What more could anybody ask for when it comes to creating one of the most delightful golf courses on the planet. Well, Dooks has never seen itself in that light. Not when it was founded in 1889; nor when it was extended to 18 holes in 1970; not even when the celebrated golf writer Peter Dobereiner spoke of “a dreamlike experience, playing over the rollings hills and guessing, often wrongly, which hollow would harbour a green” - and not even now, when it has been almost totally revamped and reconstructed so that the golfing challenge is equal to the majestic surroundings.
There are always fears that mistakes, often of serious proportions, can be made when it is decided to tamper with or alter something that has stood the test of time. Much the same could have been said of Dooks (an Irish word meaning Rabbit Warren) but they were allayed by a recent visit to this heavenly place.
From the time, secretary/manager Declan Mangan proudly showed off the new-look 1st and 18th holes, you realised how they had got things just right. Both holes run in the same direction but the way in which the English architect Martin Hawtree has considerable changed them is hugely impressive both from the perspective of the golfing challenge they present and especially how easily and comfortably they sit on the eye.
The 18th, previously a bit of a nonsense of a par five, has been superbly modified into a classic two shotter of 430 yards from the back tee. The first plays to just under 400 yards but remains a really testing par four with the dangerous characteristics that had dogged it in the past now removed. In between come a series of magnificent golf holes with four absolute beauties now comprising Dooks’ own “Amen Corner” from the 5th (422 yards, par 4), 6th, (522 yards, par 5), 7th (465 yards, par 4) through to the 8th (189 yards). And yet, Dooks is not a back-breaker, amounting to less than 6,500 yards and still a par 71.
Most importantly, the integrity of the place has been maintained if not actually strengthened and for that Declan Mangan and all at Dooks are to be warmly complimented.
“Martin Hawtree was just finishing in Lahinch and we arranged for him to come down to Dooks,” Mangan explained. “We told him we had a danger issue at the first but while you’re at it, have a look at the rest of the place and see what you think. He came back with a most wonderful plan. We can do the first, he told us, but there’s way more to this. He went into a general overall plan, it was put to the members two or three years ago, and permission for the first two phases at a cost of €2m was given. We did six holes one winter and six the next. That finished last summer and the holes are beautiful, magic altogether.
“Hawtree wanted to do four more so we had another EGM a couple of weeks ago and we got permission to do the other four but we had to fund it separately other than go to the bank. We’re issuing ten-year memberships for €12,000 and applications for those are now full. That’s about €400,000, excellent value at a knockdown price, but it will fund the rest of the work. The only holes that won’t be touched by the Hawtree design are the old 11th, a beautiful par five hole, and the par three immediately after that is remaining as well. The rest are all brand new.”
Lahinch has its Dell, Troon its Postage Stamp and Dooks had its Saucer. Had, however, is the operative word because it has been removed by Martin Hawtree! Should the architect be regarded as a pariah by all lovers of Dooks? Should he be afraid to ever show his face in these parts again? Is he guilty of heresy in removing this historic piece of golfing territory with its green, if legend is believed, shaped to match the contours of the magnificent mountain range of Coomasharn in the background?
“If it was a papal issue, it would probably involve excommunication,” Mangan laughed. “Some of the members were upset, others were delighted to see it go; they thought it was a crazy hole. Instead of playing into a saucer, you’re playing into an upturned bowl although Hawtree has kept a spine running up the middle of the green to remind people of the old days and it’s wicked enough as it is. I was with Hawtree when he first saw the 13th and he turned to me and said: ‘I don’t believe it, if I designed that, I’d be sacked on the spot.’ But he still said he wouldn’t change an inch on it. It was an agronomist’s call. The Sports Turf Research Institute told us the green was sinking bit by bit. I miss it personally but what’s replaced it is a beautiful hole. We weathered the storm and reports are very encouraging.”
Green fee takings are up 20% on the same period last year, something few clubs are able to boast these days, and the reconstruction work carried out by the SOL company is a tribute to their expertise. As we toured the course, it was difficult to believe that the six holes in the second phase were only opened for play on May 1. And not alone that, but Dooks haven’t broken the bank to bring their ambitious project to fruition.
“We were nearly €200,000 under budget over the two phases out of two million,” says Mangan proudly. “It’s hard to predict what you’re going to do on a links because of the nature of the soil. You change your mind as the work goes on.” With a familiar glint in his eye, Mangan added: “And, of course, we’re very frugal as well.”
Mangan added: “We don’t see ourselves competing with the Ballybunions, Watervilles, Lahinches. They can have the quality golfers, we’ll have the quality course. Our market is 50% Irish (and 50% of that again would be from Cork), about 25% English, 20% American whereas the big name clubs would be 75% American.”
Michael Shanahan, a son of Michael Shanahan, Mangan’s famed predecessor at Dooks, has been lauded for his contribution to the redevelopment. He spent nine years at St Andrews learning his trade and the results are now there for all to see.
“He knows his links inside out,” says Mangan. “It’s a great tribute to him that we didn’t lose one sod during all that work. There was some very hot weather and very bad weather but he never lost one.”