“I came over here just expecting to have a few pints then go home, but ended up loving Ireland, and look what happened.”
For Charles P. “Buddy” Darby, “home” is South Carolina, where his Charleston-based real estate company spearheaded an effort to buy Kiawah Island back from the Kuwaitis in 1988. We all know how successful that purchase has been — Kiawah is now a world-class golf destination and real estate address, with its Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course hosting the 1991 Ryder Cup and this August’s PGA Championship. But when he was asked to take a look at a sprawling hunk of beautiful dunesland just north of the tiny village of Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland, in the late 1990s, Darby had few designs on going grand on this side of the pond. Despite his Irish surname, perhaps it was just a bit too far away from his true American roots.
But after just a couple days on Irish soil, I can see how the Emerald Isle’s welcoming spirit, friendliness and indefatigable positive attitude got to Darby, and it plays out daily at Doonbeg. You can feel that familiar brand of Irish hospitality seeping through the main castle-like building’s stone walls, spilling through Darby’s Pub with every sip of Guinness and hovering over the first tee just a few feet away from the taps and tables. It extends into every nook of the resort’s 205 member-owned bedrooms, more than 80 of which are located in the incredible Links Cottages where I’ve holed up between rounds during this week’s Great Irish Links Challenge, feeling spoiled for the high thread-count sheets (which management took a year to select), radiant-heated floors and huge showers with rain-style heads. If I’d have gotten a hankering to cook, a full kitchen awaited, but I supped at the main resort five minutes away insead, on everything from eggs benedict to fresh caught seabass to ribeye steak.
If I had the bucks, I’d join Doonbeg’s international membership tomorrow. Good thing anyone can come here and stay whenever there’s availability, which becomes a dicey proposition in the high months of July and August. Darby and his top-notch crew — led by General Manager Joe Russell, who ran a five-star hotel in Dublin before heading west to Ireland’s “golf coast” — have a hit on their hands.
“We have arguably one of the top golf destinations in the world,” says Lahinch general manager Paddy Keane, “but first we have to get people here. Doonbeg has helped us do that. They’re very important to us.”
Doonbeg’s rise to prominence as a worthy addition to the region began with the golf course’s opening in 2002 (the resort followed in 2006). Not only did Greg Norman find a way to route his modern-but-ancient-feeling links through and around the site’s impressive dunes while keeping within tight environmental guidelines — completing, with Lahinch and Ballybunion, what I consider one of the world’s great golf triple-plays — but he did so with clear and careful adherence to the tenets of good links design. Norman obviously loves this brand of golf, and he didn’t get fancy with it, he just let the landscape lead the way. Beginning with the very first tee shot down a wide and rumpled chute toward a green nestled below a towering dune, he gets the details right, drawing players back toward the Atlantic at perfect spots in a round, especially at hole 14, a tiny par 3 with its green jutting precariously from a dune over the beach, and on the final hole — not a tough par 4 by any measure, but completely exposed to the seabreezes with the resort’s beautiful 19th-century silhouette dominating the view to its left. Along the way there are some truly brutal holes, especially the par 5 eighth, which climbs up and around a ridge to a dunetop green, but there’s nothing unfair or out of kilter. To my mind it’s Norman’s best work to date. Two rounds there — a practice round just a few hours after I touched down at Shannon Airport, the second in competition, where teammate Mike Touhill (Darby’s PR man for both Doonbeg and Kiawah) and I got it going on the back nine to rack up some much-needed points — left me enthralled.
That’s a good word for what happens when any Yank — golf writer, tournament-playing businessman and billionaire developer alike — visits Ireland. It’s simply enthralling, all jovial wit and spectacular golf washed down into one’s soul by the pint, the par or the pleasant person on the stool next to you, behind the bar, in the restaurants or on the links.
And Doonbeg, if you couldn’t tell by now, does Irish right. Good on Darby for letting that happen.