Now I know how Alan Shepard felt. Playing a round at Doonbeg Golf Club, the newest links on the west coast of Ireland, is about as close as you can get without an Apollo spacecraft to playing on the moon. Seriously, if they sodded the Sea of Tranquility with fescue grass, threw some sand into the pot bunkers created by all those meteorites, and laid out 18 greens in some of the natural craters and plateaus, you'd have Doonbeg. All that would be missing would be a tall Guinness and the pounding Atlantic.
The Greg Norman-designed Doonbeg course opened in July, delayed slightly by the architect's final tinkering, but I got to take a test drive there late last summer. The course still had some kinks and routings to work out, and a few wild greens to soften, such as the undulating No. 2 -- which reminded me of how golf writer James W. Finegan once described a green at Ballybunion's Cashen Course: "Satanically contoured ...so scandalously hummocky that the model for it must have been a crumpled piece of paper." That said, Doonbeg's natural setting is so spectacular that it will surely take its place as an Ireland "must-play" soon, if it hasn't already.
According to legend, the land at Doonbeg -- about halfway between Ballybunion and Lahinch -- has been begging to be carved into links since the 1890s. At the time, officers of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment had heard that the nearby coastal sandhills were an ideal spot to bring Scottish links golf to Ireland.
Doonbeg was their first choice, but in the end they moved up the coast to Lahinch, because it was closer to the train station. A century later, Norman had the same reaction to Doonbeg as the Black Watch officers had, only he got to finish the job.
"I thought this would be the last chance in my life to get a site like this to build on -- the sand dunes, the water, the beach, the wind blowing at 40 knots," he says. "The one thing I said when we started was, "Guys, I am not going to Americanize this golf course -- not one single foreign blade of grass." Once we laid out the fairways, I just started mowing the grass that was there. The only major dirt we moved was for the clubhouse pad."
I played Doonbeg as it would have been played 100 years ago -- without yardage plates (the course has since added them), direction markers for blind shots, or even real pathways between some of the holes. Still, I could remember all the holes afterward, and some definitely will be showing up on golf calendars. The fifth is an uphill, 378-yard par 4, where you drive into the saddle between two tall dunes. As you approach your ball, you discover the green, framed between the dunes, is sitting almost right on the beach, with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop.
The 14th is only 111 yards from the back tee, but the green has been carved like a shelf out of a soaring dune, surrounded by tall grass and ocean. Either hit the green or reload. Depending on the wind, it can be a wedge or a 3-iron; depending on your skill, you may have to reload a lot. Says Norman, "I built 14 to be the toughest short hole in the game of golf."
Some of the Norman features will no doubt be controversial -- a couple of tees that require shots over another fairway, a largely blind third shot into a par 5. But Norman makes no apologies. St. Andrews, he notes, has some similar unconventional holes, as do most of the great links.
For my money, Norman has a point. When you get done playing Doonbeg, you feel the exhaustion and the exhilaration that comes from mastering -- or trying to master -- both the geometry and the geography of golf. You can't just stand up on the tee and whack it out to the middle of a yawning fairway and start playing the hole from there.
"With Irish golf, the only way you can succeed is to think about each shot," says Norman. "Alister Mackenzie was a genius. He always forced you to play the game of golf backward -- from green to tee. First, you had to figure out where the pin was on the green, and then figure out where you wanted to come in from, and then figure out that you have to hit your tee shot over there. He challenged you to a game of chess -- find the easiest way to play the hardest hole."
Golf as chess. That's links golf. That's also Doonbeg -- a little Alan Shepard, a little Bobby Fischer, a little Greg Norman, a lot of Mother Nature.
By Thomas L. Friedman