THE FLYING KIWIS: Ballybunion, that shimmering institution of Irish golf

By: Jamie Patton

It’s a testament to Ballybunion – the town, but in particular, the club – that, when quizzed from time to time about the high notes of puregolf2010, of which there were many, Michael or I will often take our friends straight to Day 254.  The episode evokes a distant smile, not so much nostalgic as besotted.  My one fear is that we’ve told the stories of Ballybunion so many times that, in future, their telling will become reactionary, automatic, devoid of meaningful connection to the events that actually occurred; a caricature of them, rather than cherished recollections shared once more.  For the moment, I think, that fear can be allayed with some confidence – because last week we had the great pleasure of returning to “Ballybee” to refresh the memory, tear around its storied links and charge the pints once more.

True to the unshakable cliché of Irish hospitality – of which Ballybunion sits at the sharp end of the wedge – we were received with open arms, welcomed to the club with the same fervour as Tom Watson, a past captain of the club, might have come to expect.  You’ve heard me go on about the ladies at the front desk.  Vari McGreevy, the General Manager, who only escaped mention in that entry because she’s nowhere near an “old” lady, was up out of her seat to shake our hands, tell us we looked tired – no kidding – and, graciously, to offer us free run at both courses.  We were to play as much golf as we could stand – an invitation that you won’t be fortunate enough to receive in many of the great golf clubs of the world, if any, unless you’re someone very special indeed.

The main event at Ballybunion, though they have two courses, is the Old Tom Morris-designed, Tom Simpson-renovated Old Course.  We did get out for eleven holes on the Trent Jones Senior-designed Cashen Course on our first morning – while in a state of unmitigated jetlag – but, I’m afraid I must be honest, the less said about that, the better.  Save to say the some of the views, like that down to the postage stamp sixteenth green (pictured below) are worthy of a round-the-world flight in and of themselves.  (Word on the grapevine however is that Mr. Hawtree, the R&A’s man who has done great work at Lahinch and Birkdale, among others, will be undertaking a significant remodelling of the course in the coming years; best I reserve fulsome comment until he’s finished, out of respect).  Some of Old Tom’s original work remains but it looks and feels like only a Simpson course can, with features reminiscent of the otherworldly Valliére short course at Golf de Morfontaine, near Paris.  There really is nothing quite like it in the world of links golf, at least to my mind.

Photo courtesy of Steve Carr Photography & Ballybunion Golf Club

Now, for a bit of fun, Michael and I are going to be penning a piece on the very serious matter of “Lahinch versus Ballybunion” in due course, and as the chips fell I ended up in Clare’s corner, Michael in Kerry’s.  That I have to throw punches at one of my favourite links in the world is a source of some anguish, though I do relish the challenge of doing it in a balanced fashion – and, it’s no secret, Lahinch in truth would edge out its southern cousin in my estimation by more than the margin of error.  Nonetheless I would like to say a word or two about a place I love dearly, and I hope you’ll permit me to do so in isolation.

Rather than taking you through a hole-by-hole in somewhat monotonous fashion, I’d prefer to touch on the things that, for me, make the Old Course truly great.  I’ll start with the most obvious: being the heroic shots that you’re asked to hit.  Be it the terrifying approach through the dunes, up a steep slope into the second green; the never-to-be-found-even-with-a-wedge putting surface on the ninth; the exhilarating (hopefully) two blows you’re at once apprehensive, yet equally animated, about striking on the world-beating eleventh (pictured below); the improbable task of finding the following green atop a huge dune; or the sweeping tee shot you must throw out with great trepidation, often into a howling wind, towards the Atlantic on the Devil’s Elbow hole – these are the pulse-quickening experiences that galvanize one’s love for the game of golf, and further, one’s joy to be alive, if ever either were in doubt.  Stand over your ball at any of these moments and – whether you’re fresh as a daisy, jetlagged into a state of utter confusion, or just exhausted after one too many stouts the night prior – it all melts away; it’s just you, the ball, the elements and the examination.  This above all, for me, is what characterises Ballybunion’s Old Course.

Photo courtesy of Steve Carr Photography & Ballybunion Golf Club

It is not, however, a one-dimensional brute – for there are a string of far lesser courses that call you to hit heroic shot after heroic shot, but that lack the depth and class of Ballybunion Old.  Second down the list of Ballybee’s charms would be, for me, the less hailed green complexes that ankle tap rather than Glasgow Kiss the golfer.  In this context the sixth green has no peers – at Ballybunion, or, just about, elsewhere.  Be it a 2 iron or a sand wedge in your hand – it could plausibly be either – the endeavour is an altogether hopeless one for all but the magician.  With out of bounds along the right hand side, quietly spoken dunes (by Ballybunion’s standards) along the left and the ocean in the not too distant distance, the scene from the fairway is set – yet it is not as daunting from back there as it might sound.  Around the putting surface is ample room on either side to miss it, from which a manageable bump and run might be expected to yield an up and down.  Nor does the green, on first impression at least, look that small; indeed it stretches for what must be forty yards from front to back, to the seventh tee behind.  Except to say, that is, that the green is in actual fact a grass sheet laid atop a very large knife.  Keeping your ball on that green, particularly if there’s any wind to speak of, which there invariably is, would be the equivalent of throwing a marble onto a table ten yards away and stopping the thing.  At no point though does the golfer begrudge this tragedy though, because he forever feels like he’s in with a chance.  And what fun it is to pitch and putt back up onto (in many cases, back down the other side of) that green.  Simpson ankle taps you and you don’t mind a bit of it – even when he does it to you again at the next (in God’s name I hope Hawtree doesn’t move that green to the right, as he’s reported to have designs to)!  Or when you find yourself in one of his hidden bunkers on the corner of the uphill dogleg, par 5 sixteenth hole (pictured below)!

Photo courtesy of Steve Carr Photography & Ballybunion Golf Club

Finally, I’ll end my little rant – though I could go on – with words of praise for the third member of my triumvirate:  the routing.  Like the great Scottish links you are taken “out and back”, though there’s a great deal less predictability about proceedings, several holes like the eighth and fifteenth playing perpendicular to the out and back holes, and others like sixteen and seventeen doing the same in part.  The first time visitor to Ballybunion steps onto tees and at first can’t quite believe their eyes; at no point is the chapter before them to have been expected, even if they’ve taken the liberty of reading up on the battle they’re about to do.  Up and down, left and right, you weave through those great dunes, never tiring of the surprises that unfold.  Neither are the walks from green to tee arduous or, worse, contrived – perhaps, if we are to nitpick in our assessment, aside from that up to the seventeenth tee, though that’s to be forgiven for the view, to my mind.  It really is an exhilarating walk from the start to the very end.

In due course you’ll hear me shouting from the rooftops as to why Lahinch is, in the narrow stakes of golf course architecture, superior to Ballybunion Old.  But for now I hope you’ll join me in appreciating – whether you’ve been there or whether there are friends in Ballybunion you’ve yet to meet, as they say – what is truly a magnificent place, in every sense of the word.  I haven’t waxed lyrical about the beauty of the place, because I’ve said enough, and I think you’ll see from the few photos above that words would only be inadequate in any case.  Go there, and see for yourself.

I must thank Vari McGreevy and Ballybunion Golf Club for their quite amazing hospitality, and once again, Nora and Marie in the front office for bringing a smile to two tired faces on Friday morning last.  Credit must also go to Steve Carr for his photography, which the club was kind enough to share with us for these purposes.  The lot of you are legends in our books, and neither of us will ever tire of visiting you over in Kerry across the years to come, of that I have no doubt.  


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