After finishing up at the Old and Cashen courses in Ballybunion, we headed 45 minutes down the coast to Tralee. For whatever reason, this was the course I was least excited about. Prior to researching destinations for the trip, this course was never on my radar--likely because it is unranked and relatively new (Tralee, as we know it today, was designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 1984). That being said, I was so wildly surprised by how stunning this course was. For reasons I will discuss below, I enjoyed Ballybunion, Portmarnock, and Lahinch more, but if beauty were the only metric, it would be a tossup between this and Old Head (though Old Head would likely win by a hair). My point being, there are other factors that diminish Tralee , but if you are simply looking for a course that will make your jaw drop, come here--after all, it is in the top ten ocean courses in the world.
In my reviews of Lahinch and Ballybunion, I emphasized how they were beautiful oceanside courses, but the winds did not render conditions impossible. To be sure, I do not doubt there are days on those courses where the winds reach 50-60 mph, but it is not the norm. By contrast, both Tralee and Old Head are situated such that the only way to get a beautiful day is if the winds are whipping to prevent clouds and fog from setting in. Do you prefer to maximize scenery and put up with insane winds, or would you rather have playable conditions but diminished scenery? That is the choice Tralee seems to present. For someone who is potentially only going to play this course once, I am happy that we were given a beautiful day with intense winds. And they were indeed intense--I had never experienced those conditions on a golf course before (though they would be surpassed only a few days later at Old Head). Story has it that Michael Jordan played Tralee in 1999. When he reached the 199 yard 16th hole, he asked his caddie if he could hit the green with a five iron. The caddy responded, "Yes, if you hit it twice." Jordan then hit the green with a two iron. So, yea, prepare for some tropical storm wind.
Otherwise, I think Tralee is an amazing course. There is only so much I can harp on about its beauty, but, additionally, there were few boring holes, many strategic ones, and fun par threes (which I often find make a course memorable). Also, there was diversity in the course's routing. The oceanside holes are the highlights, but there are also inland holes that feel more like a typical links course (akin to Portmarnock), and then there are holes in towering dunes. By contrast, Old Head (another course that is almost falling off into the ocean) has amazing ocean holes, but lacks the dunes of Tralee. Moving from one hole to the next at Tralee presents wholly different environments, thus preventing it from becoming monotonous (if looking at awesome ocean vistas can get monotonous).
Now onto the individual holes.
We started the day fearing that we would encounter real Irish golf as the forecast called for torrential rain. Luckily, it rained for only half of the second hole and half of the final hole. I could not have imagined playing that course in the rain and 50 mph winds. When it did rain on those two holes, it hurt. Rain (and potentially some hail/freezing rain) does not feel good when it is being hurled at you. But, otherwise we had a spectacular day.
The first is an uneventful hole, but nice and easy, which I generally appreciate to kick things off. It is a 390 yard straightaway par four with the green abutting the ocean. Not much trouble--wide fairway with a few bunkers on the left to avoid. Otherwise, ease yourself into the round and say hello to the ocean for the first time down at the green.
***On all of my reviews, you can now click on the first image to see a slideshow of all images on the page.
The green is straight down towards the ocean. You can see the storm rolling in that would hit us on the second hole.
The second is one of the signature holes--a 588 yard dogleg right par five with the entirety of the right side of the hole along the water. It is a true three shot hole (if not four in certain winds), so the difficulty of the hole comes from knowing where to hit each shot to be well positioned for the next one, which is especially tough the first time you are playing the course.
View from second tee. The green is down the right. In the distance you can see the ruins of a castle, which will feature more prominently on the third hole.
Second tee--yep you are very close to the ocean.
Looking back towards the second tee.
The third, appropriately named "The Castle," is the first of some great par threes--measuring 158 yards. A 14th century castle backdrops the green and the ocean on the right is certainly in play--and I love when an ocean course actually has the ocean as a hazard.
Can walk right up to the castle behind the green.
The fourth was one of the few lackluster holes on the course (with the only other one in my opinion being the finishing hole). Just a 402 yard par four--no ocean in view and only a few standard bunkers scattered about.
Looking at fourth green from fairway.
The fifth is a fairly straightforward dogleg right par four measuring 411 yards. There is ample space to spray drives and approach shots, so just enjoy the views.
The sixth--at 421 yards--is a tough par four if you are playing the course for the first time. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of this hole because I was too befuddled trying to figure it out from the tee and, subsequently, looking for my tee shot. If you hit your drive too straight, it may very well go through the fairway and out of bounds. So, you have to cut the dogleg, but if you do not hit it far enough, you find yourself in fescue filled hills. Not much ocean scenery on this hole, but one of the holes on the course that requires the most thought and planning.
The seventh is another solid par three at 148 yards, especially when playing into a super stiff wind like we were. I would normally be hitting a 7/8 iron from that distance, but my five iron came up short here.
Seventh tee with sixth green to the right.
The eighth--a 391 yard par four--is among the most breathtaking on the course. It requires a precise drive as even a slight pull will find the ocean on the left. Though there is room to bail out on the right, if you find a poor lie, you will be that much more likely to find the ocean with your approach.
Eighth tee. One of the best photographs from the trip.
On the day we played, the ninth hole was still closed for the season (it was replaced by a makeshift par three along the water). Unfortunate that we did not get to play the course in its entirety, but the replacement hole was better than most par threes on any other course, so there was nothing for us to complain about. I did not take a photo of the temporary hole as it is not actually a part of the course.
The tenth is where the dunes start to come into play--a 418 yard par four with the green nestled at the foot of two dunes.
Approach to tenth green surrounded by dunes and bunkers.
The eleventh hole is simply awesome--a 565 yard par five uphill. Similar to the par five sixteenth at Ballybunion, the second and third shots have to go up a chute of dunes to the green.
Eleventh tee with the dunes in the distance where the second shot will have to land.
Eleventh green. On this corner of the course, there is an ocean inlet that abuts many of the holes. Its calm waters, even on this windy day,
were in stark contrast to the white water that was the norm on other ocean holes.
The twelfth was the hardest hole we played all day-- a 440 yard par four into the wind. Its length actually may have made the hole easier by making it a clear three shot hole. The drive must be accurate to avoid a stone wall on the left and deep rough on the right, but that is not the challenging part of the hole. The second shot (which on a windless day will still be about 190 yards out) must carry a "yawning chasm to the left to reach the plateau green." And the hole must be tired because it is a deep yawn. On a still day, I would likely go for the green and only reach it by hitting a solid drive and perfect fairway wood. More likely than not, though, something would go wrong and I would be in the chasm. But, due to the wind, it was driver, eight iron, pitching wedge. Took disaster out of play.
The yawning chasm. I tend to measure depth by guessing how many basketball poles would fit in there. I would guess that is thirty feet
from the bottom to the level of the green.
If you survive the sink hole on the twelfth, you are confronted with yet another one on the thirteenth--a 152 yard par three with a shallow green from back to front, but long from left to right. This hole produced another one of the memorable moments from the trip. I hit a mediocre tee shot and had a 30 yard pitch from right to left across the green. Sunk it for birdie with a deserving chip (not one of those skulls that shoot off the club, hit the stick, and drop)--it was pretty. Looking back, I realize just how great of a hole this is. First off, it is visually stunning with the forced carry in front and the large dunes in the back. Furthermore, it requires perfect distance off the tee given the shallow green, otherwise you will find yourself climbing down a mountain or hitting off the fescue on the dunes.
The fourteenth is an inviting hole--a 397 yard downhill par four. Walking up the fairway I felt like a pro as I strolled the 300 yards to my ball. A downhill shot to a firm fairway with a 30 mph helping breeze will do that. A video from the tee is below, just listen to that wind.
Video of fourteenth tee.
Approach to fourteen with inlet just to the left.
The fifteenth is my favorite type of hole--a short par four at 293 yards. A slight dogleg left that requires a straight drive to a plateau fairway and then a short approach to the green. If your slice crops up on this hole, you may very well find the ocean. We thought my brother's ball went into the ocean, but after a few minutes of looking we found it hidden in the fescue.
Brother's second on fifteen.
The par threes thus far on Tralee had been memorable, and the 179 yard par three sixteenth did not disappoint. As I said above, this is the hole where Michael Jordan asked his caddy if he could hit the green with a five iron and the caddy said--yea, if you hit it twice. I don't know if I have ever experienced more intense wind on a golf course than on this hole. I tried to hit a knockdown driver--the goal being to hit the ball 230 yards. It actually worked out fairly well, as I found myself in the greenside bunker. I'll take a four on what is effectively a 230 yard par three any day.
The seventeenth is a 351 yard uphill par four to a green perched atop cliffs overlooking the ocean. It has been my experience that the seventeenth hole is often far superior to the eighteenth--e.g. Cypress, Ballybunion, and Tralee.
Uphill approach to seventeenth green.
The eighteenth is an interesting hole--a 479 yard par five. You say farewell to the ocean from the tee's fantastic panoramic view. Then, the hole is covered in bunkers, which was not true for any other hole on the course. Though other holes certainly had bunkers, it was not like Portmarnock where there were regularly a dozen per hole. Nonetheless, good luck avoiding all thirteen bunkers on the final hole.
Eighteenth tee overlooking the ocean.
Eighteenth tee looking towards the fairway.
Each time I write a review I reconsider my rankings of the Ireland courses. I am firm in my decision that the top three are Ballybunion, Portmarnock, and Lahinch. That leaves Doonbeg, Tralee, Waterville, and Old Head. Waterville is certainly last. It is a close call for fourth place between Tralee and Old Head. In terms of pure beauty, they may be the two most stunning courses I have ever played. Overall, though, I think Tralee is a better course. Old Head may have slightly more impressive scenery, but it is a one-note song--ocean, ocean, and more ocean (though I am not complaining). Tralee is not lacking on ocean at all, but its dune holes are second to none--especially the chasms that you have to carry on the twelfth and thirteenth. Those two holes are unlike anything you will ever see on a golf course.
Tralee is the last of the courses that are in close proximity to Shannon. You could have a great trip by flying into Shannon, driving 45 minutes north to Lahinch, then 30 minutes south to Doonbeg, then two hours further south (though part of that is a ferry, so it is quite fun) to Ballybunion to play its Old Course and Cashen Course, and then 45 minutes further down the coast to Tralee. Then, when you are done with Tralee you are only an hour and forty five minutes from Shannon. You could easily play five courses with minimal driving. And the west coast of Ireland, golf courses aside, is simply stunning. I have a strong desire to go back and do it all over again, but there are so many other courses to play. Repeats (at least repeats that are hard to get to) will be on the back burner for at least the next decade.