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 today 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.