Editor’s Note: During this difficult time dealing with the Coronavirus outbreak, leaving golf writers nothing to write about, we decided to revisit some of the places we have gone over the years. Today, we continue our 11-part Irish golf series at Doonbeg.
(Fifth of an 11-part series)
DOUGHMORE BAY, County Clare, Ireland — To appreciate the essence of Doonbeg Golf Club and understand how it has emerged as one of the world’s great links resorts, credit needs to be given to two people.
One takes as much as he can get while the other never quite gets enough.
Donald Trump and Dr. Martin Hawtree are the two most significant figures in the resurgence of this magnificent property in southwest Ireland and their partnership has been critical to its salvation, revitalization and future.
Trump, the 45th U.S. president, is a politically polarizing figure with a perceived haughty personality that craves praise and acceptance. The jury is out on his presidential leadership but his company’s golf-management arm at least does well by the game. That is evident in such overseas projects such as Trump Turnberry and Aberdeen in Scotland and Doonbeg, which was saved from liquidation by the Trump organization with the February 2014 purchase.
Hawtree is not well known in the U.S., primarily because he has never worked on a golf project in the States. But he’s the most admired golf architect in Europe, having done countless revisions, revivals and rebuilds.
His firm, begun in 1912 by his grandfather, has done some legendary projects from Royal Birkdale and Sunningdale in England to Ballybunion, Portmarnock and Lahinch in Ireland.
For the past three decades, Hawtree has been the go-to guy and primary golf designer for Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which oversees and prepares all the courses hosting the Open Championship. Only Hawtree has been trusted to touch places such as St. Andrews and Muirfield.
“It was the perfect marriage,” said Brian Shaw, Doonbeg’s club professional.
But it came after an unfortunate divorce among the previous owners, who operated Kiawah Partners, a North Carolina company that purchased the property in 1999. The company placed the failing resort into receivership four years ago. Trump, who owns 17 golf resorts worldwide, purchased the 400 acres – with more than two miles of oceanfront – the hotels and assorted resort buildings initially estimated at $17 million but other reports have it closer to $10 million. Either way, a deal.
“This club is the heartbeat of the whole community,” Shaw said. “The owners were fighting. We didn’t know where we were going. The community was really at risk.
“There are 230 jobs here and indirectly about 400 jobs. In a rural community, that is the community,” he added. “The schools rely on it, the butcher, the fishermen, tax men, you name it. Everyone depends on it. It’s as important as any business that goes in a village.”
The day after purchasing the failing property, Trump’s first call was to Hawtree.
“Martin was over here two days later,” Shaw said. “They worked fantastic together. And to see them, it’s quite a contrast. The Boss (Trump) a big fellow and Martin’s this little guy. He’s like the most beautiful creature.”
Hawtree’s task was complicated when – that same week – a ’50-year storm’ roared off the Atlantic and pounded the property, mangling three ocean holes, No. 18, No. 14 and No. 5.
“The whole ocean came in and wrecked everything. There was seaweed 200 to 300 yards in,” Shaw added. “There was nothing you could do; we just watched it.”
Trump was among those who witnessed the onslaught, as he was on the grounds when the storm arrived. He gave Hawtree a blank check to fix the then 12-year-old course, originally designed by Greg Norman.
Hawtree redirected and repaired the 18th fairway, virtually destroyed by the sea surge, and other damaged areas. He bridged alliances with local farmers and environmentalists to address their concerns, all with the idea of keeping things natural.
“A site like this, it’s got to have the soul of the neighborhood. That has to come through,” said Shaw. “He created a lovely softening of the course, a journey so pleasing to the eye, how the pathways move around.”
That’s one of the hallmarks you notice from the 70-year-old designer. You see it in his Irish courses such as Lahinch and Dooks, gradual, curvy greenbelts through the thick fescue that follow the contours of the holes and the course. They give the golfer a natural, gentle direction, as opposed to arbitrary angular routing.
Over a two-year period, keeping the course open while closing one nine at a time, Hawtree did his revision. This is the first full season of play and Shaw said demand hasn’t been better, especially from the American golfer, the lifeblood for all the Irish courses.
“Southwest Ireland seems to be the place to go, the Wild Atlantic Way,” Shaw added.
You won’t find many in this area who would criticize the Trump organization, not after stepping up and saving their course, jobs and community. But perhaps the local folks were slightly piqued by his choice to rename the course, a mouthful: Trump International Golf Links and Hotel of Ireland. No more Doonbeg?
The course logo was changed to the Trump crest and the merchandise screamed the Trump brand throughout. Locals mourned the diminishment of the local name. Gradually, Doonbeg was slipped more into the mix. Now it’s Trump Doonbeg or even just Doonbeg, as the locals call it.
What was fortunate about this particular property was that it was never extensively developed because the surf here is dangerous. It was an off-the-beaten-path farming community until the late 1990s when the Kiawah Partners bought 377 acres from four local farmers. The course eventually opened on July 9, 2002.
It’s a classic old style links, nine holes out and nine holes back, in and out of the oceanfront. You can see the water from 16 holes. It’s unique in the fact that there are five par-5s and five par-3s.
The opening hole (pictured top), a straight-forward 561-yard, par-5, is majestically framed by a series of dunes behind the hole. It’s a quintessential dunes classic and a wonderfully inviting hole to begin your journey through the sand, wind, rain links misery.
Like many links courses in this country, it really gets interesting on the back nine. One of the most memorable holes is No. 13, a 514-yard, par-5.
The following hole, the 14th, is a graceful, easy-on-the-eyes par-3 at 138 yards, which seems longer than that. Dunes separate three different tee complexes, offering various angles and perspectives on your approach shot. The Atlantic is on your right as you hit into a valley to a fairly large and fairly flat green, although the surface is tilted toward the tee.
With a couple decent shots along the right side of the 13th fairway that will generally leave you with a blind approach to the green. The last 100 yards or so finish uphill with a severe dogleg right. A large dune to the right of the green may block your view of the pin. Tricky little number. Actually, mostly a big number once you’re done.
In the Scottish tradition, the 17th offers two options — the relatively routine par-4, 435-yard option; or on some days, the club invites groups to continue walking just beyond the par-4 to 17A, a 132-yard, par-3.
The final hole, par-4, 432-yards, has been remade after the 2014 storm. From the high-set tee, exposed to the Atlantic, you have to deal with a rather distracting dune along the left side. Then, even if you clear it, there’s a wide patch of rough behind it. The ocean edge, by the way, is all along the right side. Don’t go there. The green has a series of three pot bunkers in front for protection.
The 18th green sits in front of the classy, dark stone and cherry wood hotel and members club. It adds to the ambience that prompted Conde Nast travel magazine readers two years ago to vote Trump Doonbeg the No. 2 golf resort in Europe.
“This is it. We’re not going anyplace,” Shaw added. “We’re here. We love it here. We love the smell of it, the look of it. Everything about it. The locals play here. They caddy here, they work upstairs. It’s the future for our kids as well.”
Location: Doughmore Bay, County Clare
Architects: Greg Norman, Dr. Martin Hawtree (revised)
Tees: Black (7,026), Gold (6,372), White (5,993), Red (5,323), Green (5,062)
Green Fees: May-October: $170 (Euros)-$190; November-April: $50-$95
No. 1: Par-5, 561 yards. Elevated tee and green, with beautiful, symmetrical dunes behind hole.
No. 13: Par-5, 514 yards. Severe dogleg right last 100 yards to hidden, elevated green.
SATURDAY: Adare Manor