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16 miles N of Killarney
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“I have never come across a piece of land so ideally suited for the building of a golf course," said Arnold Palmer. Tralee Golf Club was his first Irish endeavour and it opened in 1984; it’s a rugged and exhilarating creation. Now, let’s be honest, Kerry is a very special county, the ‘Lake District’ of Ireland, an unspoilt, quiet and romantic place. Surely anybody could design a golf course in these surroundings? Well, first of all we might need to remind ourselves that Palmer wasn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill golfer and when he turned his attention to design, he always wanted to choreograph a links course in Ireland. When the opportunity arose, he wasn’t going to mess it up, was he?
Palmer has designed a course that will stimulate the senses every bit as much as the enchanting and breathtaking scenery. According to folklore, Palmer created the first nine and Mother Nature did the rest. The front nine at Tralee Golf Club plays across fairly level links land, but the majority of the holes hug the coastline and the ground is elevated, affording magnificent views from the cliff top across Tralee Bay to the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The back nine plays through mountainous dunes with fearsome carries across ravines to plateau greens.
The combination and variety of the holes make the entire experience captivating and exciting. There are only a few courses that grab your attention from the first tee shot, keeping hold of it until the very last putt drops. The links at Tralee is one of those few captivating courses.
There are so many great holes that it is almost impossible to single one out, although the 3rd, called “The Castle”, is considered to be the signature hole, a par three measuring almost 200 yards from the back tees. Scenically, it is glorious and reminiscent of the 7th at Pebble Beach. Take a line on the ruined castle which stands sentry to the left and behind the green – anything hit to the right of this green will be eaten by the rocks and the sea.
The 17th is called “Ryan’s Daughter” because the landscape was dramatically filmed in the award-winning movie and the hole will stick in the memory for a very long time; an elevated tee shot on this 355-yard par four must carry across a ravine to a craggy fairway, leaving an approach shot to a tiny raised tabletop green.
We always say that the measure of a good golf course is that the holes stay in the memory forever. There are so many memorable holes at Tralee, so much so that you might need to throw away some lesser memories from other courses to make room for the experience that is Tralee.
In looking at the Top 100 in the UK & Ireland of the three major golf publications in the UK, Tralee is on all three lists which is a nice accomplishment. On one list is it in the top 50 while on the other two lists it is #95 and #96. That does not make a lot of sense to me given a few of the courses above it. There are 30 on these lists that I have yet to play (don’t know if I will), so I cannot yet claim Tralee belongs in the top 50/60, but being in the nineties does seem low. Then again, Rye Old is around 55/56 on these three lists, yet Golf Magazine raters just named it one of the top 100 in the world. I guess it depends on the criteria used as well as personal bias.
In reading the other reviews going back to the first review, it is clear many people identify this as their favorite and worthy of being considered one of the finest 50 or so golf courses in the world. In their view it is nearly perfect since many rewarded Tralee with the coveted six balls (“courses don’t get any better than this, drop everything to play it). That implies one’s golfing life is not complete without playing this course and one will be hard pressed to find one that is better.
In reading the other reviews, I agree with those that do not allow most of the back nine to overwhelm their view of the entire course. We are to rate the entire course. As pointed out in many of the reviews, the front nine is very different to the back nine, in a similar way that Portstewart Strand is (although reversed with the huge dunes at the beginning). However, Portstewart Strand has a wonderful back nine. Tralee’s front nine is flat which in itself should not mean it is bad, yet the front nine here is uninteresting with the exception of two holes. Part of the that is due to flat and uninteresting greens that are mainly open in the front due to a lack of defense. The question is one similar to Ballybunion Old, (which does not really start until the seventh hole), as to whether a poor number of holes should bring a lower rating to what one thinks of a golf course if many holes are stellar. The back nine of Tralee is good, the dunes are enormous, the challenges are there, the views are amazing, yet it is not in the same class as Ballynbunion Old because the green complexes are not as good. When I play it, sometimes I feel like the back nine is too much up and down and perhaps better as a good hike for the views.
The back nine can play very difficult resulting in the pace of play grinding to a halt. Once we had to skip two of the best holes as we walked off the thirteenth green and made our way to the sixteenth tee with the offending group somewhere ahead of us nowhere in sight. When we arrived at sixteen we had wide open holes ahead of us. That has not always happened, but it can at Tralee if a more deliberate group making a day of it is out on the course. But the time it takes to play a course should not really influence one’s judgement of it unless the course always plays so difficult that it has a target time of five hours.
I do think it is Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay’s best design. Then again, they never had land like this if you look at their golf courses.
I won’t quibble with the first hole too much, a par 4 that does not have much, if any defense to it. A lot of first holes are easy to ease you into the round. The green is easy and open in the front.
The second hole is really good. It is a par 5 dogleg right with a stone wall on the left side of the fairway and a cliff, rocks down to the beach on the left. If one tries to favor the right side to shorten the dogleg on either the first or second shot then you are definitely bringing the cliff into play. As you approach the green, the fairway narrows much like a ribbon. It is a dramatic hole with fabulous views of the sea and cliff. I do not like the grass wall behind the green which prevents a ball hit too long from bounding down below. The green is open in the front.
The third from the back tee is all carry over the cliff and beach to the green. From the other tees the cliff and water are to the right. This is a very good hole and has a terrific green as well with three bunkers well placed. Unlike the first two greens which should be better than there are, this green has some nice tilt and humps in it. The smart person aims for the left half of the castle ruin.
The fourth has some nice dips in the fairway, framed by a rock wall on the left side and the remains scattered on the right side as you near the hole. It is a smaller green but not much going on around or on the green and is open in the front.
The fifth hole is another dogleg right but with only a few bunkers at the turn and high grass as the defense. The green has a fall off to the left side but is another relatively boring green with an opening in front.
A third dogleg right greets you at the sixth. This hole is framed again on the left side by a rock wall and has lovely undulations in the fairway but once again the green complex, although better than previous holes, is open in the front and recovery shots are straightforward.
Like some other reviewers, I do like the seventh hole which as a mid-to-short par 3 is well bunkered and has a more interesting green complex with the small dunes and a bunker on the left and three bunkers right.
The short par 4 eighth is a dogleg left hugging the coastline. The green has a steep fall off to the left but once again is disappointing as it has a bailout area right of the green and is open in the front.
The front nine finishes with a shorter par 5 with 13 bunkers scattered from the tee shot to the front of the green. It is an “okay” hole – not bad/not great. Once again, it has a fairly flat green where a shot that misses the green has a fairly good chance at recovery. It does play slightly uphill so it plays longer than it is listed.
When I think of the front nine, I think it is a pretty good routing with some outstanding views and certainly two very good holes and two other good holes. The most disappointing thing to me about the front nine is that the greens themselves do not offer much in the way of defense or visual excitement. I am not suggesting that a golf course needs to be difficult to be good, but it should at least offer visual interest and excitement. If I had a suggestion to make it would be to improve the greens on the front nine, both in terms of undulations on and around the greens and some additional bunkers, whether grass or sand. Maybe change two holes every year.
The tenth hole feels like one is playing an entirely different golf course. This very long par 4 is a difficult hole, although more difficult holes come later. One starts to get a sense of the dunes to come as they begin to show themselves on this hole. The hole has two bunkers for the tee shot on either side of the fairway while the green is nestled into a dune surround with two bunkers and a fall off on the right. I question why the front nine does not have green complexes such as this hole. The green itself is flat.
The eleventh is a very long par 5 from a slightly downhill tee shot with a nice rise in the fairway about 40% into the hole. The next shot is framed between dunes on either side as you climb up towards the hole. The second shot is a blind shot through these dunes. There is a single bunker on the front left of the green. This hole is good, but could be even better with a better green complex as the front is pretty wide open.
Unlike others, I do not rave about the twelfth hole, another longer par 4 that goes down and then up. The green sits on its own platform where a miss short left or left will tumble down a steep hill. The left edge of the green is at the beginning of the fall off. There is bailout to the right center and right but for me the hole is too difficult for all but the best players unless the wind is pretty high at one’s back. It is a good hole, but for me a little too penal.
The thirteenth, a short par 3 is all due or die as anything hit short will tumble down the ravine/valley in front of the green. One can get lucky and not have a ball hit short tumble down too far or it can go nearly a third down which makes for a difficult climb to get to the ball, if you find it. Miss too far to the left or long and you will on the side of the dune in wispy grass. It is another dramatic hole but the green is relatively easy.
My favorite hole on the back nine is the fourteenth, a shortish par 4 struck downhill to a split fairway with the green also perched somewhat on its own ledge. For the tee shot, there are two bunkers short right and two bunkers longer left with two more bunkers front the green which has a steep fall off to the left. The green is not overly difficult but slightly more interesting than many others on the golf course.
The fifteenth is the driveable par 4 at only 300 yards but the fairway runs out leaving mounds and grass surrounding the green. Since I do not have the length to take on the hole, for me this hole is too simple. However, for others that do have the length, they would say it is a wonderful risk:reward hole. Once again, I am not that high on the green itself.
Sixteen is arguably the best par 3 on the golf course, a long par 3 that plays somewhat along the cliff edge with a valley fronting the green. You must hit the green or your face dunes/mounds/grasses on the left and a bit of grass on the right before the cliff and beach. If you land short your ball will fall back down from the green and it depends on luck whether it stops before it hits the taller grasses. It is a very scenic hole and requires one to be on top of their game.
Seventeen is arguably the most famous hole, a dogleg right par 3 that is only 360 yards but the fairway runs out leaving an uphill approach shot to the green. There are three bunkers at the far end of the fairway of which two are at the end. The closer you get to the green the more the shot becomes blind. One wonders whether this hole was used as a model for David Mcklay Kidd for the sixteenth at Bandon Dunes. The view from the green is lovely although the green itself is not challenging.
The short par 5 back to the clubhouse plays as a straight hole between smaller dunes on either side and thirteen bunkers to add to the challenge. The green is large and relatively flat and open in the front. It is a poor ending to the round, but for me the hole is better than the finishing hole at Ballybunion Old but not as good as the finish at Lahinch Old.
Tralee certainly has adequate length given the wind speed it often has. Depending on one’s abilities and the tees chosen it offers a lot for one’s game with a decent variety of golf holes. The par 3’s are the star of Tralee, beginning with the third with perhaps only seven being one that others do not think highly of, but I did. The back nine is significantly better than the front nine and the routing takes full advantage of the dunes. As I stated earlier, what Tralee seems to be missing is more interesting green complexes. Perhaps the greens are built that way because getting to the green can be an ordeal given the likelihood of strong winds on the golf course. As I stated, a golf course does not have to be difficult to be good, but it does have to be interesting and offer more potential for recovery and decision making. The front nine green complexes suffer from a lack of variety, defense and visual interest with too many holes having being wide open in front. One does not notice this as much on the back nine as many of the holes have visual variety due to the movement in the terrain. Yet, ten, eleven and eighteen have the same issue as the front nine.
Looking at the definition of the ratings, I do not see it as a course worth flying into play such as Lahinch or Ballybunion, I see it as a course worthy of playing if you are playing other top courses in the region. If they were to change the green complexes and do a little more shaping of the terrain on the front nine, that would certainly change my rating because it does have so many memorable golf holes.
Hi Mark, you make an interesting point about the differences in various rankings from different sides of the Atlantic - e.g Rye being a world top 100 for Golf magazine but generally languishing lower in the UK publications. I think this is because of US reviewer bias when contemplating UK & Ireland courses. For example, of the 80 or so Golf magazine raters used to compile their list, I think 2 are Scottish and maybe 2-3 are English. Despite there being around 35 or so UK courses on their latest list. This lack of representation essentially means they provide a US view (or at least non-UK view) of UK courses. Due to familiarity & knowledge I’d more likely trust US golfers’s views on US courses & UK golfers’s views on UK courses. As examples, Brits may tend to prefer Royal Aberdeen over Cruden Bay, or perhaps West Sussex over Rye. My own view is that this website does a better job of wading though the murky maze of bias in producing the most discerning & credible world Top 100 list. I do still send them regular complaints though that RND doesn’t feature more highly
It’s rather unfair on Tralee Golf Club to continue this ranking discussion here, as the topic has drifted into a more general debate, so we’ve created a new thread to further the conversation. Click the link for more: Golf course rankings - the good the bad and the ugly
I believe Tralee is one of the most underrated courses in Ireland!
Palmer must have pinched himself when he first viewed the terrain he was to use: the coastline is magnificent!
The course itself is really a tale of two nines. The front nine is less undulating, with a number of holes hugging the cliffs, whereas the back nine heads into some of the largest dunes I have seen in golf. The course can be quite challenging, even without any 'weather', and the back nine introduces some daunting carries between dunes to plateau greens. I could imagine a stiff wind would create havoc on some of these holes.
While the back nine is potentially crazier, and enormous fun, the front nine is more like a traditional links along the cliffs complemented by gorgeous sea views.
I have been fortunate to play Tralee a number of times, and each time we have been blessed with light winds and sunny skies. In these conditions it is pure fun to play. But I can imagine strong winds could make some holes quite difficult. Nevertheless it is a course that you just cannot miss.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
unbelievable seaside holes
Tralee is a tale of two nines totally different in character and strategic calculations. Before delving into the details it's necessary to highlight the scenic dimensions Tralee provides. With nearby Barrow Beach and the Atlantic Ocean making for a truly spectacular feast for the eye.
The front nine is good but it cannot help itself from having several holes that charitably can be defined as nothing more than pedestrian. The 2nd and 3rd holes
provide the best one-two punch on the outward half. The cape-like hole at the 2nd is impressive and the par-3 that follows is also a quality hole. But, after that the holes that follow fail to take that momentum and build upon it. The par-5 9th is refreshing because it invites the bold play but the tee shot must be especially good to avoid a series of bunkers -- most notably one smack dab in the middle of the fairway. The green site is also well done with fall-offs waiting for the feint of heart approach shots.
The inner half changes the perspective quickly. The long par-4 10th is extremely challenging. Playing back towards the Atlantic Ocean makes for an ideal scene. The green is also well done calling upon a top quality approach.
Some have weighed in with various thoughts about the uphill dog-leg left par-5 11th. I liked the hole because everything begins with the tee shot. A bold play can provide a much longer outcome and give the strongest of players an attempt to reach the green. With a blind second shot the players have to be totally secure in their manner of execution. Many par-5 holes can be letdowns and easy prey for birdies. That's not the case with the 11th at Tralee.
The next two holes are often cited by many who come to Tralee but I found both disappointing for the lack of playability and one-way oriented approach to playing them. The 12th can play to a max of 460 yards and starts with a blind tee shot that goes over a rise before plummeting downhill. If the wind is blowing from the south or southwest it's likely a headwind will be encountered -- and such winds can be rather severe at times. The issue at the 12th is that with strong headwinds faced it's more than likely that 90% of those playing the hole will not be able to attempt a second shot at the green. The putting surface is situated on a high point with nothing but disaster awaiting those who go just the slightest but left. Going right and getting near the green is also not probable as there is just a sliver of land that snakes its way to the side of the green. The only probable play is to lay-up -- and the closest one can hope to be is no less than 100 yards. In short, if you dribble your drive off the tee or hit one 250 yards -- it's likely you'll both need to lay-up to the area I mentioned. The hole really does not provide differentiation -- it mandates rigid conformity. In match play such holes are fine because they represent only 1/18th of the total sum. In stroke play the 12th can be absolutely problematic and serve as a strict one-way platform.
The same takes place with the par-3 13th. When the south / southwest winds are blowing you face a downwind approach to a slightly elevated green with no bunkers at all. The key is avoiding the ankle deep rough that awaits those who come up just a tad short. The landing area is better on the left side of the green and far narrower on the right. Again, if the hole is played in match play it can be fine but in stroke play the elasticity aspect of the hole is very limited.
The price of admission at Tralee comes with the four holes that follow the 13th. The par-4 14th is a brilliant hole -- split fairway option for players to decide upon at the tee. The left is the safer play but those going for the right will be heavily rewarded if successful with a far better angle to the green. The putting surface is also done well -- elevated above the fairway with two bunkers guarding the left side. The short par-4 15th is a solid example of a short par-4 that is especially well crafted using the land to maximum effect. Golfers can be bold and challenge the left side but the risk is great with the slightest miscalculation. The green is hidden from view and is again elevated just enough to call upon a quality approach. For those who erroneously think that 300-yard holes are pushovers the 15th at Tralee awaits your boastful efforts. Just be sure to deliver.
The 16th is Tralee is often photographed and no matter how good the photos the reality of seeing the hole in person is even better. In many ways, the hole reminded me of being along the Pacific coast when playing the par-3 holes on the back nine at Cypress Point. The 16th is deliciously named, "Shipwreck." The slightest hesitancy in committing to one's tee shot will mean a fast ending to your hopes in making par or better. An elevated tee provides a stunning vista. Without question the 16th is the finest of the short holes at Tralee.
The short par-4 17th states a maximum yardage of 360 but the routing of the hole through the dunes makes for a tour de force hole. You start from a high tee and descend into a landing area pinched in from both sides with dunes. A series of bunkers is in the distance and avoiding them is a must. The approach is played to an elevated green that mandates sounds club selection. Few holes globally can combine such an unforgettable scene and marry strategic qualities of the highest order. The 17th at Tralee belongs in that rarified air.
The sad part about Tralee is that the ending hole is anti-climatic. The Palmer design team felt the need to include 13 bunkers -- no misprint -- in order to spruce up what is lacking. After a series of stellar holes one could only hope the closer would rise to the occasion. The 18th is not per se a bad hole but it's akin to watching a fine movie and being primed for a solid ending and then you're letdown with nothing more than a so-so closer.
Tralee does hit high notes. However, there's a counterpoint that far too often those who laud Tralee fail to account for in the totality of any assessment. Those who see Tralee being an equal to the likes of The Old Course at Ballybunion or Lahinch must not see the entirety of what the two aforementioned courses bring to the table. Nonetheless, when one throws into the mix the scenery Tralee provides there's enough good golf to make the visit worthwhile. It's just a shame on what could and should have been.
by M. James Ward
It's tough to review a golf course fairly when there's bad weather. My wife and I played Tralee back in August (with August being a summer month, we were told, right? :-) -- frigid temperatures at tee-time, 30 mph gusts on the front nine, 40 mph gusts starting the back nine (my wife and I huddled in a bunker on the 10th hole for 15 minutes, until a storm with sideways hail passed), rain and 50 mph gusts to finish the round (we were happy just being able to address the ball without being blown over!) Still, my review bias is probably less regarding weather, more regarding Palmer designs -- love the man and his golf, but never have really been "wowed" by his courses. Yes, Tralee provides majestic and exhilarating views of land and sea -- but several front 9 holes are either forgettable or forced -- and several back 9 holes seem shoe-horned or overdone through the midst of the property's best dunes. Again, I'll blame it on the weather -- would love to get another crack at it in my lifetime -- but not at the expense of other courses in Ireland that I've already played and know will remain superior. Don D
Heaven on Earth! Tralee is a must when traveling to SW Ireland. I played the course on Tuesday October 10th, 2017 and was delightful. The course was in impeccable shape and includes a driving range. You need to be on your "A" game at Tralee as the native fescues will make for a long day if you're not in the fairway. Greens were recently top dressed but overall Tralee was a great experience. I recommend playing in October in SW Ireland. I played 5 rounds on 5 different courses and hardly saw many other golfers the entire week.
There is no golf course in the world that beats the scenery of Tralee. For that reason alone, it is a must play. The first nine is decent, not fantastic. It is the second nine that brings a smile to the face. One tip worth thinking about – if this is your first time around the course - consider taking a caddy, not only to carry your bag up the hill at the 11th, but because it is a quirky lay out and needs advice from someone who knows it well.