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Monday, October 22, 2012

Beat A Path To Ballybunion

Ballybunion Old Course
The 18th on the Old Course at Ballybunion. Photo courtesy of the club.
There are many old golf courses and more than a few great ones in Ireland, but you can count on one hand the number that are both old and great. The first or second finger on that hand signifies Ballybunion's Old Course, where 120 years of great golf have been played. How great? Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens, called it the best links course in the world.

When you walk out of the modern clubhouse to meet your caddie on the first tee, you're following in the footsteps of nearly every great golfer who ever played on either side of the pond, as well as thousands of devoted duffers from all over the world. The latter group includes countless notables like former President Bill Clinton. His enthusiasm for Ballybunion, not to mention his role in settling the religious strife in Ireland, earned him a statue at the main crossroads in town as well as life membership in the club. Caddies still talk about the drive he supposedly sliced into the cemetery bordering the first hole.

Don't laugh too hard at the man's errant drive, however, until you've successfully hit one to a fairway you can barely see in a 30-mph left-to-right crosswind. That's what you can easily encounter at Ballybunion where, like any great links course, the wind shapes your entire round, pushing the ball wherever it wants in the air and frequently even on the ground. The wind can easily blow a standing ball uphill and caddies develop a particular skill in teeing the ball at a slant to stand up to it.

Wind isn't the only element that can wreck your score at Ballybunion. Missing the fairway can bring on scorecard disaster whether it comes about from an unfortunate gust or shear duffer-ness. Countless pot bunkers await in all the most inconvenient places. Even worse is the marram grass, which is like fescue only meaner since it falls over in the damp air and smothers the unfortunate ProV you just took out of the sleeve and launched into the wind.

Ballybunion's Old Course was thought to be first laid out by a local professional, James McKenna, in 1892. It's been redone, extended, revised, and otherwise tinkered with through the years with the latest design changes overseen by Tom Watson in 1995. Today it plays par 71 at 6,802 yards.

Caddies say the real course begins on the sixth tee since the first five holes are little more than warm ups for the fun the come. The sixth hole is also where the Atlantic comes first into full view. Most golfers would hesitate to dismiss the opening holes as trivial, however. After all, they include a 224-yard par 3 and back-to-back par fives, the second of which, at 560 yards uphill, plays plenty tough.

The eleventh hole, a 473-yard par four, is the signature hole on the Old Course. It plays full along the ocean for both your drive and approach and the elevated green sits nestled against a marram-covered hillside with only a narrow lay-up option 50 yards in front.

While the front side has back-to-back par fives, the second nine has back-to-back par threes. The fourteenth hole is a 133 yard uphill tester with trouble on every side. It's immediately followed by the fifteenth, a 216-yard monster with a 200-yard carry.

Ballybunion Cashen Course
16th Hole at Ballybunion's Cashen Course. Photo courtesy of the club.
Ballybunion also boasts a second course, the Cashen, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., that opened in 1984. Depending on your frame of mind, you'll either find the Cashen Course a tremendous challenge or simply impossible. It features tight blind fairways, forced carries off the tee and to the green (sometimes on the same hole), and approaches with no safety zones for cautious players. The Cashen Course is par 72 and only 6,306 yards, but don't be fooled into thinking it an easy walk along the seashore.

The place to stay in Ballybunion is Kilcooly's Country House, a congenial small hotel with character, a fine dining room, and an intimate, well-stocked bar. The place is filled with antiques and tasteful bric-a-brac, but unlike so many old-world hotels, the rooms are spacious and uncluttered. It's worth requesting that your golf packager include Kilcooly's in your itinerary.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf.

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