Ballybunion, the grand dame of old Irish links

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Location: Ballybunion, County Kerry
Built: 1893
Original Designer: Tom Simpson or God, depending on your viewpoint.
Yardage: 6,593 from back tees

Lots of courses claim they’ve achieved “must play” status. But none can say they define the pinnacle of Irish golf quite the way Ballybunion does. Is it just good PR or is there really something different about this place? Visitors come here with high expectations, but this grand dame of old Irish links seems to live up to them pretty consistently.

The marriage of landscape and course layout on this rolling site over the Shannon estuary makes even hard-nosed visitors wax poetic, using words like “serenity” and “peace” to describe their round there. Tom Watson, who was in charge of the course’s most recent facelift, once called it a “beautiful test.” When Ballybunion’s managers say these 18 holes were designed by God, nobody ever seems to laugh at them.

Ireland's First International Star
In truth, the course is about the same age as Lahinch. But Ballybunion got noticed by the worldwide golfing community, and by Americans in particular, much earlier. The presence of a 12-hole links on this site was first mentioned in an 1893 newspaper article, which said that it had particularly “springy turf.” Respect, however, did not come immediately. In 1897, a writer for The Irish Times called the place “a rabbit warren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls.”

Ballybunion actually struggled financially until 1908, when a group of eminent locals came together to finance what became the foundation of the current club. Only in 1926 was it extended to a full 18 holes. A series of ladies’ and mens’ golfing tournaments over the next fifty years gradually raised the club’s profile. Then, in 1971, it seemed to suddenly catch the world’s attention when a new clubhouse was built and famous golf writer Herbert Warren Wind said Ballybunion was one of the world’s top ten courses in a New Yorker article.

Many would say Ballybunion’s quality truly caught up with its reputation in 1995, when Tom Watson was brought in, not for radical surgery, but to give the old lady a nip and tuck that would keep her in the top ranks for another 100 years. Watson worked hard to keep the course true to its original design, and to preserve what he called “the wild look of the place.”

From Golf To Eternity
How does Ballybunion play now? Its mystique hits you early, in the form of a graveyard full of Celtic crosses staring you down from the right side of the first fairway and the sea on the other. The landscape here is sharp—not as towering as Doonbeg but full of endless hills and swales that seem to pull you into some kind of hidden world.

It’s a world without many flat surfaces. Ballybunion will make you play every kind of uphill and down dale lie imaginable. Oddly enough, though, a lot of players come away saying the course looks like a beast, but has a forgiving heart. Memorable holes include the tricky par 3 third with its severely narrow green, which Tiger Woods managed to bogey on a 1998 round after landing in a bunker. A real test of your short game will come on the sixth, a 364 yard long par 4 known as “The Kiln,” because fires were once built here to make lime. It will only take a moderately good tee shot to get you in position for a short, even easy-looking approach shot. Watch out, though. According to Tom Watson, this is one of the most difficult second shots most golfers will see in a lifetime. Hole number 7 features a green that was re-conditioned under Watson’s direction, using old films and comments from old members to help reconstruct its original shape. Getting on and staying on, once again, requires excellent touch on your approach shot.

From here in, Ballybunion’s extraordinary beauty truly unfolds. The 11th, a par four along the ocean with a 3-part fairway of descending shelves, has been called one of the best 18 holes in the world by Nick Faldo. Coming off the tee with anything less than a great shot will lead to big troubles here. The course’s signature combination of landscape and great design are clear on the 15th, a par three with bunkers ringed all around its two-tiered green, and the dog-legged 17th, a par 4 that looks almost too pretty to be real, and actually offers a birdie opportunity if you can get into position for a short second shot.

“Tough but fair” is how many golfers describe this great old lady of County Kerry. After a first round you may feel, as CBS commentator Ben Wright did, that “Ballybunion is one of the true shrines and treasures of the game.”