Doonbeg keeps it under the wind

IT WAS late in the evening, though not so late that the food and beverage hadtaken an edge off the senses.

Buddy Darby, the fantastically-named part-owner of The Lodge at Doonbeg Golf Club, rose, I’m sure, with the intention of extending a broad invitation to sample and savour the delights of his sumptuous five-star resort in west Clare. Instead, he meandered into a mission statement that was striking for its honesty and brevity more than its verbosity.

I had no taping device to hand, but I can paraphrase it like he delivered it last night: “We know at this stage we may not turn a profit from Doonbeg, but that’s okay. We have other facilities around the world like Christophe Harbour in St Kitts to do that. This development is about a lot more than turnover.

“It must wash its face, but Doonbeg has become a vocation, a cause for (developers) Kiawah. The moment we stepped out on that site, we realised that it might be the only time in our lives we could be involved in something as rare as this.”

Even while Darby was talking, I was looking outside the Long Room window to the spot where three hours earlier, adjacent to the 18th green and in heavenly sunshine, Doonbeg’s head golf professional — in truth, he is much more — Brian Shaw had torpedoed the marketing-speak with one stunningly obvious fact.

“We are the only place in Ireland that has all of this – a true links golf course, five-star accommodation, beach, spa. The only one.”

It may be the one thing that makes Doonbeg different but there are several that make it special. It may also become the last true links course developed in Ireland. Many months later, and with the bone-chilled recession still gnawing away at everyone’s best efforts to stay vertical, Shaw is again reflecting on where Doonbeg are, and where they’ve come from and, more importantly, where they must go to.

“We must always continue to provide a quality experience in terms of the golf course and the service level,” he emphasises. “The international golf traveller is not something we can rely on to the same extent, but does that mean we compromise quality? The golf course has to be number one here, because that is the key reason people come,” says Shaw. “People are well travelled, so if you don’t deliver a five-star product, the client simply won’t come back.

“Visitors want bang for their buck and if that’s a €1 bar of chocolate or a €100 round of golf, it’s the same principle. You can still feel cheated if the product isn’t right.”

Quite a while after listening to Buddy Darby in the Long Room at The Lodge, I learned of his intention to address the golf industry at a conference in Dublin. I wondered what his message to them would be.

“The affluent golfer, particularly from the United States, is still travelling both domestically and internationally to experience the world’s best golf courses,” he insisted.

“Given that the US golfer is Ireland’s primary overseas market, we must better communicate to them the value in coming to Ireland where we have the best links golf course anywhere in the world, five-star accommodation, great food and an endearing culture. It is this combination that makes Ireland far superior to any other destination.

“While there is a perception that Ireland, and particularly western Ireland is difficult to reach from the US, for any (US) east coast golfer, it is actually easier and often quicker to reach Ireland than it is Whistling Straits, Bandon Dunes or Pebble Beach. Those destinations typically require multiple flights and up to an hour-long car ride.”

Darby added: “These courses, along with St Andrews and Turnberry, are far more expensive to play than some of Ireland’s most famous and highly ranked courses. For instance, high season rack rates are: Whistling Straits: $340/€249, Bandon Dunes: $225/€165, Kiawah Island: $380/€279, Pebble Beach: $495/€363, Old Course, St Andrews: $206/€153.

“What this demonstrates is that US golfers want to have a links course experience and see the value in these courses, thus are willing to pay premium prices. It’s important to note that the experience goes beyond the golf course. Of the $26 billion spent on golf travel each year, 75% of that money is spent on accommodations and food and beverage.”

He further elaborated on the measures to preserve the value each guest experiences at Doonbeg, initiatives that gave them a 10% increase in US visitors last year.

“To achieve that, we have taken cost-saving steps such as implementing a salary adjustment across all levels of staff; initiated a towel re-use programme, reducing the numbers of pillows on beds, and other small measures that are not outwardly noticeable, but have allowed us to maintain our high level of service. All the while not sacrificing the guest’s experience. And we believe it’s working — as our room nights increased 60% in 2009 and an additional 30% increase on top of that in 2010.

THE Lodge at Doonbeg is, in most respects, a perfect weathervane to examine the country’s five-star resorts and the initiatives they are employing to maintain cash flow and customer base.

Being a pretty frequent visitor to Doonbeg — both as invitee and paying customer — it is easy to identify what Brian Shaw describes as the “shoulder to the wheel” mentality that the staff, under the understated manager Joe Russell, bring to work. It’s not without its flaws in terms of pricing – what constitutes ‘competitive pricing is, I accept, an ever-evolving debate — but golf and resort management seem to have a can-do mentality on most things. Golf, at a broad average, costs around €80. Other issues have been tackled too.

“Before we would have been accused of not being child-friendly, but things have changed in that regard,” Shaw believes. “There is go-karting in the dunes area, we have taken a farmhouse and turned it into a kids’ zone. Essentially we have altered the appeal profile from a 16-year-old to an eight-year-old.”

Of course, just as external influences have amputated global potential areas of growth, infrastructure such as the tunnel in Limerick has furthered Doonbeg’s appeal to clientele from the east and south coasts. Golfing traffic confirms as much.

The Lodge and ‘Cottage’ (if ever there was a misnomer, describing the four-roomed houses as cottages this is it) accommodation at Doonbeg is as one would expect of a five-start resort, though we have to spotcheck the artisan soaps (made specially in a Burren perfumerie), walk-in mosaic rain showers, goose-down quilts, crisp white linens and pillow selection. After a hard day bogeying, these things are important.

Last night, the 250 or so who battled violent winds on the opening day of the Great Links Challenge — a tripartite initiative with Ballybunion and Lahinch — will know what I mean. The tournament once more emphasises the outside-the-box thinking Darby refers to, ensuring golfers see and sample, rather than read about, Doonbeg.

Shaw believes the golf course — notwithstanding coastal erosion and areas of conservation — is “as close to perfection” as it comes. Greg Norman, the course designer, is extremely pleased with his work and little wonder. Though the postage stamp 14th is the poster-boy hole, numbers 1, 4, 6, 17 and 18 are great challenges of nerve as well as golf skill.

“We’re tweaking all the time, thinning the rough because golfers have to be able to find their ball,” says the head golf pro.

“The course has been a dream come true,” Buddy Darby believes. “There is nothing I would like to change on the golf course. It is an adventure and no two holes look the same or play the same. In that sense it is like Pine Valley, my favourite US course.”

And the owner gets to map out one personal golf fantasy surely? “I have always believed you should be able to step out of the clubhouse on to the first tee while your friends can still be sipping their pints and looking on. That’s as special as it gets!”

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