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Making room for new memories of Ireland

Making room for new memories of Ireland

The last time I visited Ireland, my brother and I chaperoned the old man around the Southwest, taking in the links at Doonbeg, Lahinch, Tralee and Ballybunion. That was nearly three years ago and our timing couldn’t have been better. I don’t want to go all Jim Dodson on you, but my dad has since been diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s hanging in there, but my brother and I are pretty damned glad we took him to Ireland when we did, because his days of walking 18 on consecutive days are in all likelihood behind him.

I’m turning these things, these most recent memories of Eire, over in my mind here in Dublin Airport, waiting on the rest of my party. A leaden gray sky hangs low over the modernist terminal I spy across the street, through massive picture windows. We have a mighty drive ahead of us, once we’ve all assembled — straight up to the island’s northernmost tip, skirting the new golf capital of the world, Northern Ireland, to the links at Ballyliffin. From there a veritable string of equally hallowed venues await.

There will be plenty to write about in the days to come, plenty of memories to be made. I and my comrades in Gortex will be diligent in relaying them to you via word, sound and image. But for now I’m loathe to shake the memories from last time.

I won’t bore you but one moment stands out: That first day we arrived, in Shannon, the three of us promptly headed straight for Lahinch on a beautiful sunlit morning. There is no better cure for jetlag than a round of golf, first thing, right off the plane. As one enters the tiny beach town of Lahinch, it’s not clear to the novice exactly where to find the golf club. We pulled over and asked directions of an older woman.

“Well, it’s right over there,” she said, gesturing to an intersection where we should’ve gone right. The course lay on the high ground just beyond. It proved pretty difficult to miss, but she didn’t press this point.

“Have you a game today? I see that you have. Well, you’ll love it. Absolutely love it. It’s a wonderful golf course and you’ve got a beautiful day for it. Where are you from?”


“Well, I have several relatives living there. They’re not golfers, sad to say. But that won’t matter to you. Just take that right hand turn and the course is on your left. Can’t miss it. Lovely course, lovely weather. You’ll have wonderful day…”

We thanked her profusely, of course, and, duly bathed in the hospitality for which Ireland is rightly famous, we all turned to each other and smiled. We may have giggled. At which point my brother summed it up: “What a bitch.”

We laughed long and hard, then headed off into the dunes at Lahinch.

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 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.