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 was totally unaware of the divided opinions on the Old course until I read the reviews on this page before composing my own. If some people think this course does not live up to the hype they have a big shock coming when they play one or two others in the area, starting with RTJ’s Cashen next door!
And another thing; if the Ballybunion golf club committee had the good sense to decline the offer of the Presidential statue that now sits outside the police station in town then I’ll raise a pint of Guinness to that decison as there are enough larger than life golfing statues sitting outside clubhouses in this part of the world!
Having spent a very comfortable evening across the road at the up-market, and very reasonable, B&B that Tom Watson uses when playing here (The 19th Lodge), I was all set for a “double dunt” on the Old and the Cashen at Ballybunion.
While the latter disappointed, the former certainly delivered. Yes, the opening half dozen holes do not have the best of backdrops, but they are, individually, very good holes (especially the par four 2nd, played uphill into the dunes) to set you on your way into the real action.
The sequence from the 7th to the 18th are just sublime, using dune land that modern day links designers can only dream about. The only weak hole I felt was the 14th (played, admittedly, from a side tee below the regular tee up to the plateau green) but maybe I was unlucky to tackle that one on a day when the usual teeing area was off.
I was almost blown off my feet, quite literally, standing on both the 16th and 17th tees as the wind freshened off the Atlantic but what an exhilarating climax those closing holes are (despite the blind approach at the last) to any round of golf – fantastic fun.
In keeping with many courses in the extreme west of Ireland, the club are fighting a fierce battle against nature to preserve – note, conservationists, preserve, not destroy – the coastline and I saw a huge mechanical digger on the beach piling rocks up against the dunes to help reduce the erosion of the wind and the waves.
Maybe you'd better play the Old course sooner ratther than later before it all disappears in the next big storm.