- +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."
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.
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
We are now leaving the Ring of Kerry, following the Wild Atlantic Way northwards to Ballybunion. The Old course is often rated a tick above the cream of Irish courses, even though it's not different in character - a links course that plays through the dunes. It's the quality of the individual holes and how they are seamlessly tied together to form one of the most exquisite routings in golf today. Click the link to read more… Ireland – any decent golf on the West Coast?