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
Date: December 10, 2018