May 31, 2007

Ahead of its Class

Best New International: Our award goes to Ireland's Doonbeg, which is ready for the world stage

It's not as if Ireland needed another world-class links to add to its allure as a prime destination for global golfers. But it has one in the Doonbeg Golf Club, a layout so astonishing and intriguing that critics and writers have stumbled over one another in their rush to play and praise it.

We share in the enthusiasm so much that we've named it Golf Digest's Best New International Course of 2002.

Doonbeg exists on something of an anomaly, a narrow crescent of rugged sand hills around the rim of Doughmore Bay in western Ireland. North, south and inland, the landscape is as tame as a Shannon International Airport runway 35 miles away. But this mile-and-a-half stretch of towering behemoths never yielded to centuries of assault by Atlantic winds and waves.

Recognizing its potential for golf, an American firm, Landmark National, acquired development rights to the parcel from the Irish government. It sold those rights to Kiawah Development Partners, its associate in developing The Ocean Course in South Carolina 12 years ago. It hired Greg Norman to create what many now consider a dead-bang future Ryder Cup site.

If you go... Doonbeg Golf Club Doonbeg Parish, County Clare, Ireland. Par 72; 6,885 yards. Location: An hour drive west of Shannon Airport, on the western coast of Ireland. American Airlines and Aer Lingus offer direct flights to Shannon from New York and Boston. Green fees: $185. Walking allowed anytime, and caddies are available. Contact: 866-366-6234,

Norman and his team achieved their goal of "least disturbance" to the existing sand hills by letting the terrain dictate the routing, avoiding long climbs across the highest dunes by using them as backdrops for many greens.

Doonbeg looks and plays like it has been there for a hundred years. Fairways pitch and roll with every ridge and rumple of the earth. The green contours are also lay-of-the-land and the bunkers are hand-dug, some edged by tall layers of stacked sod, others by shaggy tufts of native grass. The result is a genuine Irish links of unexpected breaks, unanticipated results and undeniable thrills.