Before going to Ireland, I was most excited to play Ballybunion. Established in 1893, it has continually found itself among the most esteemed links courses in the world. In its 2013-2014 rankings, Golf Digest named it the 27th best course in the world, but, inexplicably, it is entirely absent from the 2015-2016 rankings. This unexplained fall from Golf Digest's grace makes me question its ranking system. Not only did I think Ballybunion was better than both Lahinch (ranked 65) and Portmarnock (ranked 25), but the lack of internal consistency is troublesome--how can a course that is more than 100 years old that has not been the subject of a redesign or a natural disaster since 2013 disappear from its lofty position in the world? In any event, Ballybunion certainly lived up to my hype, as it was the best course I played in Ireland. Tom Watson, the best links golfer ever, has called it the best golf course in the world. I don't know about that, but I wouldn't call someone crazy for saying that.
Similar to Lahinch, the first thing that struck me about Ballybunion was its centrality to the town of Ballybunion. The course is located a little over a mile outside of town and has the same local feel to it that Lahinch did with it seemingly being the stomping ground for locals. The owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed prominently displayed the many trophies he had from winning league tournaments at Ballybunion (including his hole in one plaque for acing the 8th hole). He was not shy to tell us all about the "crystal" he had accumulated over the years. This was a town obsessed with golf and not much more. No fancy restaurants or five star spas, just two exceptional golf courses.
Before beginning with my thoughts on the course, integral to our day at Ballybunion was "Jimmy." The four of us (including my mother who walked the course with me, my brother, and my father), were grouped with Jimmy, the owner of an asbestos removal company from Queens (and member of Garden City Golf Club on Long Island). Jimmy was a complete blast to play with. It was one of those moments where you know that, but for golf, you would never have otherwise crossed paths with Jimmy. After the round he had to rush back to the castle he was staying in that he won in an auction back in New York (yep, he showed us pictures of gargoyles and all). The best moment came when Jimmy said to my Mom, "I suggest you not stand down wind right now, I am about to water these dunes." If you need an image for Jimmy as you read this, the best one I can give (though not many will know it) is to picture Ray Liotta's cameo role on the TV show The League (particularly the episode where he goes out golfing).
As to the course itself, in my mind (and that of many others), Ballybunion is a tale of two courses. The first five holes are memorably disappointing, and I may go so far as to characterize them as poor golf holes. Their lackluster nature is most apparent on the back-to-back par fives that come at holes four (508 yards) and five (529 yards). Though the yardages for these two holes on the scorecard are not long, they are both routed in the same direction. Therefore, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, both of these holes will be playing into the wind. That was true the day we played when the wind easily added 75 yards to each hole. That is not to say the two holes are difficult. In fact, they are ranked among the easiest on the course, and my brother and I parred both of them. But, they were simply not fun. On both holes I simply pounded a driver, fairway wood, fairway wood to get to the green. I never enjoy a hole where the strategy is to simply hit it as hard as you can and as long as it does not veer wildly wayward you will be just fine. Before its redesign in the 1970's, these two holes served as the closing holes. Had that been true, that would have greatly changed my perception of Ballybunion. Instead, you now get the mediocre holes out of the way in the first 1/3 of the round. Then, after 5, the course is without fault. Strategic holes, ocean vistas, enormous dunes, genius bunkering--it has it all. And that is what I remember about Ballybunion. It is very similar to Pebble Beach in that way. Pebble Beach starts with mediocre holes (and has a few mediocre ones in the middle too), but its great holes are truly great.
Now, onto some individual holes.
The first is a 380 yard par four with bunkering on the left that you can hit with a good drive. A solid drive that stays away from the bunkers should leave a short iron into a large green. There are four greenside bunkers (two of which are very much in play) that can get your round off to a bad start, but, with a short iron in hand after a good drive, they should not be terribly difficult to avoid. Undoubtedly, the coolest part of the first hole is the old cemetery on the right side of the fairway, which will only come into play if you hit a truly terrible shot.
***On all of my reviews, you can now click on the first image to see a slideshow of all images on the page.
First tee with cemetery on the right.
Though I moaned about the first few holes above, I do like the second hole (the hardest on the course). It is a 397 yard uphill par four that requires a second shot through towering dunes to a steeply sloped green protected by mammoth bunkers. We all double bogeyed this hole.
Second tee. The fairway is between the two bunkers and the second shot goes through the two large mounds you see in the distance.
Looking back down the fairway after clearing the mounds.
This view gives you a sense of the protection the terrain affords the front of the green. My second shot landed just short of the green, but
rolled 15 yards back down the hill.
The third is a 214 yard par three. Not much to it. Very large green to hold your fairway wood or long iron. Nothing protects the front of the green, so coming up short is not troublesome. There are bunkers to the right and left of the green that come into play given the hole's length, but they are not so deep that they should cause particular concern.
The fourth is the first of the back-to-back par fives and measures 508 yards. The day we played it, there was a strong wind into our face. This meant that the fairway bunkers could not be reached, so as long as your drive did not veer 20 yards in the wrong direction, there was not much to worry about. Similarly, there were no obstacles to be navigated on the second shot. The same was true on the fifth. However, both greens were well protected by bunkers that prevented shots from running up to the green. Though, those greenside bunkers are more likely to come into play on a calm day when a player may try to run a second shot up to the green, which was impossible for us given the wind. We were left hitting third shots that should not have required any bump and runs. The most memorable moment of the day did come on the fifth hole when Jimmy holed out his fourth shot (about 75 yards) from the fairway for birdie. Jimmy had quite the dynamite wedge and short game. For the first two holes he was struggling because he left his sixty degree wedge back in New York. I let him take mine for the rest of the round because I never use that club (especially in windy Ireland), but it worked for Jimmy as he happily hoisted his 60 yard shots sky-high into the swirling winds.
Fifth green from about 80 yards out.
The best part of the fourth and fifth holes was the fescue grass that framed the fairway (though it was cut far enough back from the fairway such that it did not come into play, which helped make the holes the second and fourth easiest on the course).
Some characterize the first six holes as weak. I disagree and think the course really begins at the sixth hole where the ocean begins to come into view. Not only does the scenery begin here, but the sixth is a fun hole. It is a strong dogleg left measuring 376 yards. If you take the proper line and cut off a lot of the dogleg (which is not difficult given the complete lack of hazards on the fairway), you will have a very short shot into the green. The only danger on this hole is hitting it straight and going through the fairway, in which case it will end up out of bounds (and in the middle of a trailer park with some of the best views on the planet).
View from sixth tee.
The seventh is an extraordinary hole. In fact, it is so good it can actually be two holes. If the hole is playing to "Green A," then it is a straight hole. If to "Green B," then it is a dogleg left. Green A was in play our day. I do not know what Green B looks like, but Green A was awesome. It felt like it sat in the middle of a bowl surrounded by mounds with beautiful fescue. This was certainly one of the best holes we played on the entire trip.
View from behind the seventh green as you walk to the eighth tee.
The eighth is another one of those fun holes where you just really want to hit a good shot-- a 146 yard par three with a small green framed by deep bunkers. One of the most memorable moments of our trip came at this hole when my dad nearly made a near hole-in-one after his tee shot hit the stick. My grandfather got a hole-in-one once in his life. He skulled a 9-wood from 127 yards, got a lucky kick, and it went right in the hole. My dad's was not one of those shots. It would have been a pretty hole-in-one. As my family will be quick to tell you, I am the only golfer in the family without a hole-in-one. I saw my brother make one and my brother witnessed my father make one.
The ninth is just a brute of a hole-- a 437 yard par four with a wildly sloped green. The tee shot is fairly easy with a wide fairway and no hazards. It is the long approach to a difficult green that makes this hole the third hardest on the course. Not only is the front of the green itself severely sloped, but if you miss the green by a foot to the left or right, your ball will roll down the steep face and leave you with a difficult chip. Our caddy told us that Sergio Garcia made an enormous number here during the Irish Open as he just kept chipping from one side of the green to the other. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of the green (likely because I was busy making a seven on the hole).
I love short par fours (as does Jack Nicklaus--he says he tries to include three or four of them on each of his courses). The tenth is such a hole measuring 331 yards. The main feature of the hole is the large dune on the left side of the fairway with the best line from the tee going straight over the right edge of the dune. A well struck ball will leave an inviting wedge into the green. A poorly struck one will leave a blind shot over the dune (as happened to my brother).
Tenth green from the fairway. One of my best drives of the day that left me with this wedge into the green.
The eleventh--a 402 yard par 4-- is widely considered one of the best holes in Ireland (and, therefore, one of the best in the world). Ocean all the way up the right, a plateaued fairway, and large dunes in front of the green. Without a doubt one of the best holes we played on the trip.
Rolling eleventh fairway.
Dunes protecting eleventh green.
The twelfth is no joke if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction (as it was the day we played). A 200 yard uphill par three where coming up short is not much of an option. When I face a par three that is playing around 220-230, I like to hit a cut off driver. I am successful 50% of the time. But, the other 50% of the time, I often find myself near the green. By contrast, if I tried to hammer a three wood, my success rate would be much lower and my misses would be much worse.
The thirteenth is a 476 yard par five and a good opportunity to add a low score to the card. The main trouble on the hole comes from Kitty's River, which is a narrow river running across the fairway about 100 yards short of the green. However, as long as you know the correct club to hit, you can easily lay up short of it to set up a wedge for your third. Alternatively, at only 476 yards, even a meager 220 yard drive leaves only 150 yards to carry the creek. So, smart play and the ability to hit average shots--a 220 yard drive and then a solid 150 yard club--should leave you with a look at birdie on this hole.
The fourteenth, a 130 yard par three, was one of the few holes that did not impress me on the back. It is rated as the easiest hole on the course as it is a short shot to an unprotected green. I am all for short, easy holes (see 15 at Cypress being one of my favorite golf holes), but this one just had nothing memorable about it.
Fifteen, on the other hand, is indeed a memorable hole. A 206 yard downhill par three (yes, back-to-back par threes) with the ocean as a backdrop and bunkers and dunes surrounding the green. There are two factors that make fifteen difficult. First, it is significantly downhill, but there is also wind coming in off the ocean. These countervailing forces make it difficult to choose the correct club. Second, the green has two tiers and hitting it on the wrong tier will likely lead to a three putt, thus making club selection that much more important.
Sixteen is another one of the unforgettable holes from the trip--a 483 yard dogleg left par five. The tee shot forces you to choose how much of the dogleg you want to cut by going over the dunes on the left, thus creating the risk of landing in the dunes if you poorly execute an aggressive shot. Assuming you find the fairway with your drive, the second shot is something out of a video game. The entire fairway is a narrow shoot with dunes on both sides leading up to an elevated green. At this point in the round, my brother and I were in a heated match. After a striped drive, second shot, and the benefit of a rolling fairway, my brother found himself with a six foot putt for eagle. It would have been his second eagle in three days, but the putt missed and he settled for birdie. Disappointing for him, but our match remained closed after I holed a thirty foot putt for par.
Sixteenth tee. You can either go straight with your drive, which is safer, but leaves a long shot into the green, or you can aim it left (towards where the person is standing in the fairway) and flirt with all the trouble on the left.
The chute leading up to the green on sixteen.
The seventeenth is yet another great hole--a 376 yard dogleg left with a blind tee shot. This was one of the few times a caddy let us down during the trip. My brother asked him if there was any trouble on the given line he wanted to take off the tee. The caddy said no and my brother hit the ball exactly where he wanted and we assumed it was fine, but did not know given the landing area is hidden from view. When we got to the fairway the ball was in the fairway bunker--one of two bunkers on the entire hole. The caddy apologized and said he simply forgot the bunker was there. Ultimately, it was no harm no foul because my brother hit the bunker shot as good as he would have expected to hit a fairway shot, but who knows what would have happened had he received the correct advice.
Blind tee shot on seventeen.
Another picturesque green on seventeen.
Similar to Cypress, the eighteenth is disappointing. After a phenomenal back nine, the last hole feels like it was just placed there because that was the only spot left and it was close to the clubhouse. Not terribly pretty and not much to the hole. There is danger if you hit your drive too far and it goes through the fairway, but that can be avoided by simply knowing your distances. The resulting approach is an uphill shot to a fairly large green. The most difficult part of the hole will be gauging the distance on your approach in light of the wind and the change in elevation. Despite it not being difficult on paper, I found myself in trouble. I came to the last leading my brother by one. I ultimately needed to make a ten footer for bogey to tie him after he made a par. I made it and we both happily shot 84. It was the best match that he and I had the entire trip. It is always fun when you are able to play your best on the best courses and I was pleased that my best round of the trip came on Ballybunion.
Approaching fairway on eighteen.
All in all Ballybunion was one of the best courses I ever played. Cypress is still at the top of my list, but the competition between Pebble and Ballybunion for second is close. I think my preference may be Ballybunion simply because I find links golf more interesting. The two courses are similar in the fact that they both have stretches of weak holes, but then stretches of unrivaled holes. If I had to choose, I would rather play Ballybunion's weak holes because average links golf is better than average American golf. Though both are equally scenic, I think I give the nod to Pebble on that metric. At Ballybunion, I never feared losing a ball into the ocean as it never came close to being in play. That was not true at Pebble where losing balls into the ocean is a real possibility. Pebble's ability to incorporate the scenery into the design of the course gives it the edge on Ballybunion when it comes to the scenic factor.
I will not be doing a separate review of the other course at Ballybunion--the Cashen Course. By no means is that because the course is not worth playing. It is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design and also has ocean views and towering dunes. To be sure, it is inferior to the Old Course. But, if the Cashen Course was its own golf course and not associated with Ballybunion, it would nonetheless make it on the Ireland bucket list. It is simply living in its bigger sister's shadow. The reason I cannot do a review is because I left the camera in the car that day given the rain in the forecast. Ultimately, we lucked out and it did not rain at all, but it was too late by that point. All I can say is that you would be crazy to not play both of the courses, especially since the Cashen only costs 65 euros in the high season.
After our two days in Ballybunion, we left for Tralee--a fairly large city 30 minutes further down the coast. That evening in Tralee, my brother and I were in a bar playing pool when a local old-timer started talking to us. He said that he is a member of both Ballybunion and Tralee (the course we would be playing the next day). After talking to him for a bit, he said he wanted to show us something in the bar. He brings us to a golf club hanging on the wall with a plaque indicating it was Tom Watson's. Watson's love of Ballybunion is well documented and he was named the club's Captain in 2000. This fella told us that Watson hosted a tournament for the members of Ballybunion while he was Captain and the winner's prize was the club he chipped in with in 1982 to beat Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach to win the US Open. The owner of the bar won the tournament and now proudly displays the club in the bar. All I could think was how odd it was that this relic of one of golf's most historic moments found its way into this random bar in Tralee, Ireland. That is the coolest piece of "crystal" I have ever seen for winning a golf tournament. The whole experience from playing Ballybunion to arriving in this bar made me appreciate why I do trips like this--to have memories that I will never forget, whether that be competitive matches on great courses, near holes-in-one, meeting characters like Jimmy, or seeing pieces of golf history.