On the southwest coast of Ireland, Dooks GC has gained a reputation amongst the lucrative American tourist market as something of a hidden gem. Nestled between the illustrious neighbours of Tralee, Lahinch and Ballybunion to the north and Waterville to the south, the club is ideally placed to capitalise on a steady flow of golfing visitors to the region.
And those who add Dooks GC to their golfing agenda are rarely disappointed.
Situated on an expanse of moderately undulating dunes, all but the opening hole enjoy staggering views across the Dingle Bay.
A steady flow of visitors, and membership rates that are attractive for holiday home owners (approximately 70 per cent of the 1,100 membership are non-locals), has enabled the club to fund a redesign that has seen changes to all but one of its 18 holes.
Hawtree Ltd was originally consulted to improve safety on the first hole – one of the club's neighbours collected 1,200 balls in a single year.Martin Hawtree and colleague Marc Westenborg were so compelled by the site's potential, that they proposed a series of course alterations that would result in a golfing experience to match the surroundings.
Modifications to any course can cause controversy, and this was likely to be especially true of Dooks, as the membership took to the links themselves in the 1960s to extend the original nine holes to 18. Club Secretary Declan Mangan recalls the work with particular interest – his father John was one of the "three wise men" that was instrumental in the routing and design of the full 18.
And Mangan himself has proved instrumental in convincing the membership to proceed with this redesign, providing a more rounded test that included the addition of approximately 600 yards, taking the par-71 course just shy of the 6,600 mark, and alterations and enlargement to most of its greens.
The two holes where modification had the potential to cause the greatest stir were perhaps the par three thirteenth, which had a punchbowl green of some renown, and the par five eighteenth, an Alps-style hole where a dune in front of the green completely obscured the putting surface and flagstick, creating a blind approach shot. On the eighteenth hole, safety concerns for golfers on the seventeenth green resulted in moving the tee forward and the shortening of the hole to a par four. The overall par of 71 was maintained as the new ninth is a par five. "As a par five, the blind approach shot to the eighteenth was tolerable, as it would typically be played with a lofted club," says Westenborg. "But as a par four, a longer iron would usually be required for the approach, and the mound in front meant it would be almost impossible to hold the green".
Westenborg removed part of the mound, opening up the right portion of the green into view and enabling golfers to hold the green with a longer running approach.
At the thirteenth, the punchbowl shape of the green limited the number of pin positions, making maintenance an issue as wear and tear was concentrated on a small area.Westenborg addressed this by increasing the size of the green and, with a nod to its previous charm, creating four smaller punchbowls. From the tee, the contours of the green now echo the mountain backdrop, an effect that may sound a bit contrived but is subtle enough to work. The thirteenth however has seen fewer changes than other par threes at Dooks.
Indeed the second, previously a flick with a wedge, was removed completely when the first green was repositioned away from the course boundary. A new parthree fourth has been added amongst the dunes on the western edge of the property, and a new eighth hole capitalises on one of the many mountain vistas. These two holes sit so comfortably in the surrounding landscape that a firsttime visitor would struggle to differentiate them from those that have existed, in some form, since officers from the Royal Horse Artillery laid down the original nine holes in 1889.
Visible on the other side of the bay, near Inch beach, is a track of duneland that has caught the eye of many developers and golf architects. Attempts to develop this piece of land for golf have so far been thwarted by the local government.
Other holes that particularly caught the eye were the short-par four second, where new bunkering makes the golfer think twice about the direct route to an undulating green with dangerous runoffs; the 469-yard seventh that runs through a channel in the dunes and, even assisted by the prevailing wind, requires two extremely powerful shots to reach the green; and the fifteenth, another reasonably short par-four, but one that requires a precise tee shot to avoid bunkers on the corner of the dog-leg and set up a birdie opportunity.
Dooks is rightly proud of its environmental features. Small natural ponds and the club emblem are home to the natterjack toad, which is extremely rare in the United Kingdom and Ireland – as is the Pennyroyal herb, which was discovered during the course redesign work. In his appraisal on the site, ecologist Bob Taylor says: "Dooks Golf Links is probably one of the most impressive I have visited in terms of the wildlife, habitat, and landform interest features." Construction work at Dooks was undertaken by S.O.L. Golf Course Construction, and a new irrigation system for greens and tees was installed by Arden Lea. Although judging by the weather on GCA's visit, when even the fast draining sandy terrain was struggling to cope with an incessant rainstorm, nature is doing a good irrigation job on its own.
The specification of tee and green construction is much improved. Existing rootzone was mixed with 70-80 per cent sand to create playing surfaces that make the most of the links conditions.
16 of the 18 greens have been reconstructed, but only three were put back to their original positions. The remainder have been relocated (many close to their original positions) to make a subtle difference to the overall routing, yet considerable changes in the character of individual holes.
But this hasn't been a revolution. The character and charm of the links remains – bunkers are simple scrapes rather than manufactured pots and the greens are now more typical of a links challenge, plenty of undulation and character, and false fronts and run-offs employed to good effect. The redesign has also seen the removal of most of the trees on the course, opening up the breathtaking views and further exposing the course to the wind.
The success of the project is perhaps best judged by the welcome reception that architect Westenborg received from the mix of club members, golf journalists and American tourists residing in the clubhouse on a rainy day.
Dooks is a gem, but is fast losing its hidden status.