Ballybunion Golf Club (Old Course)
County Kerry, IRELAND

Tenth hole, 355 yards; The tenth heads the golfer back to the coastline in grand fashion. Just as the Old Trooper might hope, the visuals off the tee create uncertainty.  Wonderfully broken ground separates the tee and fairway and then the fairway crests a ridge and – disappears! Trust in one’s swing is paramount in moments like this where the architect(s) doesn’t pander to the golfer with comforting features and aiming marks. Just the opposite, the land is the star, which sets the stage for a classic man vs nature confrontation. This is the second largest green on the course, so be sure to note the day’s hole location when on the nearby eighth tee. In particular, back right offers one of the course’s trickier hole locations to access.

No need to doll up the view from the 10th tee with manmade features.

One unique feature at Ballybunion is that the golfer hits five shots with the Atlantic serving as the backdrop, namely the approach here, the 6th, 11th, 15th and the tee ball at the 17th. Most links feature holes that run parallel to the coastline as that’s what the dunelines dictate. Not here.

Eleventh hole, 470 yards; In the first eleven holes, the golfer faces four brute two shotters: the second, seventh, ninth, and here. Let’s think about the four holes and the diversity they represent: the second with its steeply uphill approach to a domed green, the flattish seventh along the cliff, the ninth to a vexing green in a field, and here, whose fairway cascades downhill … then downhill … then downhill some more (!) with the ocean as the backdrop. For sheer diversity, the author struggles to think of any course with such variety in its long two shot holes. The eleventh is the most famous of the bunch and if you have ever seen a picture of golf in Ireland, it likely was of this hole. Given the scale of the dunes, there is nothing quite like it in either Scotland or England. The phrase ‘all-world’ is grotesquely overused but what a thrill to come across a situation where it is apt. Does any hole represent a country better by inspiring visitors to come?

The back marker that turns 11 into a 470 yard beast is on this side of the 10th green, just beyond the marram grass. The right center of the fairway affords the best view of the putting surface for one’s approach. Too far left off the tee and the approach becomes blind.

Along with 8 at Pebble Beach and 17 at St. Andrews, the approach to 11 at Ballybunion is as satisfying to execute as any in the sport.

Forget the sunshine bathing the far dunes in the photograph one above; a round at Ballybunion is even more dramatic with an approaching storm.

Looking back up toward whence the journey started, would any modern architect have the guts/wisdom to build this unconventional hole today?

Twelfth hole, 210 yards; Apparently, this ledge green was put into use in the mid-1920s. For those that play with hickory clubs, it is indeed a daunting task to think about tackling this hole with such implements back in the day. Even with a state-of-the-art hybrid, the golfer feels outmatched as he looks up the hill at the long narrow green. With no run-up option available on a hole of this length, it’s certainly an atypical links hole. Be that as it may, the onus remains squarely on the player to sort something out, including using the bank left of the green to help brake the tee ball. The twelfth is a reminder that a player’s game needs to fit the course as opposed to the other way around.

As seen from the tee, the shelf twelfth green is to the right of the white stake in the distance. On this cold winter’s day with no flag in, the golfer’s eyes are free to roam and appreciate the unique landscape.

Thirteenth hole, 500 yards; At this point, the golfer might be a bit battered and bruised, especially after the last four holes. Don’t despair – a string of very interesting 1/2 par holes ensue including a pair of reachable par fives starting with this one. The downhill drive tantalizes and is arguably one of the most important shots of the day as a good one brings the green in reach with a mid-iron. The hole’s defense lies in its captivating green complex, which sure enough, Simpson had a hand in. He suggested that the 1926 green be repositioned away from the burn and moved 80 yards back and to the left atop a small dune. The tiger can quickly go from a mid iron second to an extremely delicate recovery shot for his fourth!

The original green was right of today’s bridge that crosses the burn. The club carried out Simpson’s recommendation to perfection with today’s knob green featuring a sharp, thirteen foot fall-off left and over.

Similar to the 11th, the golfer can’t help but look back up the fairway afterwards and appreciate the unique landforms. Well struck tee balls gain an extra 30 to 60 yards of roll at both holes.

Fourteenth hole, 130 yards; The second nine at Ballybunion ranks with the best sides in world golf courtesy of its plethora of standout holes. This short one shotter understandably gets lost in the shuffle from time to time but don’t be fooled by its modest length. Akin to the playing strategy at 17 at TPC-Sawgrass, don’t even look at the flag; just play for the middle and be content with what will be a short-ish birdie putt.

Hoisting a short iron shot into the air on any windy links contains its own set of challenges, especially here …

… where the tiny, 3,300 square foot green does nothing but shed balls blown slightly off line.

Fifteenth hole, 210 yards; If the eleventh isn’t the poster for Irish golf, then this one-shotter surely is. Fourteen and fifteen might not quite be the match for fifteen-sixteen at Cypress Point but they are close. Though a two tiered green is generally considered a modern feature, this one has been in play for close to a century. At 5,040 square feet, the putting green is actually smaller than the course’s average green size. Yet, that’s a theme played out several times at Ballybunion Old: the longer the approach, the smaller the target. Add in the monster tier in the middle, and the effective target seems tiny indeed.

In a neat twist, several of the longest approach shots at Ballybunion are also among the course’s most inspiring. Above is the incomparable one shot fifteenth, as seen very early in the morning before the flag was put in.

Ballybunion’s lunar landscape is evident even at sunset.

Sixteenth hole, 515 yards; Doglegs are a fabulous attribute in a windy site and Ballybunion finishes with three of them! They all bend from right to left but that’s their only similarity. The one here heads off in a southerly direction, seventeen to the west and eighteen to the east. As at thirteen, the tiger knows that a good drive here might be worth a full stroke. And here’s the thing at Ballybunion: the golfer is induced to give it a go because the angled fairway could be argued to be ~ 80 yards in width. Spectacular dunescapes at other courses like nearby Lahinch, Royal Country Down, or Royal St. George’s typically hem in the golfer as he tries to find the fairways between the dunes. Both here and the next hole, the diagonal nature of the fairway to the tee inspire the golfer to be cavalier and attacking. None other than Alister MacKenzie prized bold golf and it is a great pity that the legend himself never saw the final iteration of this design because there is no doubt that he would have cheered rapturously. With their lay-of-the-land architecture that includes back-to-back par fives on the front and back-to-back par threes on the back, Ballybunion and Cypress Point share more than a passing similarity. Neither course is long by today’s standard (both measure under 6,750 yards) but no player worth his salt has walked off either and said, ‘Gee, I wish the course was harder.’

The angled 16th fairway extends right to left across the entire photograph.

The second must be slotted between two dunes with the flag fluttering on the horizon.

The view back down the 16th.

Seventeenth hole, 400 yards; The course offers several indelible moments, the last occurring here on the penultimate tee that Simpson recommended whereby the golfer aims at the Atlantic Ocean. To quote Simpson from his report, ‘Whatever you may decide touching green 11 [today’s 16th] , we strongly advise a new tee [for today’s #17] well away to the left of existing green 11 on the site we pointed out to you. You simply cannot pass by this great and glorious chasm, which is calling out for a tee shot to be played across it. No alteration to the green which is ideal from every point of view.’ The conspicuous sight of the water – often times, awe-inspiring – is another differentiator to most other world class links. The distant churning waves lift a man’s spirit from his mundane, daily concerns but he needs to gather himself quickly to play the proper shape shot off the tee.

Fairway bunkers aid an architect in lending good golf qualities to holes where the land doesn’t do so. Case in point, they were liberally applied at the par 5 4th and 5th holes. Meanwhile, only one (!) fairway bunker was required on holes 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 16, and 17. The sole one is actually here, though out-of-sight on the inside of the dogleg.

County Kerry is known for its spectacular beaches. This view to the north from the outside of the dogleg 17th also captures the seawall that the club carefully erected to preserve the hole.

Turning to the south, the green is attractively nestled in its own amphitheatre.

Ballybunion is the rarest of rare instances whereby the dunes are equally good on a macro and micro level. Off the tee on a macro level, the scale of the dunes is breathtaking. Close to the green on a micro level, a slight rise in the fairway 15 yards shy of the green creates an unseen gulley/channel that makes depth perception problematic and recovery shots fascinating.

In 1971, land was purchased directly south of the Old Course for the Cashen course. As part of doing so, the clubhouse was moved south some 1,500 yards so that play could commence at both courses from a central location. That’s when today’s sequence of holes was established for Ballybunion Old. Not that it should matter what sequence you play the holes – after all, the holes are the holes – but at Ballybunion Old it does. The inland holes are gobbled up early in the round and the golfer goes on a thrill ride from six in that leaves him panting for more. As an aside, the author admirers the back-to-back par 5s at four and five from a design perspective as the pair of long holes eat up the less interesting land plus both are capped off by really fine (and underrated) green complexes.

Parts of the round feel like a grand adventure but there are enough quiet moments mixed in with the holes across heaving land to where the golfer is never overwhelmed. The land is the star with the refined green complexes adding in sophistication as required. Man-made features (a.k.a. bunkers) play less of a role than they do at comparable excellent designs like Oakmont and Riviera. With land this good, man needed to show restraint and mercifully that is what happened. Such is rarely the case when a course is built over decades by committee but in many moments of wisdom down through the years, it happened here. Throw in the wind – and now true links conditions – and you have a playing experience that exudes the best virtues that the sport offers. No golfer’s education is complete without playing here. As Herbert Warren Wind said those many years ago, Ballybunion is ‘profoundly exciting.’

This look back down the Home hole prompts one thought: When can I play here again?!

The End