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21st Century Links

Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

(continued from page 1)

It was the natural approach that drove Greg Norman's design of Doonbeg, a perfect links site on the west coast of Ireland just north of the Shannon River. Lahinch, one of the great links layouts, is to the north and Ballybunion is across the Shannon to the south. Doonbeg was created by the American company Kiawah Development Partners, which is headed by Buddy Darby. KDP is the developer of Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

"I try not to be emotionally attached to the land until I get the business points worked out, but this was absolutely wonderful land," says Darby. "It has been in the development process for several years and there were environmental issues. But it seemed worth the effort to work through those issues, because when are you ever going to get another chance to own a perfect site for a links golf course?"

Along with settling the environmental issues, which primarily consisted of protecting an endangered species of snail, Darby hired an architect with whom he had never worked before. Norman originally had been retained by the previous developers of the property, another American firm known as Landmark National. Norman has been fabulously successful in the worlds of golf and business. He's had a golden touch with everything he does, from being one of the world's best golfers to owning vineyards to designing golf courses.

When he first saw Doonbeg, Norman realized what he had in his hands. "What a special place it was," says Norman. "Simply because it might be the last seaside links course ever built in Ireland. The property is spectacular and any designer would dream of having an opportunity to work with a piece of land like Doonbeg."

Norman knew what he wanted to do with it -- almost nothing. Here was a place where he could discover holes if he just looked closely. "A lot of the course was built with a shovel and a lawnmower, rather than a dozer," says Norman. "The challenge in designing the course was picking the right routing and disturbing as little of the natural beauty as possible. Even if we had moved a lot of dirt, it would not have resulted in what we wanted. It's hard for people to imagine that all the undulation in the earth at Doonbeg is natural."

The first hole is almost too good to be true -- it must be one of the most spectacular opening holes in the world. It's a par 5 from an elevated tee that descends gracefully to a green sited in a natural dune bowl. To the right of the fairway landing area is an old thatched barn that was to have been moved originally, but Norman felt it gave the hole more visual appeal and instant age.

The course moves from the farmland behind the dunes to the spectacular dunes themselves. A wonderful stretch of three dune holes begins at the 13th, a short par 5 with a lot of teeth. After a blind drive over a ridge, a second ridge must be negotiated by players going for the green in two. That ridge is fronted with nasty bunkers so penal as to force lay-ups by all but the most talented and the unintimidated.

One of the world's most memorable short par 3s follows, one that will rival the seventh at Pebble Beach. The 14th is just a wedge to a shelf green suspended from the side of the dune. Hit the green or face oblivion. When the wind blows, who knows what kind of club will work on this little gem?

The 15th is a longish par 4 that tumbles downhill to another dune bowl green. The dune wraps around the right front of the green as well, forcing a carry over it to pins in the center and right-hand side of the green. This hole will test a game and a psyche.

An unusual feature of the course is that to get from the 17th green to the 18th tee, players must cross over the first fairway. Then the par-4 18th sweeps along the coastline to the south, with an intimidating tee shot through high dunes. "The most important aspect was not to overengineer it," says Norman. "With this course we took my long-standing minimalist approach to a new level. Less was definitely more."

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