One of the finest hotels in all of Ireland opened at Doonbeg in 2006, and therein lies a problem. With its stone exterior and meticulous interior, warmed by ubiquitous fireplaces and unflagging hospitality, the five-star Lodge is so comfortable you don’t want to leave, especially if the notorious Irish weather is acting up.
But as you sit in the pitch-perfect confines of Darby’s Bar and gaze out the big bay windows straight down the par-five 1st, you can’t take your eyes off the green at the base of a 70-foot-high, marram-grassed dune. The golfer in you is drawn to it like a rock star to a supermodel. The Smithwick’s and good cheer can wait. There’s links golf to be played.
Located on a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of Doughmore Bay and opened in 2002, Doonbeg is arguably Greg Norman’s best design, despite the fact that an endangered microscopic snail forced him to route many of the holes around the giant dunes rather than through them. The unusual routing—where holes crisscross and golfers tee off over greens—gives the course the quirky charm of many links courses built long before man could move heaven and earth at will. It also resulted in five par threes and five par fives, including the glorious 1st with its elevated tee right by the Lodge.
The next few holes detour inland for a bit and stonewalls come into play on the 361-yard 3rd and 592-yard 4th before the action turns back toward the water on the 373-yard 5th, where the approach is to an infinity green above the beach. The shoreline runs along the left side of the short par-four 6th while a massive sand hill towers over the hole on the right. By the time you reach the 175-yard 9th at the end of the crescent-shaped beach and look back at the Lodge, you’re a little shocked at the distance you’ve walked: The outward loop was such a wonderful links experience, you barely noticed how much fescue passed under foot.
The inward nine also begins with a par five, a mighty three-shotter with a bisecting burn that causes havoc with the layup and any approach that misses the green left. The only questionable design feature is a bunker that sits smack in the middle of the green at the 388-yard 12th and—as if that’s not enough—is invisible from the fairway. But Norman does a wonderful job with the pacing, returning to the water again and again, most dramatically at the Postage Stamp-like 14th. With the bay as backdrop and the green cut into the side of a dune, the setting is better than that of the original Postage Stamp, the 8th at Royal Troon. Depending on the wind, golfers will pull anything from a sand wedge to a 5-iron.
The next hole may be the best on the course, a long, rolling par four with an elevated tee and a cul-de-sac green at the base of another towering dune. Naturally, the finishing hole brings you back to the water one last time, a stout par four that doglegs to the right along the beach. The green might not nuzzle up to a dune, but it is right next to the Lodge, where a pint or two and a recounting of the round will do very nicely, thank you.