Ballybunion (Old) - Kerry - Ireland

Ballybunion Golf Club,
Sandhill Road,
Ballybunion,
County Kerry,
Ireland


  • +353 (0) 68 27146

  • John Eggleston

  • Jo McKenna, Lionel Hewson, Tom Simpson, Molly Gourlay

  • Brian O'Callaghan

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.

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Reviews for Ballybunion (Old)

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Description: 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. Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Reviews: 69
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Hendrik Hilgert
In light of the top-notch rankings of this course, we were somewhat disappointed. Clearly this course has a number of great holes, particularly on the Back 9. However, in my view not a 6 ball course for the following reasons: First 6 holes visually not great as they run alongside the street with a caravan park, overall atmosphere not very friendly, club house feels too big and out of sync with the course, driving range mats look like they are 20 years old,... The course itself is clearly close to a 6 ball but our overall experience was not that great, don't think we will go back. We clearly preferred Tralee and Lahinch.
June 01, 2012
8 / 10
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W
Played the Old course last week. My opinion - there are some lovely views but the course is not special. The back 9 is better than the front 9. I much prefer Waterville, Old Head, Doonbeg and Ballyliffin (both courses). Too much time is spent looking for balls because you can't see the landing areas. No one calls any groups through so a round takes 5+ hours. I fully undesrtand why everyone wants to play it, but that's twice for me now and I doubt I'll be back.
May 28, 2012
6 / 10
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Ebrahim Vahed
May 28, 2012
Played the course last week. Our expectations were very high, having read about this course over the last 2 years. In fairness, it is a good links layout, with back 9 better. But I too would prefer Lahinch and Waterville. We were underwhelmed, but will be prepared to go back to try and unravel the mystery and aura that supposedly surrounds this golf course.
Ed Hall
It looks like I played at the same time as the reviewer below. I was also very underwhelmed by Ballybunion having travelled a long way to play it. When we booked, we were told the fairways were not in play, but we were not told about the forward tees (in some cases up to 200 yards further forward, plonked in the middle of the rough!) which destroyed the course and turned it into a pitch and putt. There are several teeing areas on each hole so surely they could get round this? Also, we had 3 or 4 temporary greens (again, no notice either when booking or in the clubhouse before). It reduced the 2nd, 4th, 7th & 8th holes to nothing and really soured our experience. That said, and separate to these issues, the course was decent but not great on the front nine. The 2nd hole would be good if we had played it properly, the tee shot on the 7th is also superb, but the rest of the front nine was a bit dull and somehow I expected a bit more. The back nine was as advertised, the 11th is one of the great holes in golf, 13 and 14 were a little bit disappointing but the 15th, 16th and 17th more than made up for this. The tee shots at 15 & 17 are among the most memorable views you can hope to find. In short, avoid during the off-season and I hope you play a more fearsome and enjoyable course than we did. Ed
March 16, 2012
4 / 10
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James Quinn
Extremely underwhelmed, I have to say, although I concede that we did not play the course during the high season. We paid a reduced winter rate but at the time of booking were told that although the fairways were out of play (drop to the side) the rest of the course was open. How wrong we were. Tees on the first few holes were temporary and on a couple of occasions (2nd and 4th holes) were some 100-150 yards further up the fairway. The 8th and 18th greens were also out of play. We felt very misled as we certainly would have played somewhere else had we known the course was not as advertised. When we tried to discuss this with the staff afterwards there was little interest and no apology. Poor show, Ballybunion. In difficult economic times it serves you ill to be so disinterested in your paying visitors and their feedback. Other than the disappointment of finding a lot of the course out of play we actually enjoyed the layout and were blessed with perfect golfing conditions - mild with only a breath of wind. The famous holes did live up to expectations (11, 15, 16, 17) and the dramatic elevation changes were fun to negotiate but as a championship layout it just isn't quite as good and as flowing a course as Lahinch (which we played the previous day). One real highlight of our visit, however, was the superb 19th Lodge guesthouse just up the road from the clubhouse in which we stayed the night before. Definitely recommended.
March 13, 2012
6 / 10
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John Heseltine
March 13, 2012
Could I ask what date you played the course, for future reference? I am keen to go next spring.
James
March 14, 2012
We played on 12th March. It's worth mentioning that our irritation with Ballybunion extended only to what they had advertised to us when we booked and then the lack of interest in our complaint afterwards. The course itself (or the parts we were able to play) is clearly a superb track. I hope you have a better experience.
David Davis
March 16, 2012
I played Ballybunion at the end of March in 2010. You do have to make sure you ask about the course being fully open (not that you didn't James) just mean for future reference, normally I think they open the tees/fairways at the end of March. Keep in mind the town is all but closed down so the only inconvenience we experienced was that it was impossible to find a place to eat except at horrible little fast food restaurant. The course however was in perfect shape and a real treat. I'd say go back when you can get the full experience. Write a letter to the manager explaining what disappointed you. You might be pleasantly surprised! No promises though.
Gerard
October 17, 2014
Obviously your judgement of golf course''s especially links golf is extremely poor. You think your judgement over Tom Watson''s is going to be taken seriously
Richard Kerry
Absolutely amazing. I was very much looking forward to playing links golf in Ireland and I'm so glad we picked this course. It was difficult and I didn't play my 'best' golf but it wasn't really about scoring low just about gettting round.The drive through the town to the course was indeed spectacular and standing on the first tee I felt like I was teeing off in the Open championship.€95 was a bargain!
November 03, 2011
10 / 10
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Maarten
The Old course is simply stunning. I didn't think the first stretch was weak at all, although the par 5's were a little easy in my opinion, maybe because the wind was favourable when I played. From hole 6 to the very end it is an absolutely magnificent course. Especially holes 11, 13,15,16 and 17 in my opinion. I loved the Cashen Course as well. It may not be the fairest course out there, but I had great fun playing it nonetheless and the views are breathtaking. I hope I'll return to this fantastic golfclub.
July 08, 2011
10 / 10
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paul calverley
Played the course in fantastic sunny April conditions and what a treat it was. Can't agree with the comments that say the opening 6 holes are weak - they're not in the dunes but they are still beautifully conceived and routed. The rest of the course however is breathtaking stuff - tight fairways, elevation changes and small greens like upturned saucers - very testing but a privilege to play. The clubhouse design isn't the prettiest but somehow 'fits' and the staff were very friendly and accommodating. Wonderful stuff.
May 01, 2011
10 / 10
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Robert Gardner
Played about a month ago just at the end of the season. Both courses were in excellent condition. I last played the Old Course about 20 years ago. It's a wonderful course and I've enjoyed it thoroughly both times. That said I just cannot understand why it is rated as high as it is. There are significant flaws - driving over the 3rd green from the 4th tee and similarly at the 18th over the 17th - and the first 5 holes are weak in comparison to the rest of the course. It does not deserve to be more highly regarded as a course and test of golf than e.g. Royal Portrush. The Cashen was just lots of fun with some of the most demanding holes I've ever played. Definitely worth a visit but don't believe all of the hype.
November 10, 2010
8 / 10
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Jim
December 02, 2010
For some reason it seems fashionable to knock this magnificant course. How somebody who says he/she is a golfer can say the first 5 holes are weak questions their ability. They may not be on the cliff edge but certainly weak is not a word a true golfer would use. Obviously this reviewer has little experience of golf courses over 100 years old when he considers driving over a green is a flaw. These are the intricacies that make a golf course great and truly memorable. Would you regard St Andrews double greens and shared fairways also as flaws?? or even teeing off over the Old Course Hotel....get real!
Anthony
December 04, 2010
I have not played this course but I find the response to the 10 November review to uncharacteristically aggressive. Is it not acceptable to hold a critical view of the icons of golf? I, for one, welcome the previous reviews candour. It is an opinion that does not accord with most but it adds value by colouring our impressions and raising an interesting point about cross-overs. Does this deserve the put down you have dished out? As for saying "weak" is not a word a true golfer would use; that seems presumptuous. Who is to define true golfers from untrue? I thought the beauty of this game is its capacity to let golfers of all levels make of it what they will and what they wish. I think this is a magnificent website , which I read daily. Please don't spoil it by such responses.
Hugh
December 04, 2010
I’d like to throw my hat into the ring. I think the original reviewer was very fair and got it about right. Ballybunion Old disappointed me deeply too the first time I played it, probably because my expectations were too high. I enjoyed the course more second time round and acknowledge some of the holes that skirt the coast are pure magic but I think the problem was and still is that there wasn’t quite enough land at the club’s disposal to comfortably route the holes in the first place. Therefore the first few are shoehorned in. This is a common phenomenon that is also prevalent at one of my local clubs, Royal Worlington and Newmarket where nine holes were fitted into to a plot that perhaps could only comfortably fit seven. Ballybunion Old is not what it used to be unfortunately. It has become a moneymaking production line that detracts from the essence of what a great golf club should be all about. It’s a good course for sure but the course falls short of being great IMO and the golf club itself appears to be rather average and focused purely on commercial gain. Long may this website continue to allow people to voice their honest opinions, I think it’s in the interests of green fee paying golfers and also the clubs. I’m not knocking Ballybunion, I’m simply stating that it disappointed me first time round because the course had been bigged up too much by fawning comments from the likes of Tom Watson which the golfing press picked up and continued to trumpet blow. When this happens it will invariably lead to criticism because expectations are initially set unrealistically high.
Memebr
December 08, 2010
Hi Folks, I am a member of ballyB, i play off single figures, i understand that people are dissapointed that the first five holes dont appear to be that tough but in actual fact they are silently savage. I have been a memeber for 5 years, only in the last year have i learned how to play the first six holes. The second hole is one of the toughest holes you will ever play. I guarntee that about only 5% of peole on this forum have pared this. The downhill par three third another tricky hole. Given the next two par fives appear to be "easy" and striaght forward you need to plot your way around the place. Once you get to hole six the golf gets incredible as the greens are tiny and tricky. Greens on six and seven are very hard to hold and navigate, the 8th hole is a little gem of a par three, i dont even need to get into 9-11, twelve is a brutal par three, and the last 6 holes are great fun that require good golf. I will close on the following note, it might appear to be slightly slow to start the course it is a warm up of what a brut lies ahead, off all these reviews how many of you have played to or better than your handicap? i play the course every weekend and learn more about it everytime, thats what a great course does to you. i have palyed all the best links in ireland and England, and Royal Liverpool was my favourite. Carnoustie i found to be one of the most difficult courses
Jim
December 09, 2010
Well, I certainly seemed to have touched a nerve with my response to the review. Firstly Anthony I visit golf courses to play golf and to test my abilities against what the golf course has to offer. There are many reviews of Ballybunion which I believe are overly critical as it is truly a magnificent test comparable to anything I have played around the world. For someone to consider driving over a green as a ‘significant flaw’ warranted my response as I believe this is ridiculous and definitely questions what the reviewer is looking for in a golf course or even his knowledge of the history of golf course design. Is the par 3 11th on the Old Course in St. Andrews which crosses the 7th fairway considered a flaw?? Certainly not. As for Hugh’s rant it hardly merits a response! This is certainly a great web site but really some of the responses need to be edited as they border on the ridiculous.
Hugh
December 10, 2010
Presumably it’s ridiculous to have a different opinion and apparently my rant doesn’t deserve a response? Well that’s fine but I think the beauty of this website is that it allows people to express their opinions and it would be a sad state of affairs if the only comments posted were glowing and obsequious. I for one hope this site is never edited to that degree and no doubt Jim would prefer to see the site edited so that it marries up with his opinion and not anyone else’s perspective. I am happy that you think there are many reviews that are over critical of Ballybunion, but a quick look down the reviews posted on the this website seems to suggest otherwise. I can only see four reviews from around forty posted here that seem to be overly critical. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and who are you to suggest otherwise?
Keith Baxter
December 10, 2010
Gentlemen thank you for your comments. I’m now drawing a line underneath this debate. It’s inevitable that what one person sees as a weakness, another will see as a strength. If you have played the Old course at Ballybunion and would like to post a course review, then please feel free to do so. Keith Baxter – Editor.
Frank P Cavanaugh
Played the old course along with waterville, lahinch, tralee and doonbeg in october 2009, it was such an unbelievable experience, i went back and played it again. i can't imagine golfing in ireland and not going back to play ballybunion.
July 29, 2010
10 / 10
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Jim Taylor
Played the Old Course June 22 and June 24, 2010. It certainly deserves its #1 ranking. The back nine is truly superb. While the course itself is without peer, the pace of play is unacceptable. It took 5 hours 24 minutes the first day and 5 hours 12 minutes the second day. Mandating play in fourballs is the basic problem. Additionally, no one checked handicaps. I doubt anyone in the group in front of us either day broke 200. Please set a maximun handicap of 18 for men and 22 for women and enforce those limits. The course is much too difficult for anyone with a higher handicap. Furthermore, we never saw a course ranger either day.
June 29, 2010
10 / 10
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