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Ballybunion

Golfing Jewel of Ireland’s West

By: Jack Whitaker

Appeared in March 1995 LINKS

The speech and rhythms of the west country of Ireland are far different from the majestic lilt of Dublin, where English is spoken perhaps more beautifully than anywhere on earth. But the speech of western Ireland reflects the nature of the harsh and terrible land, which that gives off a beauty more memorable than that of tropical islands and sleepy lagoons.

From Donegal in the north to the west of Cork in the south, the west of Ireland is a rugged mixture of rocky coastline, great sand beaches and countless bays and inlets. The winds will make you believe in the banshees as it screams in from the AtlanticThen there is the scenery that beguiles with green, rolling fields punctuated by Norman castles, the great sea pounds up against the shore. If you happen to catch a calm day with sunshine, you may think you have entered paradise.

A man could spend a merry month playing the courses of western Ireland. But it is south of Shannon in County Kerry that should be the final resting place of all devoted golfers. For the small seaside township of Ballybunion is perhaps the most natural setting in the world for the game and quite simply one of the most enjoyable golf courses in the world.

The Ballybunion club came into being rather late. Records indicate that it was functioning in the spring of 1896. Hard times then fell upon Ballybunion and it languished for eight years until resurrected in 1906.

The 18-hole Old course one plays today was opened in 1927. There are many contours on the fairways and greens, yielding numerous uphill, downhill and sidehill lies. You will know that Ballybunion is different on the very 1st tee. There is a graveyard on the right side that is a bit unnerving. The hole is a par 4 of 432 yards, with that bunker 250 yards out on the left side. A good drive that you whistle by the graveyard leaves you with a short iron to a typically small, contoured Ballybunion green.

The tee at the 6th hole is right by the old clubhouse, which is another strong reminder of what golf was like in the old days. Here we encounter the water for the first time. It is usually here at this dogleg par 4 that we feel the full force of whatever winds are aloft.            

The back nine begins with a short par 4 of 359 yards. It is a subtle hole, heading slightly uphill to the sea. There is a large sandhill to the left and a large grass bunker in front of the green, which is perched on top of the cliffs by the edge of the ocean. It has all of Ballybunion’s characteristics: sandhills, grass bunkers, ridges and ocean.       

The 11th is perhaps the most dramatic, most awesome, most frightening and most memorable hole in golf. The small tee clings to the top of a sand dune with a 50-foot drop to the beach and the Shannon Estuary below. The view is breathtaking: Off to the right, the coastline curves away and right before you are 449 yards of roller coaster fairway. You must skirt the cliff on the right to find a small piece of fairway between the sandhill and the sea. The approach shot is over a deep valley of fairway through a narrow gap between two more sand hills to a green the size of a large manhole cover. Not a single bunker was necessary to protect it.      

The home hole is another dogleg with another drive between sandhills. The approach is over a large fairway bunker known as The Sahara to a green protected by a sandhill on the left. Now you are back at the clubhouse, exhausted, exhilarated, ecstatic.             

If you want perfect fairways, no rough, flat greens and calm balmy days, Ballybunion is not for you nor you for Ballybunion. But if you are one of life’s seekers, a Ulysses with three pitching wedges, seeking what lies beyond the western star, go at once to Ballybunion.

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