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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.
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.
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
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?