It's not easy, but Ballybunion remains standard for links golf

An aerial view of the 17th and 18th holes on the Old Course with the Clubhouse behind at The Ballybunion Golf Club.

It’s not easy being Ballybunion.

Consider this: It has been more than 30 years since Tom Watson came traipsing over to Ireland and declared Ballybunion to be so pure that “a man would think that the game of golf originated here.” As if that weren’t enough, he recommended that golf architects “should live and play” at Ballybunion before they presume to design courses of their own. Herbert Warren Wind went so far as to declare Ballybunion “the finest seaside course I have ever seen,” the one “that really bowls over the visiting golfer.”

So where’s the upside for a golf course when a five-time Open champion and the game’s most famous chronicler declare it to be the prototype for links design? How do you top that?

You see the problem, right? It’s not so easy being the king of the hill, the standard against which others are measured. Every day a new group of golfers arrives on a tour bus, expecting – no, demanding – to be wowed. They’re looking for the whole shebang: a group picture on the seaside seventh tee, an ancient caddie who growls out yardages in a deep brogue, maybe even an improbable birdie on the impossible par-4 11th – all to be followed by some extensive logo collecting in the pro shop.

They’re not just looking for a great round of golf. They’re looking for an experience – something they can brag about when they return to the humdrum routine at their home clubs. That’s a lot to live up to.

Yet even in Ireland’s fabled southwest, home to one of the greatest collections of links in the world, Ballybunion remains the region’s iconic anchor. You want to play Waterville and Doonbeg and Old Head and any number of other southwest Ireland links. You have to play Ballybunion. That’s the first name you give to your tour operator. Then you build the rest of your golf trip around it.

Its appeal lay not just in its design, but in the endearing quirks often found on the game’s great old links. There’s the cemetery right of the first fairway that sometimes catches the mis-hit drives of shaky visitors. There’s the fourth tee, which sits directly behind the third green, requiring players to hit their drives back across the putting surface. There are the two greens for No. 7 – one seaside for summer play, one inland for winter play. There are the three par 3s in the space of four holes on the back side. Even the odd, alliterative name – Ballybunion – lingers long after one has left.

My trip to Ballybunion in early October came 14 years after my last visit, yet I remembered virtually everything about the course – a telltale sign of good design. In the locker room before the round, it sounded as if a tornado were approaching, so strong was the wind coming off the Atlantic. The starter estimated the wind was blowing 30 mph. But business was as brisk as the early-morning chill.

“It’s amazing, (the Americans) will play in any conditions,” said Vari McGreevy, the club’s general manager. “The Irish wouldn’t do that.”

In the earlier groups, the cemetery was getting some action as the wind swatted weak drives out of the sky. My caddie noted that at least there was no precipitation.

“It will turn into hail in this wind,” he said.

The first six holes of Ballybunion’s Old Course serve as a slow build-up to the dramatic arrival at the seventh tee. This is the line of demarcation, where a pleasant links takes flight.

The holes tend to play through crosswinds, which make approaches to the many narrow greens even more difficult. And as Wind noted, Ballybunion is distinct from most other links in that the ground game often isn’t an option. The approach to No. 11, named for Watson, and the tee shot on the par-3 12th, where the elevated green is exposed to the left-to-right wind, are two of the most demanding shots on the course.

The 18th sometimes has come under criticism, perhaps because it’s a short, downwind par 4. But Wind – who played a different routing, under which the current 18th played as No. 13 – considered it one of his favorite holes, not just because of the demands it places on the second shot or the tricky two-putt, but also the history it evokes. He noted that the long cross-bunker from which the hole takes its name, Sahara, showed the remnants of a “fifteenth century . . . tribe that used the cavity as a midden, or dump.”

• • •

The visit to Ballybunion was bracketed by stops at Lahinch to the north and Tralee to the south. Lahinch Golf Club, like Ballybunion, is the lifeblood of the town from which it takes its name. Take John, my caddie, who informed me that he had been looping at the course for 54 years, starting at age 9.

“So you’ve lived here all your life?”

I asked him on the opening hole.

“Well, I’m not dead yet,” John replied.

The man was quick with a quip, which made play all the more enjoyable.

It might seem counterintuitive given the cool climate, but surfing has become all the rage along Ireland’s west coast. Every village along the coast has surf shops, including one off the third tee at Lahinch.

To give some sense of the conditions, consider the fifth hole. “It’s 133 (yards) on the ground, playing 190,” John said.

When my tee ball ended up on the left side of the long, narrow green, far from the pin, John couldn’t resist a dig: “As we say over here, you’re on the dance floor but a long way from the music.”

Like John, a substantial part of Martin Barrett’s life has revolved around Lahinch, both the club and the town.

“It’s the best one-block town in Ireland. Every shop is a bar,” he said as we headed down the hill later that day to a pub called The Nineteenth.

Barrett is a former club captain and president – he helped oversee Martin Hawtree’s work on the course in 1999 – and was made an honorary life member last year. He grew up only 120 yards from The Nineteenth, started caddying at Lahinch in 1957 (he made the equivalent of 15 cents per loop), and taught school for 36 years. I’ve never met anyone who loves his town or his golf club as much as Barrett loves Lahinch. He has seen the high times, when the course commanded green fees of 165 euros (about $215), and the low times, when the club sliced fees to 100 euros. (Guest green fees have climbed back to 120 euros on weekdays, 135 euros on weekends.)

His great hope would be to bring a Walker Cup to Lahinch. It certainly would be a great venue for that event – far more appropriate than, say, taking the Ryder Cup to the American-ized K Club – but Barrett realizes “we don’t have the political connections” to make that happen. So he is content to talk up the club to anyone who, like him, “wants to play golf the way it should be played.” He and the Lahinch staff are grooming the next generation – there are 600 junior members – while taking care of the club’s 2,000 members, most of whom live outside the area or in other countries.

• • •

The final stop of the trip was Tralee Golf Club, which is, like its name, melodic. If there were an award for best-looking links, Tralee would get strong consideration. It’s truly a lovely setting on Tralee Bay, particularly when the light hits the Brandon and Slieve Mish mountains on the Dingle Peninsula at just the right angle.

Tralee’s par 3s are extraordinary, each worthy of its own story. The third is a nervy short hole along the rocky coast, with the remains of a fort behind the green; the 13th isn’t long, but requires a precise iron across a bottomless pit called Brock’s Hollow; and 16 is a long, all-carry shot that plays out to the beach.

Tralee’s front side is very good; it’s back side is sublime. There is a succession of fun shots and a lot of variety, particularly on the back – long and short 3s and 4s, and a good birdie opportunity on the par-5 finisher. For good measure, the 12th would sit on any list of the world’s most difficult par 4s.

Tralee’s appeal extends beyond the layout and the setting. The mountains create a more temperate microclimate at Tralee than is typically found at more exposed links. If you’re looking for an Irish course to play every day – one that offers the challenge and beauty of links play, but one where conditions are somewhat milder – you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option.

• • •

If you go

1. Play: Ballybunion Golf Club

Ballybuniongolfclub.ie

Stay: Kilcooly’s Country House

Golfballybunion.com

2. Play: Lahinch Golf Club

Lahinchgolf.com

Stay: Vaughan Lodge

Vaughanlodge.ie

3. Play: Tralee Golf Club

Traleegolfclub.com

Stay: Grand Hotel Tralee

Grandhoteltralee.com

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