“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.
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.