New Links, New Rough, New Sleeve: Doonbeg Could Use Some Old-Time Greenkeeping

New Links, New Rough, New Sleeve: Doonbeg Could Use Some Old-Time Greenkeeping

It’s been a couple years since I played Doonbeg Golf Club, Greg Norman’s “new” Irish links in the southwest of the country. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since because, well, a lot folks have played it too — it’s just south of Lahinch and just across the Shannon River from Ballybunion and Tralee — and we’re headed back to the Emerald Isle next week. Doonbeg GC is also coupled with one of the finest on-site golf hotels anywhere in the world. So it’s natural to stay at Doonbeg and play the course at least once during a weeklong tour of this stupendous golfing corner of Ireland.

That’s pretty fast company to keep, and Doonbeg is a new course, not even 10 years old, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it tends to suffer by comparison. I don’t see it frankly. I found the terrain, the routing and the greens to be of a very high quality, design-wise. Doonbeg is, as its critics contend, very difficult to play. Too difficult, one could argue, but I’ve decided this judgment has very little to do with the design.

Agronomics are important to the maximizing of any course design, but maintenance of the outlying areas on a links course is particularly crucial. We saw what an overzealous fertilization program could do to the best players in the world during the famous train-wreck at Carnoustie in 1999, and this is the nub of the issue at Doonbeg. The dunes through which the fairways quite masterfully weave here are covered with a thick matting of ball-eating, deep-green fescues. My opening drive at Doonbeg landed in the fairway and bounced some 5 yards into the rough, never to be found. I’ve heard tell that Norman himself lost 10 balls during his inaugural round. That’s nuts, and one begins to understand why even those players far better than I tend not to leave Doonbeg with that warm fuzzy feeling we expect following a round on the coast of Ireland.

I had played Lahinch the day before. As is my custom, I drove the ball all over the map. But the outlying areas at Lahinch were quite different, featuring as much brown matter as green. The fescues were high but sorta wispy. I found a dozen of my wayward balls in there and nearly always had a swing, albeit a recovery swing, at most every one. That’s what more than a hundred years of expertly burning off the rough can produce: The perfect balance of playability and penalty. Doonbeg is simply not there yet.

Will it get there? A murkier question, that. Despite the fact there had once been an ancient links on the site, Doonbeg’s modern development came with caveats. The club rightly touts what is a heavy emphasis on organic maintenance practices, but I’ve heard from several people in the know that Doonbeg isn’t free to do everything it would like in caring for these rough areas. I doubt very much the crews are fertilizing them, at all, but I’d bet they’re not allowed to burn them off as often as they’d like. Like I said, I played there two years ago and I’d wager they had never been burned off.

You gotta figure that not every British course superintendent who graduates from turf school, or leaves his various course apprenticeships, with a working knowledge of how to properly burn off the rough on a links course. Not any more (and, of course, not every course in Britain is a links; most are not). Methinks the crazy-thick rough at a place like Doonbeg, or at Sand Golf Club (a fabulous Steve Forrest-designed “faux” links, which I played in Sweden the week before Doonbeg) is more the result of agronomic stricture, or a lack of ancient know-how in our modern age, than design intent. Here’s hoping it’s the latter, and it is ultimately overcome, because Doonbeg (and Sand) are both awesome tracks in need of, well, a trim.

Curmudgeon talks Asia, Tiger, galleries with Kessler

The Curmudgeon, a.k.a. Hal Phillips, made a guest appearance Feb. 22 on Peter Kessler’s “Making the Turn”, a fixture on the PGA Tour Radio network (XM 146/Sirius 209). As a guest on someone else’s show, he kept the ranting and complaining to a minimum, but there was nevertheless lively conversation on the state of the U.S. Tour galleries, the rise of Golf in Asia, the transition of media outlets to web formats, course ranking, Tiger Woods and more. Enjoy.


Vicky Dembélé Arsenal Barcelona: Tough act to follow

Vicky Dembélé Arsenal Barcelona: Tough act to follow

by Hal Phillips 2 Comments

Can one support two Premiership teams at one time? Most Brits say no, and that’s fair cop. I understand it. But I went to university in North London and developed a taste for Tottenham. More recently, Fulham began stocking its roster with Americans and, I’m sorry, that’s a draw irresistible to U.S. soccer fans. Even today, when there is only one Yank playing for FFC (Eddie Johnson has been loaned out, again), I root for the team from SW6, something I had the opportunity to do just the other day in an FA Cup 5th round match. Very satisfying 4-0 victory.  Tottenham gifted the game with perhaps the worst opening 10 minutes in recent memory: 2-nil down, two penalties and a man sent off. But how can one not respect the fact that they went to Milan the next week and play about the best opening 10 minutes imaginable.

The pull of North London is strong these days. With another Champions League week about to begin, I couldn’t leave such a grand week for North London without comment. As inspiring as Tottenham were Tuesday, Feb. 15, in the Champions League vs. AC Milan, Arsenal were more special Wednesday (even if they have poked the Bear bigtime; Barca will be highly motivated to destroy and humiliate, not just win, at the Nou Camp). Breakthrough game for Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere. He was stupendous in a way that challenges us to think of the last Englishman who was that good, at that place on the field, in that sort of critical match, against an opponent so very talented (not just generally but in that part of the field). Gazza?

Do yourself a favor and check out this site, Really good in its tactical obsession, yet  readable and rarely pedantic. This bit from an Arse-Barcelona match report was maybe most interesting (and relevant to the Prem race):

“Wenger made a further change – [Theo] Walcott off, Nicklas Bendtner on. Whether this had much of an impact upon the subsequent proceedings is debatable, but it is the second time in less than a month that Arsenal have brought on Arshavin and Bendtner in the final 25 minutes, and turned a 0-1 into a 2-1.”

The relative depth of these teams — and if we go further, their reflection of depth standards in the respective league — was interesting. It impressed to see Arshavin come on, then Bendtner to a lesser extent, when compared to what Pep brought on, what he had at his disposal. Villa should simply not have come off; he’d have scored again late, when the game opened up at 1-1. But it seemed as though Wenger was able to bring more to the table.

Stole this, and the “graphic” below, from a Guardian comment (the whole thread was a fascinating North London grudging admirationfest) because it neatly sums up what I’ve been prattling on about all season: Tottenham may be 4th and there MAY be a gap in quality between it and ManU/Arsenal/Chelsea (not convinced of this), but there is no doubt that they have assembled the deepest roster in the top five. They can field two full teams that could be mid-table or up in the Prem — “And that’s without considering Pletikosa, Kyle Walker, King, Woodgate, Bentley, Keane or any of the kids…” They run Palacios and Sandro out there Tuesday night, arguably their 5th and 6th choices in midfield, and they get a result — in Milan. If this team ever gets a hold of a proper, productive striker, the sky’s the limit.




__________Van der Vaart_______________






A mouth roars, a light goes out


Like so many others that fateful night 30 years ago, I learned of John Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell. Yeah, that Howard Cosell. It was a Monday night, of course, the Patriots were in Miami, and, in 1980, Howard was still presiding — in his inimitably pedantic, overdramatic fashion — over Monday Night Football, what in the pre-cable era was the week’s premier sports broadcasting event. Howard was respectful of the news, as respectful as his bombastic persona would allow. He treated it as he would a punt returner who has broken clear of the pack with only the kicker to beat.

My dad and I were stunned, naturally. It was legitimately stunning news, after all, and it had been delivered from a most unlikely source, in a peculiar context. If memory serves, the Pats’ left-footed, English place kicker — John Smith from Leafield, Oxfordshire — was lining up a field goal attempt when Howard abruptly altered the narrative. The only thing that would’ve made it more bizarre? If Smith had hailed from Blackburn, Lancashire.

We called my mother into the room. She was the founding and still chief Beatles lover in our family, and John was clearly her favorite. She was 41 in 1980, essentially the same age as Lennon. She had latched onto them from the start; my dad teased her for digging a band whose enthusiasts were, at that stage, mainly 13- and 14-year-old girls. But my mom possesses a keen musical sensibility and her early support for their chops was more than justified in the years to come. She teared up as she listened to Howard bloviate, then left the room.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I watched on TV a superb documentary called “LENNONYC”, about the former Beatle’s decade in New York City. It was an eventful 10-year period that followed hard on the Beatles break-up, in 1970, featured a gaggle of outsized characters, and spanned a remarkable procession of music-making, protesting, drug-taking, deportation-resisting, legal wrangling, breaking up, getting back together, child-rearing and, ultimately, growing up. That was the message one took away at the film’s close: Here was a guy who had finally shed the latent adolescence of rock stardom and become a man, in his own right — only to be killed by a psychopath at the exact moment (the release of his new “Double Fantasy” album) this maturity was to be revealed. I don’t know that it gets much sadder than that.

Bali Nirwana stands as epic coda to a golf season
The 7th at Nirwana needs no hype. Note Tanah Lot temple at left.

Bali Nirwana stands as epic coda to a golf season


The 7th at Nirwana needs no hype. Note Tanah Lot temple at left.

It may well be that I’ve played my last golf round for 2010. This is the reality of Maine residence. However, if that’s the case (and I’m not invited to Augusta National next week), I can say that my golf season went out with a bang. I finished par-par-birdie-par after an otherwise dreadful scoring display, but it was the venue, and the finishing holes at said venue, that provided the epic coda to my golf year.

I had toured Bali Nirwana Golf Club two years ago. (Yeah, I know: why go all the way from Maine to Bali and merely tour one the top 3-4 resort tracks in all of Asia-Pacific, what many feel to be Greg Norman’s best work? It’s a long story. And this is a blog, wherein I’m supposed to be concise and punchy. And look how long I’ve gone already…) Well, I played Bali Nirwana this time and it’s something, boy. The kind of course that keeps you thinking about golf all through the long New Gloucester winter.

There are 13 Hindu temples located out and about on this diverse routing, and just off the cliff-to-cliff, 185-yard par-3 7th sits the oft-photographed island temple at Tanah Lot. It’s right there, just offshore, perched on its own rocky cliff, and the devout wade out at sunset in the hundreds amid a faintly orange, billowing cloud of incense. A moving scene. So moving I drilled a 5-iron to 20 feet. Then birdied the next.

As Mickey Dolenz once said, I’m a believer.

There are four more seaside holes at Nirwana nearly as good as the vaunted 7th, and a dozen strong inland-jungle holes on terrain that made it pretty darned incumbent on Norman to conceive killer golf holes. It’s riven by rushing streams and bounded by working rice paddies, which are elegantly tiered and in several spots integrated into holes as hazards. Pretty cool. Then there’s the long and superb par-4 4th playing along a plateau that takes you way up high all of a sudden, with long views to the sea. The opening hole plays gracefully up and around a hillside of rice cultivation, capped by a bold pod of steep-faced bunkers at the elbow. When I toured the course I was struck by how hard an opening hole this seemed to be. When I played it, I found it plenty generous out right of all this eye candy. I also loved the hole; the green is cleverly sunk beside a brook. There’s nothing like putting with the sound of water rushing by. There’s a lesson here on the matter of touring vs. playing a golf course.

We played the back nine first and finished on the front side which, to be honest, is the way the golf course is mostly dramatically routed — for chops like myself and tournament studs. This sorta matters because Bali Nirwana GC, part of the swank Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali, is under new management as of July 2010. They have big plans for place. Big televised-tournament plans, and the two pros I played with — new Bali Nirwana Director of Golf Paul Lightbody and Howie Roberts, his counterpart at the sterling, new Norman-designed Danang Golf Club in Vietnam — both felt an event would better finish on the front side, as it were, along the Indian Ocean at 7, and home to the 9th green with its natural amphitheater setting.

That the amphitheater is tiered with working rice paddies speaks once again to what makes the course, and the experience on that course, so memorable. Enough to last a winter.

Thai Golf: Cost vs. Benefit

It’s impossible to discuss Thai golf without offering some manner of cost-benefit analysis.

Eighteen holes at Chiang Mai Highlands or Banyan Golf Club will run you about $75, plus a caddie fee of $10. Green fees are a bit more expensive around Bangkok and Phuket, a bit less expensive in Pattaya and Hua Hin — but you’ll never pay more than $100 a round, which stands in stark contrast to resort green fees in North American golfing hubs.

The equation as it relates lodging is perhaps more revealing. Forget about golf for a moment: Thailand is the premier holiday destination for Asians, full stop. As such, the hotel stock here is enormous, diverse, and features all the brands you recognize and trust (Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton, etc), plus a few more you should get to know (Anantara, The Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental). Yet most 5-star rooms don’t exceed $150, especially as part of golf packages, and you can find very functional lodgings for less than $50 a night, if you so choose.

Our tour operator, Golfasian ( booked all our golf and hotels, plus a driver and van to ferry us back and forth. Our boutique hotel in Chiang Mai, The DeNaga, is an example of the high lodging standard in Thailand. Though technically a 4-star lodging (due to its lack of a full-size pool and conference facilities), it was nothing short of elegant with spacious rooms, great service and free, dependable WiFi (Fact: Starting at midnight one evening, I conducted an entire, 3.5-hour fantasy basketball draft via Skype from my room at the DeNaga, without incident). Our rooms there were but $100 a night.

It’s true that airfare to Thailand can run anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500. Yet over the course of a week, the savings on golf and lodgings in Thailand dwarf whatever premium international air travel to Bangkok might be, when compared to domestic U.S. airfare. One must ask himself this, too: How much does it cost to eat and drink in Phoenix, in Myrtle Beach, in Palm Springs? The average cost of a first-class meal in Thailand is no more than $12 per person; beers are $2 apiece. Double or triple those figures for almost any North American golf destination. Over the course of 7-10 days, that really adds up.

In Thailand? Not so much.

We could compare the world-renowned nightlife in Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket to the nightlife in Phoenix, Myrtle Beach or Palm Springs. But that’s hardly a fair fight, and not so much a matter of dollars and cents. More like night and day.

For more information on Thai golf vacations, visit and

The Curmudgeon: Golf’s Most Bracing Pod

The Curmudgeon: Golf’s Most Bracing Pod


We know how it is. You like your golf. You might even love it, but the game’s fawning media echo chamber leaves you cold, and often woefully ill-informed. Perhaps The Curmudgeon — the golf podcast that dares speak truth to power — is for you. Join host Hal Phillips and a panoply of journalists who aren’t afraid to put their access at risk. What’s more, you don’t have to wear a collared shirt to listen in.

Inside this Special PGA Championship pod:
• Should the Masters really be a Major?
• Sartorial Screed: The Case Against Cargo Shorts
• What are the spoils of Ryder Cup hospitality exactly?

2010.08.12 The Curmudgeon

The Unsightly American Soccer Podcast, August 2010


Join Hal Phillips and a veritable cast of characters/correspondents spanning the Globe to discuss  the burning, hot, molten issues of the footballing day. This week we present the Post-World Cup, pre-Apocalyptic (but just barely) edition, in two parts. Tom Wadlington comments in Part I on the Spanish victory, on his way to Fenway Park to see Sporting Lisbon vs. Celtic; he also weighs in on the “Bob Bradley to England” scenarios, which started with Fulham but now involve Aston Villa. Hal and Esteban get a bit political toward the end of Part I before delving deep into World Cup matters in Part II, fixating, in a meandering sort of way, on the tournament’s Best XI, making sternum plans for Nigel DeJong, and the never-ending tension between form and function.

2010.08 UASP Part I

2010.08 UASP Part II

Unsightly American Soccer Podcast: World Cup Final Preview


Join Hal Phillips and a veritable cast of characters/correspondents spanning the Globe to discuss the World Cup and all the burning, hot, molten issues of the footballing day. This week’s episodes (that’s right, there are two, so listen in order): We get the view from Asia by way of Highbury with Spencer Robinson, plus Esteban again providing the Spanish view, which is only right, followed by Dave Batista from Brookline, fresh from the Vineyard. Everything you need to know leading up to Sunday’s final.

2010.07.10 UASP Part I

2010.07.10 UASP PART II

Unsightly American Soccer Podcast for 6.26.2010


Join Hal Phillips, Tom Wadlington and an assortment of correspondents spanning the Globe to discuss the World Cup and all the burning, hot, molten issues of the footballing day. This week’s World Cup Episode for 6.26.2010: Tom and Hal pick up the pieces following the US-Ghana Round of 16 thriller, while special guest Esteban again provides us the view from La RaZa, along with that of the West African faithful.

2010.06.26 UASP 2