- +353 (0) 68 27146
2 miles S of Ballybunion
Contact in advance - not at weekends
Jo McKenna, Lionel Hewson, Tom Simpson, Molly Gourlay
The town of Ballybunion was named after the Bunion family, who owned the local 15th century castle. For many people, the name conjures up a vivid image of a wild links golf course on the edge of the Atlantic with fairways set amongst the gigantic duneland. Herbert Warren Wind, the distinguished American golf author, described Ballybunion as “nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen”.
As you drive from the historic town of Ballybunion, along the winding road to the golf club, your eyes feast upon the most spectacular links land imaginable. It will come as no surprise that this course, located on Sandhill Road, has the largest, most formidable sand dunes in Ireland.
Originally founded in 1893 as a 12-hole course, the 1897 Irish Golfer’s Guide names the designer as Jo McKenna. Ballybunion Golf Club struggled financially at this time and then folded in 1898. The course was re-established in 1906 as a 9-holer, designed by the prominent Irish golf journalist Lionel Hewson; the Old course was extended to 18-holes in 1926. The Old Ballybunion course remained relatively anonymous until it hosted the Irish Championship in 1937; prior to the tournament, Tom Simpson and Molly Gourlay were called in to make suitable alterations to the layout. Little has changed since.
Ballybunion is a thrilling challenge, a supreme test of golf. If you are a very good golfer and there’s a gentle breeze blowing, you might score well. If there’s an onshore gale blowing, you are best to forget scoring well and simply try to enjoy this exhilarating golf course. Bill Clinton played here in 1998, apparently making full use of his "mulligan" allocation.
There are so many excellent holes on the Old course at Ballybunion that it is fickle to single out one, so we’ll select three. The 2nd ("Kennells") is a long 445-yard par four, the line for the tee shot a narrow gap between two towering sand dunes. A strong accurate drive will leave a long approach shot to a raised plateau green. The 7th ("Castle Green") is another tough par four measuring 432 yards with its tee perched on the cliff-edge overlooking the seashore. It’s an absolute cracker. If there is such a thing as a signature hole on the Old course at Ballybunion then it would have to be the 11th, called "Watsons", yet another supremely challenging par four of 472 yards.
Tom Watson fell in love with Ballybunion and he goes out of his way to extol the course’s virtues. After several visits, Watson agreed to write an article for the course guide/planner. He writes: "After playing Ballybunion for the first time, a man would think that the game of golf originated here. There is a wild look to the place, the long grass covering the dunes that pitch and roll throughout the course making it very intimidating... in short, it is a course on which many golf architects should live and play before they build golf courses. I consider it a true test of golf."
Writing in Tom Doak's Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture, the author commented as follows: "Most courses have too many fairway bunkers. Crystal Downs and Ballybunion are proof that if the land is really good, and the rough between the holes is playable but extracts some sort of tax on the second shot, you hardly need bunkers, aside from the visual interest."
At the end of 2015, Ballybunion embarked on an intensive upgrade project which involved the replacement of all eighteen of its soft poa annua greens with fine fescue putting surfaces, the addition of revetted faces to around forty bunkers and the implementation of key design changes to several of the holes.
At the 7th, the green was shifted closer to the sea and dunes installed behind the new putting surface to mask the tees on the next hole whilst shaping was carried out on the right side of the green at the 8th, allowing the hole to blend into the dunes more elegantly. Stone paving on the back-to-back par threes at the holes 14 and 15 was also replaced with stylish grass paths.
The work was carried out by Atlantic Golf Construction, supervised by architect Graeme Webster, and completed within the very short time frame of a couple of months. The club could have spent years overseeding to hopefully achieve similar results but its bold approach to convert in one fell swoop is one it should be given great credit for.
A Robert Trent Jones-designed 18-hole layout, named the Cashen course, opened at Ballybunion Golf Club in the 1980s.
Ballybunion Old reminds me a bit of Lahinch Old in that both have holes up in the hills and dunes, yet there is a substantial amount of the golf course that is relatively flat. In Lahinch’s case, the hills come at the beginning. In the case of Ballybunion, the hills are in the middle until the end. Both courses have expertly routed the holes among the hills and high dunes. Both courses offer a blind shot, although Lahinch has more of them. Both have undulating greens and excellent green complexes. Both courses are well maintained. Both courses can play substantially different when the wind is high. Both have great views of the beach and sea. Lahinch has a better view from the non-beach holes as Ballybunion itself is not very attractive whereas the houses lining Lahinch are nice to look at as well as you can spy another golf course across the road. Both have a unique feature to see from the course: for Ballybunion it is the cemetery/tombstones on the first hole; for Lahinch it is the ruins of the castle.
Tom Watson’s praise of Ballybunion Old reverberated throughout the USA for golfers planning a visit overseas and in effect, brought more American golfers to Ireland as a destination when their first choice had been Scotland and their second destination was England. Now, of course, Ireland has become nearly as popular as Scotland and England as a golfing destination, even if the “top” golf courses are farther apart than in Scotland. Thankfully, the motorway system in Ireland has improved quite a lot making trips across the country and into Northern Ireland so much quicker and easier.
I often wonder if Lahinch Old would be even more popular today if Tom Watson had visited there instead of Ballybunion as part of his preparation for The Open Championship. I would imagine Tom Watson’s comments after playing Lahinch Old would have been at a similar level to his comments regarding Ballybunion Old. Certainly the views, naturalness, challenge, and variety of golf holes are of a similar level. Not that it matters much anymore given how popular both golf courses have become.
I have Ballybunion Old rated pretty highly on my own individual scale, yet there are six-seven holes that are only average/slightly above average. One does not find as many weak holes at Lahinch Old. However, the setting is so splendid and the “best” holes are so outstanding that one cannot help but fall in love with the golf course. It is as natural a course as one can find. Much like Lahinch Old, I appreciate that an architect can figure out the best routing given the land.
The course takes a while to warm up given the land is not that exciting at the beginning of the golf course. There is also a shortage of distance on some of the early holes. The land is more special starting on the seventh as you turn back along the farthest corner of the golf course next to the ocean heading towards the clubhouse. For me, this is the primary difference between Ballybunion Old and Lahinch Old. Lahinch starts off with a difficult set of holes, other than two and four, as opposed to Ballybunion which very much eases the player into the round.
Of Ballybunion Old’s early holes, the second is a very good hole, with the second shot travelling between the high dunes on either side to the raised green requiring an extra club. Land short of the green and your ball will be well down the slope in front leaving a pitch that needs to be perfectly judged for distance.
Three is a nice long slightly downhill par 3 with the left back of the green going close to the road. It is well bunkered around the crowned green but there is plenty of room to miss the green to the right.
The fourth and fifth are well bunkered and have good green complexes with raised greens, but overall I did not think that highly of them. Obviously one needs to avoid the road on the right but there is ample room to play down the left side on both holes where there are fewer fairway bunkers.
The sixth, playing between the buildings to the farthest point from the clubhouse, is a short par 4 that is forgettable. The green has a nice fall off to the left side, but I do not understand why this hole has no bunkers since the holes preceding it have not been that difficult. Perhaps it is due to this being one of the more exposed areas to the wind?
For me the course begins on the seventh hole. The entire hole runs along the beachfront with the right green nestled among the dunes. The hole has length, views, and challenge. For me it is the third best hole on the golf course.
The short par 3 eighth hole has everything one wants in a par 3. It is situated in a pretty setting, almost a bowl of dunes. It has substantial roll offs and three well placed bunkers. The green is undulating. For a shorter par 3, it is almost perfect.
Nine is an outstanding long par 4 as a dogleg right with high dunes down the right side, a rippling fairway of mounds and humps which get bigger and deeper as you near the green. The green complex is excellent with severe fall offs on all sides. There is no need for greenside bunkers here as the green site is excellent. It is after playing the ninth that I forget the blandness of the opening six holes.
The tenth is a splendid par 4 heading back to the ocean. The “quick” change in terrain down the right side and on all sides of the green on this short hole is fabulous. This hole has a single bunker on the right of the green, but it is almost superfluous. This is a brilliant par 4. Without wind it is an easy hole, with a strong wind it is difficult due to the size and placement of the green.
Now follows the amazing eleventh, one of the best holes in the entire world. You want to look at the beach as you walk it as this lengthy par 4 has the beach down the entire right side. The fairway has mounds on both sides, three long and deep valleys in the fairway and surrounding the green are more valleys. If you do not find the left side of the fairway, you will have a blind shot to the green. The green does not have a bunker but it does not need one such as the defenses near it with a valley right and fall offs at the rear. If your approach shot is short left you could have an awkward chip from a dune hill. If there is a differentiator to Lahinch Old, this hole is it as Lahinch Old does not have a hole at the caliber of this one. But neither do most courses have a hole as good as this one.
Twelve for me is the best par 3 on the golf course hitting from an exposed tee to an elevated green with the same sort of valleys in front and to the right of the green while a grassy mound sits to the left. The valley to the right of the green almost looks like a pit. Miss the green short and you can have almost a blind pitch to a pin at the back of the green. Splendid.
Due to the variation in terrain with all of the dunes, hills, valleys, a burn, and a green sat off to the left, the short par 5 thirteenth is everything the fourth and fifth are not. It requires good shot making beginning with the tee shot avoiding the mounds and the bunkers on the left, decision making, the luck of a good bounce, and a good short game. The placement of the bunkers near the green is perfect. This is my fourth favorite hole on the golf course.
The short fourteenth is a lovely par 3 but not quite at the standards as holes 7-13. However, it is a welcome respite from what has transpired and what is to come.
If one wants to argue fifteen is a better par 3 than twelve, I will not argue it much. It does have a better green with its two tiers and better greenside bunkering. The mounds and dunes are quite dramatic, especially the large dune just off the tee on the left. Behind the green is the ocean making it slightly more difficult to select the correct club. It is also longer than the twelfth. Still, I like the look of the twelfth more. It is a good debate.
Sixteen is another dramatic hole. This short par 5 severe dogleg left finishes through a canyon effect of dunes on either side for the approach shot. Visually it is a really cool hole because you have not played anything like it on the course and even likely not anywhere else. The bunker on the left side of the corner of the dogleg likely catches a lot of tee shots but is not that difficult.
I love the seventeenth hitting from an elevated tee on this short par 4 out towards the ocean, down through the dunes on this dogleg left. The fairway is rumpled and the green sits in a bit of a sheltered bowl. I find this visually to be the most interesting, but the green is not as complex as some other earlier holes.
I think the finishing hole is so-so. Yes, it has drama due to the large Sahara bunker in the middle of the fairway. The second shot is uphill and can leave one with a blind shot to the green. The green is narrow and sits inside of a dune complex surrounding it. I think the green is out of character to the rest of the golf course as too many balls landing on the side of one hill either side can still find the green as opposed to the other greens with their many roll-offs or bunkers.
I would so like to see an Open Championship here. It will likely never happen as there are not enough good viewing areas for people. Obviously the other course could be used for concessions, corporate tents, entrance to the golf course, etc. However, where would spectators sit and walk? In addition, I think Ballybunion Old has been stretched to its limits at just over 6700 yards. For the pro game, that is too short and it would become a wedge/putting contest. Maybe there can be a “tv exhibition” such as they just did in Japan.
I have played both the blue and the white tees and shot a similar score so for most players I think distance is not a big variable here. The big variable is the wind and the uniqueness and challenge beginning on hole 7 with only fourteen and sixteen as “breathers” (although they can still bite you).
For me, the question is whether the brilliance of ten holes outweigh two good holes but six average holes in determining whether this is a “must play.” The answer is yes. Assuming a decent weather day with manageable winds, one will not care what their score is at Ballybunion Old, one will only want to play it again. In fact, I have never played the Cashen such is my desire to play the Old.
You've left us all hanging - if you had one round left to play, would it be at Lahinch or Ballybunion?!?
Regarding The Open, I suspect another reason why Ballybunion will never host is because Ireland is not part of the United (well, at least for now) Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland
BB, on my personal rating scale, I rate Lahinch Old higher than Ballybunion Old because it only has a couple of "breather" holes whereas Ballybunion Old has a weak start and a finishing hole that does not thrill me. Lahinch Old is more consistent.
This results in Ballybunion Old having better par 3's, but slightly lower rating for par 4's and the par 5's as Lahinch Old overall is better.
Equally important to me and other players, (some of whom hit it far and some that are high indexes), Lahinch Old offers the opportunity for more decision making and the use of more clubs in one's bag from the tee.
Ballybunion Old offers more options around the greens because of where balls can end up.
The greens are equally good at either.
Visually Lahinch Old is better even if Ballybunion Old has the superior dunes and overall it has two-three holes more memorable.
I have friends who are members at Lahinch who also have a home in the town and since it my preference to always play with a member, that probably factors in it as well.
Plus, at Lahinch, one can always go surfing!
Thanks for the info Mark. Sounds a close call - and seems like you’ve done the right thing in playing them both several times and then finding a member at the one you prefer!
Interesting review while fair I would question why you keep mentioning Lahinch while reviewing Ballybunion.
I do appreciate that the course certainly takes off when reaching the 6th hole (original the 1st) I find it somewhat interesting that people find the opening 6 holes poor and bland . Hole 1 has a graveyard to contend with. The 2nd is a fantastic hole perched high up in the Dunne’s with a second shot that has to be struck 100% or it comes thumbing back to your feet . The third , a long downhill par 3 with a well guarded green. O/b left and mounds on the right ,while it has a bail out right it’s no easy up and down.
The 2 par 5’s ,4 & 5 are along the road and while might be boring to some when the wind blows and it normally does it present its own challenge.
The course once started on the now 6th and a relative easy looking tee shot it has a very deceptive second shot to a very narrow green. One of 4 par 4’s in Ballybunion with no bunker such is the defence and subtle of the green
It is fair to say it takes of away you swing for home.
Sir your review is as I said fair and interesting but I do often find and question why so little is thought of thy opening 6 holes in Ballybunion
I am lucky to be a member all my life and it is always one of the most pleasurable games of golf one can find in Ireland . One of its greatest attributes and one that is always overlooked is that it is a course for all golfers . Often when playing the best golf courses in the area / world unless you are a pretty good golfer the course beats you up, and the higher handicap golfer does not enjoy it . Ballybunion with its subtleties will appear to most and entertain all levels of golfers
We are truly lucky to have something so good on our doorstep
Visiting Ballybunion for the first time in April 2019, I was very enthusiast to discover a track that i have wanted to play for years.
I have not been disapointed at all !
The course is superb and offer some of the most scenic holes you can find along the Atlantic coast. Apart from the Par 5 - n°5, every hole offers a special view from the area.
Playing on a sunny day with a very ligth wind was a bit of a luck as some holes deserves very challenging shots if you want to catch a green in regulation.
The only deception is this brand new clubhouse. I would have enjoy a more historic building to host players after the round.
Ballybunion is another course on the very top of my list to return to. I've only played it once but in extremely windy conditions and I'll admit to finding it a complete bear at the time. It was at the end of a very wet and lush summer and the rough was extremely penal. Still the course left a huge impact on me and I've always longed to return.
So many great holes playing through the massive dunes and a few that really tempt you to cut off more than you chew with the tee shot.
I've heard great things about the renovation work they have carried out with resurfacing the greens.
Here's a question for the well travelled. Which other course starts with a graveyard on the right side that could be in play in the first few holes?
Ballybunion is blessed with a stretch of towering dunes that are home to both the Old Course, and it's younger sister - the Cashen. But it is the old course you should come to play.
The first 6 holes play basically inland along the road, around the cemetery, and past a house. In my opinion these are good golf holes, but they lack the visual impact of latter holes which journey though a vast dunescape with The Atlantic Ocean just a slice away.
When a golfer gets to hole 7 and heads back down along the coast the thrill factor goes up a notch or two. Almost every hole from 7 to 17 has something to commend it. It is hard to pick out favourite holes – they are all so good and they are all so different!
Perhaps the par 4 eleventh is 'the signature hole', but for me the whole back nine is just sensational. Perhaps the exception is the 18th hole which is decent, but a bit of an anti climax after all the excitement preceding it.
One of the highlights is hole eleven, which is just a hoot to play! It has a tiered fairway- crack a drive straight and watch it bound down the tiers! You are then confronted with an approach through an opening in towering dunes - it's great fun.
Equally good in my opinion are the magnificent par 3's including the back to back 14th & 15th holes. Hole 15 can require a driver to reach what is a challenging green. It's a tough hole!
I also love the par 5 16th with it's "bite off more than you can chew" type tee shot and I think the elevated tee shot back toward the sea on the delightful short par 4 seventeenth hole is just exhilarating.
Ballybunion is great fun. Don't miss the opportunity to play it.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
I have had the good fortune in playing the famed Old Course at Ballybunion several times over the years and clearly it rates among the upper, upper echelon of courses I've played. My most recent visit was this past summer and conditions were extremely dry with ultra fast and firm conditions.
Many others have provided their comments and I do agree with a number of them.
One of the best decisions the club made was changing the starting and ending point of the layout. The previous ending featured back-to-back par-5's at the 4th and 5th respectively and they clearly do not merit such a high profile position. It also helped to re-position the starting series of holes with the trio that commence the round now.
The main strength of the course rests with what Mother Nature provided. The long exception being the rather dull ground found with the 4th thru 6th holes respectively. The putting greens are also simply stellar in the manner by which they will accept and repel shots. They vary constantly in terms of dimensions -- whether above or below or whether narrow or wide. More importantly, the fall offs are constant elements to contend with on one's approach shots. You can be short and have a fairly basic chip shot but heaven help those who miss to the far left or right sides -- and most notably when the pin is cut to the side you have missed.
The routing is also quite advanced given the simplistic formula followed by many early links courses. At the Old you are facing adjustments -- constantly. The wind does not simply blow with or against you. There are various crosswinds -- the most notorious being the prevailing left-to-right crosswind you encounter at the 1st hole. With the graveyard -- how apropos -- situated to the immediate right it doesn't take much for nerves to take hold and for a drive to sail way right with a flailing first stroke of the day.
The 2nd often gets little serious attention because it comes so early in the round. The tapering dimension in the fairway is well done and the uphill funnel to the elevated target is grand design indeed. The 3rd that follows is a superb counterpoint. Going the reverse direction and playing downhill -- the green angled and narrow when eyed from the tee with falloffs and bunkers looking to ensnare the wayward play.
The mojo for the Old Course picks up at the 7th and continues through the 15th hole. Much has been written about the holes in this sequence but I must emphasize a few. The par-3 8th is often lost in the discussion. The green is simply brilliant - sort of like a reverse "C" with pot bunkers on the inside left and a dastardly drop-off for those who err right or left.
If I had to choose a first all-star grouping of just 18 holes the 11th at the Old Course would be certainly among them. You stand on the back tee and take in the entire scene -- it's truly awesome. The tempestuous Atlantic roaring on one's right and the plunging downhill terrain invites the bold play off the tee. Often with the wind blowing right-to-left off the Ocean you may need to start your ball down the dunes line on the right. For those able to hit it long and straight the payoff can be a rich reward with a far simpler approach. But make no mistake -- you don't get a four on the scorecard without earning it. There are no give aways. Totally fair -- totally honest.
The green is devilish -- long and narrow. You can be short with the approach and possibly escape with par but miss too far to either side and it's very possible you can ping pong in going back and forth.
I am amazed that holes such as the 12th and 13th don't receive much attention. The former is a first rate hole -- with a punishing mound protecting the green left and a deep depression awaiting hapless misses to the right. An elevated green makes for a grand target to hit. The 13th reverses direction and calls for a fine tee shot as the hole turns left in the drive zone. I am not enamored with the 14th and I see it as nothing more than a transition hole to the muscular par-3 15th.
The final three holes on the Old are satisfactory -- they are not in the same vein to me as the stretch of holes from the 7th thru the 15th -- with 14 being duly noted.
The 16th allows a grip and rip it type tee shot and with any helping wind is quite capable in being reached in two shots. No question the green is tough with fall-offs on the left being especially harsh but the dynamics of a par-5 should provide a bit more risk to the tee shot.
The 17th is the best of the bunch among the concluding trio in my mind. The tee shot is quite testing -- how much do you dare attempt to cut the corner and the green is properly defended and includes an array of internal contours.
The 18th has been much discussed and I can say I have been fortunate in having played the former hole and I found it lacking. A superb course should end with something that ties the whole day together. That 18th just didn't do it -- it was utterly plain and simply lackluster. The new 18th is clearly an improvement -- especially with the drive zone and the protection provided by the massive fairway bunker on the left. I did not find the green especially noteworthy but clearly the pressure to get near the pin can be quite challenging as the depth of the green calls upon players to really know your yardage and how to account for the elevated target.
In summary, I see The Old Course akin to Pebble Beach. When the scintillating moments are at hand they both sparkle in a big time manner. But there are instances when both offer holes simply lacking -- mere connectors to get to the standout ones. Nonetheless, a round at The Old Course is a must for any visitor because when the weather is fine and the ground is operating at a firm and fast clip it's a grand time one will relish to the max.
M. James Ward
Excellent review - not sure how you arrived at 6 balls when there were a number of offsetting words to the general positivity. Let's get real, of course Bally Old is a must play course which has an all world stretch of holes (to 15) which you mention but at least a third of the course is average. (You also made a comparison to Pebble which "only" achieved 5 balls). I noted your review of Bally Cashen - how good would a combined course be ? Maybe have all 18 of the Old on the coast and have the "2nd course" utilising the inland terrain.
David: My difference between Ballybunion getting six (6) balls versus Pebble Beach getting five (5) balls is that the California layout touts a "links" association in its name when in reality no such thing exists. The turf along the Pacific coast is far too spongy and therefore no real ground game exists.
I actually think the "weaker" holes at The Old are a bit ahead of the ones at Pebble. The real downside for me at The Old is the lack of a quality par-5 on level with the elite par-3 and par-4 holes found there.
How the courses are generally presented makes a major difference in my mind. To give you an example -- watch how the AT&T event is played at Pebble Beach in a few months versus how the course plays when the US Open is held next June.
I like your idea about combining holes from The Old and Cashen but likely not feasible. In general terms -- I am not a fan of composite courses -- I see them as a contrivance but I will frankly admit such situations at Royal Melbourne and The Country Club have worked.
The bigger issue for Cashen is for the ownership to admit the existing layout needs to be overhauled. No shame in doing that. Other courses have done so -- the reality was when choosing RTJ, Sr., was tied to what the great architect had done previously -- his inability to comprehend the nature of what links golf should be is plainly evident there. If the Cashen could be improved with someone with such a keen eye for "links details" then the facility could very possibly have two courses of note. That's not the case now and the amount that's charged to play is indicative of that.
Fair points. My view, (which I acknowledge is in the overwhelming minority) is that because of the number of "weaker" holes, Ballybunion Old is not in the pantheon of great GB&I links where RCD, Muirfield, Portmarnock, Dornoch, Portrush, Royal St Georges, Birkdale, St Andrews, and Carnoustie reside. I would also emphatically add Trump Aberdeen to the list. I see BO in the next cohort down along with Waterville, Turnberry, European, Lytham, Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart, Doonbeg. Skibo Castle, Louth and Enniscrone. Hey, I'm splitting hairs, I would gladly play any of the above courses all day, every day.
Arriving at Shannon Airport after an overnight flight, hopping in the car hire, and making one's way to Ballybunion, is a fantastic way for the traveling golfer to start a trip in Ireland.
Sure the opening hole isn't that tough and playing along Sandhill Road towards a caravan park isn't exactly like starting out at Royal Porthcawl or RCD, but holes 2 and 3 are solid and often overlooked, and then once you get out to the 6th fairway you find yourself heading into a superb 12 hole stretch of golf.
7 and 11 are a great pair of 4's that everyone knows, 12 and 15 are an awesome pair of par 3's, and really there are a bunch of other fun and fantastic 3's and 4's mixed in throughout the round - especially 10 and 17 - and the par 5 16th gives you a chance for a birdie late in the round.
Ballybunion is big dunes. You are on top of them, with commanding views and maybe buffeted by the winds. You are down between them, getting some respite from the wind and firing your approach through a valley. After the opening handful of holes they always have some influence on play and help create this incredible terrain you get to chase your golfball across.
Is Ballybunion "better" than nearby Lahinch or the Northern pair? Maybe, maybe not. But it definitely has a seat at that table.
I am a member at Ballybunion. IHMO, the club serves the two finest courses on the same beach anywhere in the world. I love the first 6 holes on the Old Course. Five of them head North with the wind blowing 20 off the Atlantic to the West and OB to the right. Try to work it left to right and you'll aim it at knee high grass. If you succeed and bring it back, you'll be 20 or 30 yards further back than you need to be.
By the time to you walk off the 6th green, you'll know you've run an unequaled gantlet of opening holes. If you're +6 or better, you have the medal to continue with some confidence. If not, you can suffer with the spectacular ocean views, lovely rolling hills, and the ever-ready enthusiasm and empathy of your loyal caddie.
Probably more so than any other course in Ireland, Ballybunion (Old) gives the player (and visitor) the best overall golfing experience one can imagine. The drive to the property, as one nears the entrance, is full of butterflied anticipation. The clubhouse and staff are wonderfully inviting and accommodating. The views and vistas are breathtaking. The second course, RTJ Sr's Cashen, is underrated and no stepchild by any measure. The town is just the right size and personality for dinner and Guinness after the round. And there are several choices of excellent lodging that are tailored to the course and its history, too (my wife and I stayed at the 19th Lodge ... in the Tom Watson Suite ... Mary and James, the owners, were fantastic hosts ... although we got into town 2am the first night, could not find the key or bell to the Lodge entrance, and had to sleep in the car!).
And of course, the golf itself on The Old Course is pretty special and memorable, too. With a graveyard bordering the right side of the fairway on hole #1, where else would one get that sort of foreshadowing for the round? What I love about BB Old is that the first six holes serve somewhat as a warm-up, if not introduction to the sport of "links golf," as well -- helping one ease into a new type of round being "played on the ground" versus "through the air." Holes 7 through 11 are the finest stretch one can imagine -- with hole #11, arguably their signature hole, one of the best and most unique par 4s in the world. Holes 12 through 17 are different, can be difficult and are somewhat frustrating (especially if one is not playing well) -- hole #16 and hole #17 are pretty much identical, hard doglegs left, one a par 5 and one a par 4.
And please allow me to apologize in advance if I offend any purists or professional golf architects -- but in my humble opinion, the changes to hole #18 are an abomination. I played the course about 15 years ago and really enjoyed the hole -- short drive and a wedge to a green in front of the clubhouse -- with spectators having lunch watching you finish with an easy par or frustrating bogey (similar, in a sense, to the 18th on The Old Course at St. Andrews). Returning to play again this past August, we found the green replaced by a landing area that doesn't even come into play (we thought the old green was actually under repair) -- with the new green, tucked behind smallish dunes, up the hill, the approach semi-blind, further and almost turning away from the clubhouse. It didn't feel right, somewhat forced, trying to be cool, but not cool. When we got to the green, the putting surface seemed to be unfinished and not fully mature ... surrounding bunkers flat in contour and somewhat indiscriminate in their placement ... everything a bit shoe-horned and out of character with the rest of the course. After the round, I asked members if the the work was new and had been finished this past spring -- to my surprise and disappointment, I was told the changes have been in place for years! Could the leadership there PLEASE call and hire ME to take the hole back to how it used to be, but only better? How about, using the graveyard metaphor from the first hole, make the pitch approach to #18 the most difficult and deathly final full swing in Ireland? Extend the front bunker to the edge of the putting surface, making it deeper-wider-longer ... add precarious out of bounds marker areas to the back and/or side, like #18 at St. Andrews or Carnoustie ... add trenches around the green, like the fairways at Oakmont. Give amateurs and professionals alike "sweaty palms" on their final swing -- give watchers and members from the clubhouse something interesting to root for (or against) -- and give Ballybunion (Old) a memorable and worthy finishing hole, like the other memorable and worthy 17 holes there. Don D
Fantastic links playing around, through and in between dunes. The opening stretch seems to get a bit of stick, but between the opening shot with the graveyard on the right, the second hole with a tricky approach uphill between the dunes, then reversing back down hill for a par 3 are very good holes. Perhaps 4,5,6 are not the most amazing, but from then on its really fun golf that will vary in difficulty depending on the wind.
The 11th is a great hole that can be played in a lot of ways , and the finish is tough with three shots asking for a draw off the tee (for a right hander)
It does get busy here so try and get out early if you can. It's similar golf to Lahinch (old), I perhaps find Lahinch a little quirkier and more fun, but this is still a great sporty links
Listen to what some of golf's most knowledgeable writers have said about Ballybunion Golf Club. James Finegan calls it, "the greatest links I have ever played." Herbert Warren Wind said, "it is nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen," and "like a Gaelic version of Pebble Beach." Tom Watson says, "I am now of the opinion it is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world." I am a fan of Ballybunion and agree that it is a pure links course.
The first hole is a good starting hole, with an unusual hazard down the right hand side - a cemetery. The last time I played Ballybunion and had a 7:00AM tee time, the first group out. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm day and the round was very pleasant. My only criticism of the layout is that the 4th, 5th and 6th holes are all routed in the same direction, and all into the prevailing wind. This makes a total of 1,400 yards into the wind that can wear you down early in the round. I'm a bigger fan of routings such as Carnoustie and Royal Portrush that have more change in direction. Despite this shortcoming, Ballybunion is a worthy entrant in the top fifteen ranked courses in the world.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs