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
Date: December 02, 2017