The Old course at Ballybunion is a tough act to follow and when new land was purchased in 1971, Robert Trent Jones had his work cut out to create a complementary second course. He was clearly thrilled to have been asked to fashion the new layout and he said: “When I first saw the piece of land chosen for the new course of Ballybunion, I was thrilled beyond words. I said that it was the finest piece of links land that I had ever seen, and perhaps the finest piece of links land in the world. With the ocean on one side and the river on the other, its tumbling, undulating, free-flowing rhythm of line is beauty beyond description.”
In the early 1980s, Ballybunion’s new course, the Cashen, was ready for play and ever since, American visitors have besieged the place. The Cashen is set amongst even taller, more alarming, sand dunes than the Old course and its feel is slightly harder, despite being over 300 yards shorter in length, possibly because the fairways are tighter. It is a cliché to say that the course looks natural and plays as though it has been laid out for a hundred years rather than a couple of decades, but it is a tribute to Trent Jones; he resisted the temptation to do anything other than going with the flow of the land and using its natural form to full potential. The result is a solid golf course despite a lack of the ground option and the greens being rather too small.
Ballybunion is an unforgettable experience, with two thoroughly bewitching courses. Everyone comes here to play the Old course, which is understandable, but don't dismiss the Cashen. It is an interesting second course and despite dividing opinion it's certainly not dull.
One of my playing partners (a teaching golf professional) described the Cashen course design as “RTJ on drugs” but I’ll try to be a little more circumspect with my comments, despite the fact that it has also been described as “the ‘Apolcalypse Now’ of links golf – controversial, occasionally self-indulgent, excessive, surreal and contrived.
After a very promising start at the opening four holes, the short par four 5th brought the first raised eyebrows of the round with its pulpit green (thirty two yards wide and 8 yards deep) perched on the side of an enormous dune.
I’ve just double checked the photos I took at the time to confirm that it wasn’t ME on drugs playing to such a shallow, oddly-positioned target -- and then I discover later that this is a modified green, repositioned from the original that was sited higher up!
I’m afraid our three ball lost a good deal of interest in completing the round (though we did) long before reaching the 18th as the severe elevation changes, long walks from green to the next tee and the peculiar routing took their toll.
There ARE some wonderful holes but there is no balance or flow to the round, just 18 individual holes, somehow strung together. Mr Jones was 74 when he laid out the Cashen and it’s not hard to see why he was never a designer of links courses -- despite the wonderful landscape he had to work with here.
I understand Martin Hawtree might rework the Cashen course -- not before time, some might say -- as the site really deserves to be held in as high esteem as the Old course beside it.
Don't go to Ballybunion just to play the Old course, make sure you put the Cashen high up on your itinerary, it's a stunning ramble through the dunes (or in our case, a hair-raising cart ride). There are no weak holes, but perhaps one or two that could be described as quirky. We took a cart on the Cashen and I can honestly say that it was a frightening experience and you find yourself having to traverse close to greens and tees which to be honest is sacrilege... this is not really a course where carts should be allowed - sooner or later carts will destroy the delicate turf. Anyway, for me the Cashen is a decent counterbalance to the Old which frankly disappointed me.