(Tenth of an 11-part series)
BALLYBUNION, County Kerry, Ireland — Word of advice, as the Ballybunion starter needs to tell countless first-timers playing the legendary course, stay left of the cemetery on your opening drive.
Not your customary golfing tip but once you step between the first-tee blocks, it becomes apparent – drifting right is dead (top photo). A centuries-old cemetery juts out slightly into the first fairway space of Ballybunion’s Old Course, just one of many unique elements in perhaps Ireland’s most celebrated golf course.
Ballybunion, on the western edge of southwest Ireland, tight to the Atlantic, was founded in 1893 and has been hailed as one of the top links courses in the world.
Ireland’s “Home of Golf,” as it has been called, consistently ranks in the top 10. But for much of its existence it was merely a hidden gem. Scotland, with its 300-year head start, has had a tight grip on the links market.
It wasn’t until American Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion and lifelong links golf advocate, ‘discovered’ Ballybunion in the 1970s.
When Watson won the Claret Jug in 1982 at Royal Troon he essentially launched a new era in Irish golf with the off-hand remark, “No one can call himself a golfer until he has played at Ballybunion. You would think the game originated there.”
Suddenly, the world realized that there are new, different, green and wonderful world-class links courses on the other side of the Irish Sea.
What Watson originated is a surge of the American golfer heading to the Emerald Isle, enduring left-hand roads and stick shifts to play firm-and-fast terrains under wind-and-rain conditions that wouldn’t otherwise lure him out of his robe and slippers back home.
“We’ve become a famous name and we’re indebted to Tom Watson for that,” said Brian O’Callaghan, Ballybunion’s head pro. “He was the trailblazer. He sent people in our direction. We’re very fortunate for that reason.”
A recommendation alone can’t do it. It needs to be backed up with a quality layout that can test any level of golfer. Authenticity combined with the antiquity is essential.
“You have to keep the natural look. It still has to be links and well looked after,” O’Callaghan said. “When they spend that kind of money you want a golf course in good shape. That’s the product that has to shine. That’s what they’re coming to play and what they remember most, not the drink afterward.
“We’re bias. We think links is the greatest form of golf,” he added. “If you look at the new designs, a lot are using links style. You see it in the bunkering, a natural, hairy look. I think that’s being used a lot more. That’s what they’re trying to do in the U.S. Open.”
Scores of PGA Tour professionals have taken their shots on the course. Before the 1998 Open Championship, O’Callaghan said, “we had the top 10 players in the world out there.”
Scotland is the mother of links, spreading its sandy firm-and-fast characteristics throughout the world. O’Callaghan loves the Scottish tradition but said Ireland links are different.
“Here, we’re surrounded by dunes. The Irish courses have more shape to them,” he said. “We’re right on the water. There are no blind shots, except maybe 16 where you see the ocean. This is a great second-shot course.
“Our courses are full of features. Scottish courses are flat. They have to add features to refine golf courses. They built upward.”
However, on Ballybunion’s first hole, it’s built downward – the cemetery. After that hole, it’s dune city. The second hole, par-4, 437-yards, needs to have a drive left of a huge dune. Otherwise, it will be a blind shot over it. And a first timer has no idea where the green/pin might be.
The fourth and fifth holes are unique in the fact that the tee boxes are aligned so that their drives fly directly over the previous greens, a quirky yield to the original routing. A rural road with a long line of houses to the right also might be, for some, a little cozy for comfort.
Then the course begins, as you come around a dune with the ocean expanse in front of you.
Those final three holes on the front are open to the ocean and set apart from the first six holes. But, in reality, the course is so much different on the back nine. It’s more wild, wet, woolly and windy. It’s also wonderful.
Watson has said the 11th hole, a 467-yarder, is the best par-4 in the world. It’s a perilous journey through three elevation drops then a pop up through dueling dunes to the green. And, by the way, the prevailing winds stream hard across the hole, right to left, and can be notorious. Your approach shot likely will be blind and sitting at the bottom – or precariously on a side hill – to a protected green. A double is no shame here.
Then the par-3, 209-yard 12th hole has the same opposing features, just shorter. You stand on the tee and ponder long and hard where and how you can settle on the green. Breezy, not easy.
You might think you are getting a break at No. 14, a shorter par-3 (134 yards) but, again you ask yourself, where can I land it safely? It’s an uphill tee shot, dunes right and left with a dramatic false front and dropoffs on all sides. Plus, throw a couple hidden bunkers into the mix.
It’s dune land through the rest of the back-nine maze. The par-5, 16th has a landing area, for some, about the size of a sixpence. And a six, by the way, would be just a fine score.
There is a marker on the 17th tee, the highest point on the course, where a bench sits and ‘CTH’ is etched on it. This is a tribute to a late former club member who used to stand there, looking out on all the dunes and remark, “this is the closest to heaven I’m ever going to get!”
You come back from the sea toward the clubhouse on 18, a par-4, 375-yard shortie. It’s defense is another pair of dunes guarding the undulating green, somewhere in between. You might not know how you did until you arrive through the dune corridor. The club intends to adjust the green complex beginning this fall, lowering the approach in front of the green and lifting the green surface.
“It’s (links) an acquired taste,” O’Callaghan added. “You have play it a few times to figure it out. We’re fortunate. We’re No. 1 on everybody’s list so we get more attention.”
BALLYBUNION GOLF CLUB (Old Course)
Location: Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland
Opened: 1893 (Cashen Course 1981)
Architects: Capt. L.L. Hewson, Fred Smith, Tom Simpson
Tees: Blue (6,802), White (6,366), Red (5,475)
Green Fees: May-October: $190 (Euros)-$190; November-April: $100
No. 11: Par-4, 467 yards. Tom Watson’s favorite, against ocean and wind, deep valley approach.
No. 12: Par-3, 209 yards. Long, into wind straight drive near impossible to settle on green.
No. 14: Par-3, 134 yards. Elevated camel’s back green difficult to land; dropoffs on all sides.
No. 16: Par 5, 509 yards. Wind-opposed, long-clearance drive; narrow dune uphill approach.
SUNDAY: Trip postscript