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Ballybunion's Old Course: Historic links punishes modern golfers

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

BALLYBUNION (Co. Kerry), Ireland - Ideally, a seaside links course is discovered, not built. Mow the fairways and greens, perhaps lop off the top of a dune here or there to keep it fair, and you have yourself a course that golfers will rank as one of the best in the world.

Sure, it will be quirky. Nature herself dictates blind shots, awkward angles, and threatening dunes of tangled fescue. All of which, most of the time, only add to the awe and enjoyment of the round.

The Old Course at Ballybunion stands as the epitome of Irish links golf. Founded in 1893 and laid out along a wild and wooly stretch of linksland, to the first-time visitor, parts of the track look more like a maze than a golf course. The resulting effect for the uninitiated bogey golfer is one of combined reverence and frustration, of respect tinged with underlying resentment.

How it plays

Diedre Dillane, a second-generation club member since 1997 describes Ballybunion as, "Magnificent. The greatest place on earth." And Tom Watson, Ballybunion Club Captain for 2000 and careful, dutiful renovator of several holes in 1995, calls it, "One of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world."

The catch for average golf tourists, however, is that Ms. Dillane knows the course well and Mr. Watson can hit the ball where ever he desires. For the rest of us, blind shots, odd club selections and extremely narrow fairways bordered with penal rough conspire to create an extremely difficult test of golf, even at just 6,209 yards from the whites (6,598 from the blues), which all but attested scratch golfers must play.

In sum, Ballybunion is "quirky" like the Marquis de Sade was "eccentric."

A detraction from the unassailably impressive history of the Old Course is the rather shabby surroundings of the first six holes. Aside from the 394-yard second, which plays to a green majestically set high above the fairway between two sentinel dunes, even some caddies (who are members) describe the first third of the course as "Mickey Mouse golf." In this respect, it's very much like Pebble Beach.

The first hole gets off to a rather clumsy start. The elevated tee, which sits directly beneath the enormous 1971-vintage concrete-block clubhouse, overlooks an ancient cemetery and less-ancient road to the right. The 366-yard hole requires no more than a 5-wood or long iron from the tee - an awkward club when the nerves are jangling and a small gallery of golfers and caddies are watching.

Over the course of the next several holes, you see more of an adjoining trailer park than you do of the ocean. And the real golf - not to mention the inspiring scenery - doesn't begin until you reach the tee box on the 415-yard seventh. Here you find a knee-knocking cliff to the right (beachgoers beware of slicers) and a cliffside green.

Arguably the most memorable hole on the old course is the 400-yard 11th. The fairway is trisected by matted fescue and is tightened with beach to the right, dunes to the left, and rough everywhere. Because of the sectional fairway, this is yet another one of those awkward driving holes where a fairway wood or long iron will suffice from the tee.

From No. 11 onward, even the frustrated long-ball hitter cannot help but be impressed by the beauty and strategy of the course. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, long drives - even those on seemingly perfect lines - are greeted with trouble and irritation.

On the 475-yard, par-5 16th, for example, I hit the line my caddy showed me off the tee with a monster drive over the dune that occludes the fairway from view. When we came around the dune, we found that my ball had run through the fairway well into knee-high fescue. Fairway wood, again, should have been the call, or a radically more aggressive line.

The final two holes, not surprisingly, also force fairway woods or long irons off the tee. On 18, this imposition is made by the famed Sahara bunker, approximately the size and depth of a two-car garage (yet is considerably smaller than it once was), which sits squarely in the center of the fairway.

The green here is remarkably deep and narrow, with entrance gained between two angry dunes. It's frankly easier to find the entrance to the Bat Cave than it is to this green.

The verdict

The Old Course at Ballybunion presents a unique test of target links golf. Tee shots are awkward and approaches are demanding. Modern equipment cannot, nor will it ever, assail the integrity of Ballybunion. Length is simply not an ally here.

This said, no golf enthusiast visiting Ireland can pass up the opportunity to play here. Head Professional Brian O'Callaghan encourages visitors to book online and to book early.

"The books open for the next season on the first of November," O'Callaghan said. "The earlier the better. We're fully booked by the end of February."

Golfers who want to play 36 holes can play the Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed Cashen Course on the same day as the Old Course for a combined rate of 180 Euros. Locals suggest playing the Cashen Course first, as it is extremely hilly and your legs will be tired, especially if you've previously navigated the Old Course. Walking the Old Course is easier and will not prove to be so demanding after a round at Cashen.

Another piece of advice is to keep in mind that Ballybunion is private and certain aspects of operation are not geared around visitors. For example, golfers playing both courses should visit the golf shop for souvenirs between rounds, because it will likely not be open after finishing the second round.

There's no place in the world quite like Ballybunion - the atmosphere and history are fantastic and some of the golf holes are ones you will remember the rest of your life. Others, though, you'd just as soon forget.

Stay and play

You can't swing a dead leprechaun in Ireland without hitting a B&B or inn, as tourism is now the nation's No. 1 industry.

But the most unique within 20 minutes of Ballybunion is Barrow House (353-66-7136437), which was once the residence of the Knight of Kerry. Built in 1723 and fully resorted six years ago, the inn has 16 rooms, all with bathrooms "en suite," and offers serene views of the Barrow Harbor.

Rates range from 64 to 125 Euro per person per night and include a full Irish breakfast. About 70 percent of the guests here are golfers, so they know exactly how to facilitate golf trips.

Dining out

The Oyster Tavern Restaurant (066-7136102) is in The Spa, about 20 minutes from Ballybunion. The atmosphere is relaxed and entrees range from 16 to 27 Euros.

Avoid the Fenit salmon, even though it's local and fresh, unless you like small, bony portions. The best bets are the stuffed pork loin and the enormous helpings of fish and chips.

The Tankard (006-7136164) is just up the road from The Oyster Tavern. Another informal local favorite, entrees here run 17 to 33 Euros. The mussels are fantastic, as is the locally caught Atlantic monkfish. The service is neither speedy nor friendly, but the view of the Bay of Tralee is calming.

Fast fact

The golf course is not easy to find, even if you do find the town of Ballybunion. Look for signs that say simply "Golf Course." According to the scant remaining records, the original holes of the Old Course were laid out by a Jo McKenna, grandfather of present Club Secretary/Manager Jim McKenna.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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