Ireland Golf Trip – Day 3: Ballybunion Golf Club, Old Course – County Kerry, Ireland

My Favorite Hole & My Favorite Course are both in County Kerry at Ballybunion

It’s hard to say anything new about Ballybunion that hasn’t been said since it opened in 1893. In 1936, Tom Simpson showed up in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to spruce up the original Lionel Hewson layout for the Irish Amateur. He declared Ballybunion had, “…terrain that surpasses any course we know for beauty, not excepting Pine Valley.” A few decades later, Tom Watson added, “Nobody can call himself a golfer until he has played at Ballybunion; you would think the game originated there!”

For the rankings, Golf Digest ranks it as the 18th best course in the world. Golf Magazine says 24th.

The Front 9

There are better swing thoughts than, “Don’t slice it into the cemetery,” but that’s all I could muster on the first tee at Ballybunion. The straightforward, slightly downhill par 4 is a good entry point to an amazing golf course, but when the out-of-bounds is a centuries-old cemetery, it adds a little pressure. You definitely can’t play through from the tombstones, nor would you want to. After a deep breath and half-speed swing, I put a Ping Crossover driving iron out about 230 in the fairway. I exhaled and enjoyed the moment and the view. The sneak peek of the next four hours revealed glimpses of fairways snaking around peaked dunes piled on top of one another.

View from first tee at Ballybunion Old Course in County Kerry, Ireland.
Bad Swing Thought: “Don’t slice into the cemetery.”

The dunes looked otherworldly to me, especially compared to the flat, parkland courses I grew up playing in and around Kansas City. Tom Watson said, “Ballybunion is a course on which many golf architects should live and play before they build a golf course.” I was striding down the first fairway, barely half a hole in, and already agreed wholeheartedly. Incidentally, Tom is also from Kansas City.

If you stay out of the fairway bunkers that sit about 250 from the white tees and the pair of bunkers guarding each side of the green, No. 1 is an easy hole and it’s the last one of those you’ll find at Ballybunion. No. 2 is a 402-yard dogleg right running uphill with bunkers on each side of a wide landing area that quickly narrows to a bottleneck and turns right in the shadow of your first sizable sand dunes. I went right rough as I’m known to do. On the second shot (or third for me after finding the rough) the well-elevated green didn’t hold many approach shots and I had my first of many putts from the fairway after rolling off the front apron.

The par-3 third hole is 209 downhill with two outcomes for a decent shot – the green or one of the four bunkers surrounding it. While a beautiful and great first one-shot hole, the backdrop is the road, neighboring trailer park, and utility poles, so it’s a bit spoiled.

No. 4 tees hit across the third green and are in the danger zone of a bad drive from the second tee. It’s an accepted quirkiness that is heavy at Lahinch and shows up here and there at Ballybunion, but would definitely tick someone off playing any course in the states. The 17 handicap, par 5 dubbed “The Cottage” is a nice hole but not one that will inspire a story unless you do something heroic.

The fifth hole continues the quirkiness with a back-to-back par 5 and a tee ball directly across the fourth green. This is where the course starts to pick up speed and get more interesting with five bunkers in play scattered across the fairway and two more standing guard at the green. The hole felt every bit of 525 as you work your way to the roundhouse and your first chance at a beer.

Let’s step aside from the course review and talk about beer. I am not a Guinness drinker and had a genuine concern leading up to the trip that I wouldn’t have many other options besides a lackluster Harp or a full Thanksgiving dinner Guinness. Let me tell you about Rockshore Irish Lager. It’s like a Coors Light with flavor. It’s not only my favorite beer in Ireland, it’s in my top 5 light beers anywhere. (For reference, that list is Labatt’s Blue Light, Turk’s Head I-Soon Reach, Mill Street Organic, and Kirin Light.)  Rockshore was in a bottle at the roundhouse between and No.’s 6 and 7 and on tap in most of the pubs I wandered into away from the golf course. Now back to the golf.

No. 6 makes its way down to the water with a par-4 dogleg left. Then from 7 on, Ballybunion is one amazing course. Don’t get me wrong, the first six holes are good and the middle six are great, but the last six are exceptional.

The seventh tee box has one helluva view. “The Beach” (or “Castle Green” on the website) runs along the edge for all 416 yards of the hole with a rocky slope that leads down to a sandy beach stretching along a frothy stretch of ocean. Having stayed out of the bunkers to this point, it was only fitting that my slice appeared here and my ball found sand for the first time. It just happened to be a crowded beach and not a sand trap. Here’s where there’s something unique about Ballybunion, and Lahinch too, where I really didn’t care if my ball went astray. I always had a smile on my face, even when my second shot went wide right of the green and OB on the same beach. I truly felt lucky to be on a course unlike anywhere else I’d ever played. I didn’t care near as much as if I was playing at home. Maybe because there was no green at home that had the ocean to one side and a towering, C-shaped sand dune wrapping the other side with bookend lookout towers of castle ruins in each direction. It’s a stunning view and an even better golf hole. All on a course with an elevated vibe despite being more than a century old and sitting at near sea level.

View of the 7th green at Ballybunion Old Course in County Kerry, Ireland.
The approach on No. 7, “The Castle Green.”

The par-3 eighth is a nice respite from the challenge at 138 from the whites with a decent size green only protected by three bunkers. Yes, only three. The hole leads the routing away from the ocean and back into the heart of the links course.

The ninth is a par 4 with the granddaddy of all false fronts that earns it the #3 handicap. The false front is at least a 1/3 of the green so pin placement and a good sense of humor are key.

View of the 9th green on Ballybunion Old Course in County Kerry, Ireland.
The false front on the 9th green is more of a false front-half.

The Back 9

The par-4 tenth heads back to the water with a smallish, tabletop fairway that doesn’t like to hold balls left, right, or long (237 whites, 259 blacks). The surrounding rough is an Easter Egg Hunt for any Titleist that runs astray. From wherever you end up, it’s a decent size green backed by miles of ocean. Just don’t go short. Or long. Or right.

“Watson’s” 11th is a 398-yard par 4 with a swaled and scalloped fairway tracking along with the coastline. The green is straight in front of you, but you need to go left to find the narrow fairway. The size and number of dunes backing the green are so dramatic, that they pull your eye away from the beautiful beach below. No. 11 feels like a pure Irish links golf hole and is one of the best par 4s in Ireland.

How the par-3 twelfth is the #8 handicap, I have no idea. From the whites, it’s 193. The green has a false front that isn’t fooling anyone, a pair of bunkers right, and one bunker deep for good measure. It’s surrounded by dunes whose sole job is to intimidate. Where there’s not a dune, there’s a valley with rough deeper than any U.S. Open course. It’s such a dramatic and intimidating hole that you hardly notice the beautiful view.

The crazy thing about No. 12 though is that it’s a par 4 from the reds, with no fairway. At 171, and all of it carry to clear the front slope, it’s too much of an ask so they made it a par 4 from there. But it’s a par 4 with no real fairway, so that snaking strip of green grass you see in the valley of death is the ladies’ fairway. A cart path wide on average, you either need tour-level accuracy or have a long ball that lands soft in your repertoire. Funny thing is, the talented lady in our foursome hit it a foot off “the narrowest fairway in Ireland” with a well-struck tee shot then spent 3 shots learning about false fronts and gravity. It’s a great hole that fails on the equality score. (My one and only complaint about the Old Course at Ballybunion.)

No. 13 is an elevated tee into a wide fairway with a creek (Kitty’s River) running across that doesn’t really come into play as much as you’d think. At 492, the par 5 is the #18 handicap and is the only hole in the third six that’s good, but not great. It feels very linksy but not on the level of drama and awe that follows.

Back-to-back par 3’s await at holes 14 and 15. No. 14 is a short 127-yarder that takes you over a dune to a green next to a large dune dubbed the “Camel’s Back.”

No. 15 is stretches out to 200 from the whites with a large dune left and the ocean backing the green and four bunkers. It’s also a par 4 from the red tee, but there’s a little more respite if you can’t reach the green from 180. Not much, but enough to have a chance.

No. 16 gives you a little bit of quirkiness. The tee box is perpendicular to the fairway. A straight tee ball puts you in the widest part of the fairway, one that never feels more than a few paces wide. A cheat left from the tee and you’re aiming for a strip of land I wouldn’t land a Cessna on. Once there, an about face left points you at the green, except you can’t see it since it’s straight uphill and you’re staring down the middle of Mother Nature’s cleavage with a narrow fairway and ample dunes pushed up and pinching each side. From there, the narrowness continues until the green. It’s 495 yards with a sharp left turn and only the straight survive.

From the 16th green, there is a towering dune that’s home to the black tees on 17. Whatever tees you’ve played to this point, it’s worth climbing the steep path up to the elevated tees and get CTH – “Closest to Heaven.” Coined by Tom Watson, as in 17 is the closest to heaven you could get on a golf course or the closest to heaven Tom was going to get. The caddy’s Irish accent kicked in as he was telling the story. Regardless, Tom nailed it as it was a miraculous view. It’s also one of the best golf holes on God’s green Earth. Backwards from the tee is the graveyard across the first fairway. Forwards is an indescribably good golf hole. Beyond that is the blue, blue sea. The hole is actually called, “The Devil’s Elbow” and rightfully so. It’s one hell of a dogleg par 4. I absolutely cranked a driver and cut the corner over the dunes and into the fairway. From there, the approach is into a green surrounded by stacks of towering dunes. Luckily, I took a few pictures as my writing could never do this hole justice. If the test is, would you cancel your flight in the morning and return to play the course again, Ballybunion certainly passes that test but I would cancel my flight just to play 17 again. It’s that good of a golf hole. So good, that 18, a great hole in its own right, is almost hard to recall.

View from the 17th tee on Ballybunion Old Course in County Kerry, Ireland.
No. 17: The best golf hole in County Kerry.

The uphill 18th is a fantastic finisher, although not at the level of perfection that No. 17 is. “Sahara” is an uphill, dogleg par 4 with, you guessed it, a very large bunker at the left end of a wide landing area. It’s 257 from the whites and 270 from the tips, so it definitely comes into play. Although, not for me as I was somewhere farther right. The approach is into a sunken green surrounded by more dramatic dunes. Smiles all around for the finish to one of the greatest set of 18 holes anywhere on what has to be one of the best pieces of land for a golf course.

How Good of a Golf Course is Ballybunion?

Two days prior I played my first Irish links course at Lahinch. On that 18th green, I thought to myself, “I have a new favorite course.” Now, after finishing up on this 18, my thought was, “that was the best course I’ve ever played.” Drama. Beautiful. Quirkiness. Majestic. Magic.  It’s all the words and every adjective I can think to write, but something more. Something you can’t quite find a word for. It is an Irish links course. Maybe any adjective is just redundant.

Epilogue: Solo Golf Travel In Ireland

A quick note about traveling solo and being paired up as a single. People always say something close to, “You went to Ireland…by yourself?” It’s a statement of excitement that ends with a question mark. It’s not for everyone, but for me the only way I could swing it. I realize most people wouldn’t take a Transatlantic flight for 74 hours abroad. Lahinch is now taking tee times for 2024. Ballybunion had so many buses in the parking lot, it looked like a high school track meet. Old Head, Royal County Down, and the Island were all booked solid. The only way I got on where I did was by flying solo and joining existing threesomes. It also makes it more of an adventure. Criss-crossing Ireland in a rented Skoda (?) 4-door, talking to strangers in a pub, and I always get to choose what’s for dinner, but the best part is who you get paired with.

While most people prefer to play with their regular foursome, I like to see who the universe pairs me with. While sometimes risky, it’s always interesting. My playing partners at Lahinch and Ballybunion proved the point. The father and son from Atlanta I played with at Lahinch were gracious, fun, and full of gratitude for playing a world top 100 course. It was their second 18 of the day but they were both all smiles, despite being a 10 handicap and scoring over 100 (the son) and finding every beautiful bunker on the course (the dad).

At Ballybunion, I was paired with a husband and wife. When they dropped me off at the driving range and pointed to my group, I had a bit of trepidation thinking I was in for 18 holes of bickering and unsolicited husband-to-wife swing tips. What I got was one of the nicest couples I’ve ever been around. Welcoming, fun, funny, and happy together. They too were grateful to be there, playing a one-of-a-kind course on a beautiful Irish day. We talked Ireland, itineraries, kids, and courses. I truly enjoyed them as people for 18 holes and I was given a putting tip that was an infuriatingly simple fix, but I’m saving 3-4 putts a round. The point is, I would never meet these people if I traveled by bus with three other foursomes from home. There are plenty of times to play with my friends. This is my chance to make some new ones.

Course Review by Chris Austin, Founder, Editor, Writer, Traveling Golfer

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