Like Ireland itself, Tralee is a beguiling mixture of ancient and modern. Located in, and known locally as, Barrow, some 15 minutes away from the town of Tralee, it was from here that Brendan the Navigator is said to have set sail for America a thousand years before Columbus. The large sandstone rock adjacent to the 4th fairway was hurled there from the mountains by the mythical giant Cuchullain, according to legend, and so is called Cuchulian’s Table.
While the short 7th, by the water, is known as Randy, a contraction of the word rendezvous, because the bay below was a known haven for smugglers. Yet the golf course has been here for only a quarter of century, designed by Arnold Palmer, his first foray into architecture in the British Isles, and the gorgeous beach beside the 17th fairway was chosen as the backdrop for several scenes in the award-winning film, Ryan’s Daughter.
Myth and legend, the past and present, and fact and sometimes fanciful but delightful fictions are all present here. Remarkably, this is the fourth site of Tralee Golf Club, which dates back to 1896. This is a corner of Ireland especially susceptible to wet and stormy weather and previous locations have been flooded for months on end, rendering winter golf all but impossible.
By moving away from the bay, the club is now situated next to the sea but on headlands atop cliffs. So while this is certainly seaside golf, played amid turbulent dunes and violently uneven land for much of the back nine, it is not a links in the sense of being at ground level. It is a course that can be split into two distinct sections: the first 11 holes and the last make up one portion, and the stretch in between the other.
Tralee’s second enormous par 5 is the 11th, which is uphill all the way and so can lay more like 900 yards than its stated 595 (from the tips) when into the wind.
There are shades of Nefyn, the North Wales spectacular, in Tralee’s style, although the holes are surely of a consistently higher standard here. We begin on largely flat reclaimed pasture land, though Palmer wastes no time in sweeping us down towards the sea.
The 2nd, a par 5, is unforgettable. Played round an inlet, from the tee the green is clearly visible and seems almost within reach of a Herculean drive in a tailwind. This is, of course, an illusion and by the time the green is reached the best part of 600 yards will have been covered. The temptation throughout is to hug the right-hand side but will the whole of Ireland to the left, this is hardly sensible.
At the shot 3rd you must aim across the rocks towards what is believed to be a 13th-century tower before moving inland for the following trio of par 4s. The pace quickens again with the par-3 7th, the tee little more than a tongue of turf above an inlet and the green little more than 150 yards away.
At the next hole you must put faith in your driving and hit towards what seems a barely existent fairway that hugs the cliffs towards a distant green. Tralee’s second enormous par 5 is the 11th, which is uphill all the way and so can lay more like 900 yards than its stated 595 (from the tips) when into the wind.
But if you thought that was hard, wait until you encounter the next, which is where Tralee plunges into golf of an altogether more dramatic nature. According to those who know the course well, it is actually easier to score on the shorter back nine than it is the front, but to the first-time visitor the vistas are so emasculating, so intimidating with their forced carries, that this can be hard to believe.
The 12th is rated stroke one, and few would dispute it. At 460 yards, the tee shot is dramatically downhill. The real challenge comes with the second shot, which offers precisely no bail-out and a target that seems improbably small from a couple of hundred yards out.
Next is another superlative short hole – Tralee has one of the most dramatic collection of par 3s you will find anywhere – played across a chasm to a table-top green and then comes the split-fairway 14th, another head-scratching exercise for those unfamiliar with the course.
A short 4 offers the chance of a birdie if it is not too windy and you have maintained composure but few are thinking of a two when standing on the 16th tee. It really is green or nothing, with the target the best part of 200 yards away and seemingly clinging on to the very edge of the cliffs. This is followed by another shortish 4 where the wise golfer will play well left to set up a (hopefully) short iron to the large, flat green above.
The final hole is a long, uphill par 4, and after completing it, you will surely be in need of sustenance, refreshment and reflection. The outstanding clubhouse will help you in areas and give you chance to catch your breath and collect your thoughts on an amazing four hours or so that has gone before.