Much like a fine Irish whiskey, it took many years for the Old Course at Ballybunion to mature to its current vintage. Nowadays its fame is widespread, not least in America from where a seemingly endless procession of golfing pilgrims pour into nearby Shannon airport with the express intention of following the footsteps of their illustrious countrymen to this tiny town on the west coast of Ireland. Herbert Warren Wind, Bill Clinton and Tom Watson, to name but three, have all contributed to Ballybunion’s rising fame, albeit in different ways.
It was Warren Wind who first drew the world’s attention to this special place, creating a legacy that led Clinton to play a round here. Subsequently a statue of him appeared in the town. Meanwhile Watson, perhaps seaside golf’s most high-profile devotee, has become an ambassador for the place.
That the wild, uncompromising links has been in place for years is undeniable after even a glance, but only a combination of continued upgrades over the years and the steady trickle of golfing gossip have established it in the eyes of many as southern Ireland’s definitive layout.
Like all the best links courses it has some holes that thrill the senses and others that befit a more reflective, cerebral approach. Some of its attractions are so obvious they will never be forgotten by anyone who plays them – every single yard of the 11th high among them. Elsewhere it will require great skill and the eye of a true golfer to gain complete fulfilment.
By the time you return, most likely windswept and humbled to a greater or lesser extent, to the ugly if extremely well appointed clubhouse you’ll be savouring a true experience that will live with you for a long time. And there aren’t many courses anywhere in the world that can truthfully make such a claim. Ballybunion, you see, is decidedly not one of those links courses that can pass you by at first encounter.
Certain others require years to get to reach first-name terms with, specialising in subtle, strategic possibilities that delight the purist but can baffle the once-in-lifetime-type of visitor. The best example being, of course, St Andrews herself where first impressions frequently disappoint, as the seemingly shapeless nature of the bunkers, humps and copses of gorse serve more to bewilder than direct the unknowing golfer.
But this is quite the opposite and in that sense, it may be helpful to classify Ballybunion more in the mould of a typical Irish, rather than Scottish, links. Think spectacular, cliff-top tees, the ocean crashing into the rocks below. Think fairways that pitch and fall no less dramatically than the Atlantic beside. Think wild expanses of rough you’d be a fool even to consider launching a search for an errant drive in.
Think space, and fairways that pursue their own corridors – especially on the back nine when Ballybunion at times lifts itself into the realms of the ethereal. Accordingly for a course almost guaranteed to live long in the memory, it has its share of devotees, Watson chief among them.
But it was the writing of Warren Wind, America’s most celebrated golf writer of his age, who did most to establish Ballybunion’s burgeoning reputation. Following a visit in 1971 he rated it inside the world’s top-10 courses. Such an accolade was unthinkable in the early days.
That the wild, uncompromising links has been in place for years is undeniable after even a glance.
Beginning as a 12-hole layout in 1893, first impressions were hardly favourable. An article appeared soon after damning it as being ‘built on a rabbit warren’ and requiring ‘an even temper and an inexhaustible supply of balls’. In fact, the initial course was designed by one James McKenna, the pro at nearby Lahinch who oversaw and implemented Old Tom Morris’s suggestions for improvement at another of south west Ireland’s classic links.
It was 1926 when the course was extended to 18 holes, Messrs Carter & Sons of London overseeing the project, but within a decade the renowned architect Tom Simpson was largely responsible for creating what stands today.
He created new greens at the 7th, 9th and 13th, as well as adding to the charmingly eccentric nature of the 1st with the addition of a bunker in the middle of the fairway that quickly became known as ‘Mrs Simpson’ according to its awkwardness.
What would be a relatively unmemorable start to the round is aided greatly by the presence of the graveyard to the right of the fairway that lends a somewhat foreboding air to the opening drive – it’s strictly out of bounds so there can be no talk of coming back from the dead. That and Mrs Simpson make this a hole to be survived rather than attacked despite its modest length of 400 yards from the very back markers.
The 2nd is much more representative of what’s to come, a strong par four where the fairway eventually comes to an end between two dunes with the green situated 40 yards further on, well above the level of the approach. It takes a shot of skill and power to find what is effectively a table-top target.
In so much as the Old Course has a weakness the next three holes provide it. Relatively flat, situated away from the ocean and unremarkable in nature, if this is your visit you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Happily such misgivings are blown away from the moment you arrive at the 6th fairway to contemplate an approach to a green that might as well be hanging off the edge of the cliff for all it appears.
The 7th is even more spectacular, running parallel and adjacent to the shore, while the target at the (very) short 8th is no more than 10 yards wide if the sloping green is to be both found and held. Gathering itself once more, the 10th curves and twists over intimidating valleys before culminating at another ocean-side green.
Then comes Ballybunion’s crowning glory, a 451-yard par four of such natural brilliance that it was simply destined to be a golf hole. Running alongside the cliff-tops, the fairway drops downhill in steps until a pair of dunes in front of the green create the narrowest of approaches. When the wind blows, which of course it often does, the drive must be fired out towards the ocean, hopefully to drift back at the last moment.
The 13th is a classic links short par five where the green is within reach in two for the big hitters but is protected by a stream, three bunkers and contours that tend to reject rather than welcome approaches. Successive par threes follow, the 15th much the more imposing, demanding a carry of almost 200 yards across inhospitable territory to a green backed by the sea.
Uphill holes aren’t usually much fun, but then the 16th is a rule into itself. Turning 90 degrees to the left and with the last 200 yards directly uphill, the length and line of the drive will influence strategy for the remainder of the hole. Towards the green the fairway becomes implausibly narrow at one stage, single-file progress being the order of the day between two more trademark dunes.
Tumbling downhill back towards the sea and therefore usually into the wind, the drive at the 17th is all about position and plays much longer than its modest yardage would suggest.
Slightly disappointingly, the 18th, worthy as it would be at any other stage of the round, is not a true championship-quality closing hole although the wonderfully concealed location of the green at the top of the hill is much to be admired.
The last word on Ballybunion, though, must go to five-time Open champion Watson, who has become so enamoured by this corner of Co. Kerry that he accepted the post of millennium captain five years ago.
“After playing here for the first time, a man would think the game of golf originated here,” he said. “It is a course you will always enjoy and never tire of playing. I know I never will.
“In short, Ballybunion is a course on which many architects should live and play before they build courses. I consider it a true test of golf.”