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Ballybunion: As Good As It Looks

One of the world's greatest courses, Ballybunion Old is as much a must-see as a must-play

By: James A. Frank

Sitting in my hotel room, rain battering the window panes, wind howling, and a shot of Jameson’s still about an hour away, it occurs to me that the Old Course at Ballybunion, on the southwest coast of Ireland—and just down the street from where I’m presently holed up—may be the most spectacular golf course I’ve ever seen.

Is it the “best” course I’ve played? Probably not. The hardest? It was when I just played it, in a sustained 45 mph wind. The most beautiful? Definitely one of them. But for jaw-dropping vistas of natural, rugged, and awesome holes among the dunes, I’m sold. Ballybunion is a knock-out. (And presently number 16 on the LINKS100. Not shabby.)

Elsewhere on the LINKS website is a lovely paean to the Old written by Jack Whitaker. You can hear Whitaker’s distinctive voice as you read his love letter to the course and the harsh Irish coast that is regularly under siege from an unrelenting ocean and wind that started gaining strength somewhere over Canada. Standing on the tees of the 11th or 16th holes—the two most connected to the ocean—one can understand how nature has been throwing surf and gale at this strip of land for millennia, pushing up the dunes and creating an unforgettable run of golf holes. (That’s the 11th hole shown above. You get the idea.)

I know the word “breathtaking” is overused, but if you don’t gasp upon first encounter something is seriously wrong with you.

Understand that the rest of the course is pretty good, too. There are no weak holes, and no let-up in the challenge. Even hitting at generally wide fairways and big greens, every shot must calibrate the gusts, be they gentle wafts or constant buffeting.

This has been an unusually windy summer, according to club general manager Vari McGreevy (a good player in her own right who was college roommate to European LPGA player Catriona Matthew). But even McGreevy had to admit that the wind we faced on this October Tuesday was extreme, which she did with a chuckle.

Ballybunion pulls no punches, visual or otherwise. Any course that features a graveyard along the right side of its first hole has guts. That final resting place—with massive stone markers etched with names like O’Sullivan, Murphy, and Riordan—has collected many a tee shot, as have the lovely little homes just across Sandhill Road. (There’s a house inside the fence, on the right side of No. 4, the first of two successive par fives. According to McGreevy, the owner comes to her at the end of each year and reports how many of his slate roofing tiles need replacing—at the club’s expense.)

Starting at the 6th, whatever wind is up begins to take its toll. Usually it comes off the ocean, strongly influencing one’s aiming point and commitment to a favored hook or slice. That was the wind we faced and its effects were serious. Luckily by that point your caddie will be more conversant with your game than you are so if he says aim at the beach, aim at the beach.

But hard as the off-the-ocean wind plays, it is, said one of the pros in the shop, the “fairer” direction. It’s when the gusts blow parallel to the beach that things get truly crazy: Since most holes also are parallel to the water, northerly or southerly winds severely affect distances and make it impossible to hold the greens when hitting downwind. A little pre-round practice on knock-downs and other low-running shots is strongly recommended.

Playing Ballybunion is rarely about keeping score or trying to preserve one’s handicap. It is about seeing what nature created—with the help of numerous humans, including most prominently Tom Simpson in the 1930s, and most recently Martin Hawtree, who made a few tweaks and fixes the last few years. It’s impossible not to notice how the holes run naturally through the dunes, to greens settled perfectly among the humps and long grass, past minimal but extremely effective bunkering. This is what golf architecture is supposed to be.

Ballybunion is one of the world’s greatest courses, the most natural and enjoyable kind of design, a total delight even in horrendous weather. I kid you not. But most of all, it is a sight to behold—and not to be missed.

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