Winter is coming. But while the rest of the country battens down the hatches, a rare treat awaits in the magnificent southwest at Doonbeg in County Clare, where the golf never stops and the handsome stone of The Lodge stands sentinel against the wild Atlantic - an oasis of pure luxury in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Set hard by the crescent shaped sandy curve of Doughmore Beach, all 1.5 miles of it, the remote west Clare enclave is known around the world by surfers searching for that perfect wave and the challenge of the rip currents.
It was fitting then that the two-time Open champion Greg Norman, an Aussie sportsman who’d look as much at home on a surfboard as he would on the world’s hallowed links, was chosen to take the ancient dune-scape and fashion it into one of the most entertaining links challenges you will find anywhere on the planet.
And he achieved his goal in spades, disturbing as little of the ancient dunes as possible as he sought out holes amongst the natural humps and hollows and created a course that not only blew away Pádraig Harrington but continues to attract Irish golfers in droves, especially in the winter months.
The addition of The Lodge, the on-site five-star hotel, offers Irish golfers a level of service found at only the best resorts in the world. But even if you decide not to treat yourself to one of the spectacular Ocean View Suites there are plenty of other equally appetising accommodation options at the Links Cottages or the Courtyards Suites, all of which offer self-catering options.
Little wonder then that Clare hurling coach Davy Fitzgerald (a scratch golfer himself) took his side to Doonbeg for a weekend’s rest and relaxation, coupled with some golf, before his side’s historic All Ireland success over Cork.
Norman is immensely proud of his creation and when ranking his favourite designs he says: “Doonbeg might be up there in the top three.”
Opened to great fanfare with an exhibition strokeplay match between the Great White Shark and Padraig Harrington, the Australian beat the Dubliner by 2 and 1 in front of 3,000 spectators.
While he was defeated — “I’m the perfect guest,” he joked afterwards - Harrington was very much impressed by Norman’s daring design with holes such as the tough fifth, the 12th and the signature par-three 14th standing out for the future three-time major winner.
“It took a man of enormous stature to do what he did there,” Harrington said later. “There are a lot of people that couldn't get away with designing a links golf course the way a Links is meant to play.
It's not meant to be a fair game. It's not meant to be a just game. You’re meant to get some good bounces and some bad bounces and the likes of a bunker in the middle of the green. There was a par‑three that had a green that was nearly a complete half-moon. There were a lot of things going on. And that's what you want on a links golf course. You want it funky.
“But very few designers could have the gumption to be able to do something like that. You've got to have a lot of gumption, basically, which, obviously, Greg has. And it was interesting to see that reflected in his design. He wasn't backing off. He was designing a big, bold golf course, and not necessarily worried about what some guy was saying, well, that fairway isn't level. Why is that there? There were plenty of things going on in Doonbeg that is very much in the tradition of links golf, but wouldn't be in the tradition of modern design.”
Created by Kiawah Development Partners, Doonbeg has built a reputation as a playground for American millionaires but the reality of very different. While helicopters are regularly seen flitting in and out of the property, the majority of the 460 members are Irish and visitors numbers soared this season.
“We had a very good year with business up 25 percent across the board, the product is so good” says head professional Brian Shaw, who has now been in Clare for 13 years. “We’ve become a very popular weekend destination for golfer from the Limerick area but thanks to the Limerick by-pass, there are more and more coming from Dublin to spend the weekend and play both Doonbeg and Lahinch, which is just half an hour away. Plus there is the added bonus that we are always bone dry, so there is always golf, all year round”
With 52 percent of its business coming from the domestic market, 38 percent from north America and the remainder from all over the world, Doonbeg is as cosmopolitan a club as you will find in Ireland.
Dancer Michael Flatley is a regular visitor, as is American football legend Dan Marino, who is a member of the club’s advisory board. Former Premiership footballer Jamie Redknapp is another who has tested his skills there, not to mention 2009 Open champion Stewart Cink, who honed his links game at the course just a week before breaking Tom Watson’s heart by lifting the Claret Jug following a play-off at Turnberry.
Yet despite the obvious glamour of one of the leading golf resorts in the world, Doonbeg remains an essentially Irish course with a huge Irish clientele.
“There was a misconception in the early days that Doonbeg is an exclusive resort for the American market and that still persists today,” says Ray Kearney, the marketing manager for The Lodge. “But the majority of our membership has always been domestic and there is a huge interest in winter golf.
“Our clients like to drive down on a Friday evening and dine in Darby’s Bar, which is the casual bar and restaurant. They might end up going into the village for a few pints because it’s only a five-minute drive away by complimentary shuttle.”
Doonbeg’s five pubs get plenty of business from the golfing fraternity keen for some local colour but many guests prefer to luxuriate in five-star comfort, repairing to The Long Room, The Lodge’s fine dining restaurant, which was voted “Best Hotel Restaurant in Ireland” for 2012 by the Restaurant Association of Ireland.
With the classic links of Lahinch just a short drive up the coast, Doonbeg is the perfect base for societies, small groups of friends or golfing couples who want to get away from it all for a couple of days and play two of the best courses in the country.
“You can play us and Lahinch in the same weekend,” says Ray. “Our clients will often play Doonbeg on Saturday and Lahinch on Sunday morning, or vice-versa. But there is so much more to do.
“There is a full service spa and two fully-stocked fishing ponds. And the ladies often make the short trip to The Burren Perfumery, where you can buys soaps, balms and creams, make your own or even do a moisturising course and make your own moisturiser.”
As wonderful as the food and surroundings might be, it’s the golf course at Doonbeg that keeps golfers coming back time and again. A professional caddie programme, each kitted out in the white boiler suits so familiar to Masters viewers, ensures that you will spend little title searching for balls in the high dunes that frame the par-72 gem.
“While many links courses force you to play out of the rough or off mats in winter, we offer our guests the full course experience in winter,” explains head professional Shaw. “Two or three of our most exposed greens are closed in winter and covered to protect them from salt and sand damage but we have built two brand new, more sheltered greens as alternatives.”
The signature 14th, a short par-three that can play anything from a wedge to a five iron depending on the wind, is one of the greens taken out of commission at the height of t winter but the new green makes the hole equally challenging.
The tough fifth, which normally requires a long iron over a chasm into the teeth of the prevailing wind, becomes a 200-yard par three requiring a quality shot to a green nestled in the protective bosom of a great dune.
“People are surprised by how mature it is for a relatively new course,” says Ray. “The land is so ancient that the maturity is there. And they are always blown away by finding a five-star facility in west Clare.”
With its polished stone floors and roaring fireplaces, what better place to relax after a refreshing day on the links battling a links that was voted “Best New International Course,” by Golf Digest shortly after it opened in 2002.
Norman’s first design in Ireland or Great Britain – the par-72 layout plays 6,885 yards from championship tees, following a single loop of nine holes out and 9 holes back with natural routing among dunes resulting in an uncommon combination of five par-threes and five par-fives.
“He has designed a phenomenal golf course there,” Harrington says. “It’s unlikely you'll get to see the likes of it anywhere else in the world. He's taken the natural terrain and used it to its fullest... It's how golf was designed to be played 150, 200 years ago.”