleasing that 18 is of a high calibre, so the round may finish as it began. The Atlantic stretches its full 464 yards but bailing left does not mean safety, for the topography does not allow an even stance or a clear view. These humps and hollows continue at the green, which is a suitably grandstand arena for the conclusion to your Doonbeg experience, one that will linger long in your memory.
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- Address Doonbeg, County Clare, , Ireland
- Tel +353 65 905 5600
- Website https://www.trumpgolfireland.com/
|Course Length||6,885 yards (6,296 metres)|
- Course has: Bar
- Course does not have: Buggy Hire
- Course has: Driving Range
- Course does not have: Practice Green
- Course has: Pro Shop
- Course has: Restaurant
- Course has: Trolley Hire
- Course has: Dress Code
- Course has: Club Hire
- Course has: Handicap