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.
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?
Hi Keith. The 10 year anniversary may be opportune to re-publish the "Reviewer's list".