Course Reviews: Lahinch (Mackenzie, Hawtree) and Doonbeg (Greg Norman)
It had rained for at least one hole every round we’d played by the time we reached the end of our trip, we’d discovered Tim Hortons on the Emerald Isle, and I’d had my golf bag blown off a tee by the ever-present wind. As we wrapped the final days of our trip, there was still one course I’d been anticipating the whole time — Alister Mackenzie’s Lahinch. We’d finish by staying at Doonbeg, and American-owned resort about a half-hour south with a relatively controversial design by Greg Norman.
We arrived at Lahinch after seeing the remarkable Cliffs of Moher (which does sound like something out of Lord of the Rings), which stand hundreds of feet over the Atlantic Ocean. As we drove into Lahinch you could see the golf course’s dunes clearly — finding the sand hills well before we made it to the course was a regular occurrence on our trip.
Lahinch is one of the most recognized golf courses in Ireland, one of a handful in the Top 100 in the world. That it has Mackenzie’s name attached to it doesn’t hurt, though there have been plenty of changes in recent years, largely done by Martin Hawtree, who has added two new par 3s (though only one was in play when we were there).
You get a sense right out of the gate that while Lahinch is less dramatic in places than Ballybunion, it is also more playable and perhaps even more fun. The opening holes are wide — with difficult greens that make up for the ease of the tee shot. The first green is set at the top of a dune, and the second comes in on-grade and is large and long. Admittedly these are fine holes — but nothing truly special. That changes on the third hole, which plays up a rise set between two dunes, and then dives down toa green set along the coast. It is a majestic hole, one you’ll never forget. The run of holes from there is quirky and delightful; there’s the Klondyke hole, a par 5 where the second shot must carry over a dune to a flat area beyond, and the fun and sporty Dell, a par 3 where much of the green is obscured at another dune on the left. Some would call these holes blind, but I’d argue that at Lahinch, as with most or Ireland, you understand where you’re supposed to hit the ball pretty quickly.
The sixth, a short 4 with a centre hazard and a nasty green set near the beach, is also a standout, while the run of great holes continues with the 7th, which winds its way up a hill and then plays down to another green on the ocean’s edge. Interestingly, perhaps one of the most intriguing holes — the 13th — comes away from the water. One of the few truly drivable par 4s we played all week, at 279-yards from the tips, this was a great example of what can be done with a unique green site. In this case it was protected by a dune to the right, and a signicant hollow in front of it. The green itself was relatively narrow, making approaches from the sides difficult. Smart design and a fun hole.
Maybe Lahinch loses something coming in. The 16th plays sharply downhill off a dune and is the course’s last standout. The 17th, while testing, plays along the road, as does the 18th, a par 5 that simply seems to get you back to the clubhouse. That’s okay though — the journey to that point is almost without peer.
We had the good fortune to play Lahinch twice — or almost twice. The final day had an opening in the morning before our round at Doonbeg, so we snuck over to the course to see if there was time to play. The club got us out — but stuck us behind four groups of, yep, slow playing Canadians, one of which was a former Canadian National Team member. Not sure if he was the slow player, but we left Lahinch after 14 holes and four hours and 10 minutes. The day previous we had played the entire course in 3.5 hours. Needless to say there were some unhappy members behind us. It was one of the few times I wanted to tell someone I was an American.
“Not all Canadians are that slow,” I protested to an older female member, clearly PO’d about the situation.
“Oh, I know you guys aren’t slow, but….”
She just trailed off.
After walking to the car we drove back to Doonbeg. It is the kind of course where a guy in a golf cart comes to meet you in the parking lot and takes your clubs to the first tee. Certainly much more North American in customer service; most clubs in Ireland were very basic in comparison. It also had a full range, but by this time I wasn’t up to warming up. Instead I just grabbed my 3-wood and smacked it down the middle of the opening par 5. From the first tee, the opening hole is quick spectacular, with a great green set at the bottom of a massive dune.
Frankly the remainder of the front nine was also quite strong. I’d heard talk of the snail problems that limited what Norman could do with the property, but there wasn’t a lot of issues on the front nine. However, you could sense some strange elements were coming. Cross-over holes were present, though the day we were there the course was quiet, so it wasn’t an issue. And Lahinch had cross-over holes, so that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.
There were some misses on the front — the 7th is set in a big field, and I would have placed the green near the base of a large dune on the left — but those are more questions of taste than actual functional issues. In fact, I rather enjoyed the front nine, and there are some standouts — like the 5th hole, which plays to a green near the ocean.
However, after the 11th hole, a tidy par 3 near the beach with a long, narrow green, the course sort of loses its way. It turns on to some relatively flat land where holes play near farmer’s fields that aren’t distinctive. That’s not to say there aren’t a few good holes on the back nine — the 13th, a par 5 with its green set up in a dune to the right, was terrific, as was the closing 18th, a long par 4 that plays along the beach.
The problems are also found there. The short (111 yard par 3) 14th is better as a picture-postcard than a hole, and Norman’s attempt to do the Postage Stamp falls flat. In the cross-wind we had, it was basically unplayable given the size of the green. Then there’s the 18th, a good hole on its own merits, but one has to walk 150 yards up the 1st hole and cross the fairway to get to the tee.
One has to assume Norman, who reportedly made more than 20 visits to the site, fell in love with some greensites and refused to compromise them, even if it made his course more cohesive. I also assume that he felt that since he was building a links, it could have some quirky elements and be accepted. I think new courses are held to a higher standard, which is way the routings at places like Kingsbarns are so central to the success of the course.
Regardless, the sun was high over the ocean when I hit my pitching wedge into the 18th green. Our trip was over — and the pub with its cold Guinness, was waiting for us. I’m not sure I could have walked another 18 anyway — and I don’t ever recall thinking so fondly of a seven-hour flight in my life.
I’d tackled the North-West of Ireland and I’d held my own. I’m already thinking of when I can return.
Tomorrow: Lessons learned from Irish golf