Old Course at Ballybunion Everything It's Cracked up to Be - and More

By: Steve Habel

Every knowledgeable golfer has heard tales of Ireland's Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club, either from a friend who's been lucky enough to venture across the Atlantic and play it or from the reviews by famous personages such as Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson and former president Bill Clinton.

Ballybunion Old Course's 15th Green & 16th Tee

Perhaps golfers have gone online to see what all the fuss is about and perused Ballybunion's expansive website (www.ballybuniongolfclub.ie), conjuring up thoughts of teeing it up on the windswept bluff at the southern juncture of the Atlantic and the Shannon River in County Kerry, on the Emerald Isle's southwestern coast.

Last summer, during a glorious stretch of warm, relatively calm days, I was able to cross a round at Ballybunion's Old Course off of my bucket list. I can verify that the experience was all it's cracked up to be - and more. I have played more than 600 golf courses in the past five years - and likely more than a thousand since my golf infatuation began in 1986 - and the round at Ballybunion was my all-time favorite.

Let me explain why.

Reason No. 1: The course is set on the perfect ground for links golf. First opened in 1893 and refined by eccentric golf course architect Tom Simpson in 1936, the Old Course at Ballybunion stretches from the eponymous town road right to the edge of the Irish coast, all while twisting through a collection of soaring grass-covered hills. The layout ducks in and out of dunes with great regularity to spread the seaside experience throughout the round.

Behind the 17th Green at Ballybunion's Old Course

Reason No. 2: The course is fair but challenging, demanding but altogether charming. The Old Course at Ballybunion (Baile an Bhunneanaibhgh in Gaelic) is chock-full of spectacular holes that are challenging, fun and playable for average golfers. Approach play is critical as there's little room around the greens for error.

A round here is made testy by the ever-present and always-changing winds off the ocean. But even when the wind is at its strongest and conditions their most severe, the experience is likely as close to nirvana for players who relish and understand links golf.

Reason No. 3: You could have fun even if you don't play golf. The views of the course make their own memories, thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the beaches below the bluffs.

The walk across the Old Course's contoured fairways, sometimes on paths just wide enough to facilitate a pull cart, are a world-class workout in themselves; it feels like taking a break when hitting golf shots. Remarkably, the inland and transitional holes into and away from the ocean are among the course's most memorable.

The Famed 11th Hole at Ballybunion's Old Course

A True Test

A round at this par-71 collection of holes (which were not internationally famous until the 1980s), which stretch 6,802 yards from its back set of four tees, is consistently rated among the world's favorites. The course is uniformly excellent, especially after the first six holes, which - as a group - are good but not great. The best of this initial group are the first two, beginning with a 408-yard par-4 where the drive is played past an ancient graveyard and the busy road on the right, to a rolling green squeezed by four pot bunkers.

No. 2, which ranks as the top handicap hole, is a 445-yard par-4 requiring a precise tee shot to the mouth of a funnel of dunes. Play is then to an elevated green through a narrow gap between towering dunes. The green is treacherous; it's quite easy to putt back off and down the slope to the middle of the fairway.

The third, a 224-yard par-3, is straightforward and played from a raised tee. It's followed by two pedestrian back-to-back par-5s (measuring 533 and 560 yards, respectively) that run along the town road and next to the hundreds of mobile vacation homes that clutter this side of the community.

The mid-length, dogleg-left par-4 sixth heads toward the coastal cliffs for the first time and ends at a greens complex many consider the most demanding in all of Ireland. Both the fairway and green are set diagonally along a narrow ridge.

No. 7 Green at Ballybunion's Old Course

It is on the short walk to the seventh tee where the real appeal of the Old Course at Ballybunion hits players squarely in the face. Here the Atlantic comes into view, separated from the course by the bluffs and beach far below.

No. 7 (the first of Ballybunion's famed par-4s) is a gorgeous 434-yard par-4, played from the very edge of the ocean to a green nestled between towering dunes. The eighth is a little par-3 of 163 yards that requires a short-iron. It ends at an impossibly narrow green that is very long front to back and has a huge mound right-front; accuracy is the key here as the green falls off in all directions and getting up and down is a rarity.

The massive 462-yard, par-4 ninth usually plays into prevailing winds and has a surreal green seemingly created by slicing a dune in half like a melon. The hole is made even longer by a slope in the front of the putting surface that repels shots not hit perfectly.

The 364-yard 10th involves a lengthy carry over tall grass off the tee and fingers of fairway behind huge dunes on each side. Then it's out to the edge of the sea and the rollercoaster, 473-yard 11th, regarded as one of the world's best holes. It tumbles over three tiers and hops along the edge of the cliff and through deep dunes to a green nestled beyond a shallow sand saddle before the crashing sea.

The 15th Hole at Ballybunion

The 12th, one of three par-3s on the inward half, is a 203-yarder played across an expanse of dunes and grass to an uphill green on a ledge. For years it was jokingly suggested that the 488-yard, par-4 13th should be played as a par-4, so it was eventually changed to a par-5. Kitty's River crosses the fairway about 80 yards from the green, which is off-camber and protected by a huge mound front-left.

Back-to-back par-3s are found on the 14th and 15th holes, but they couldn't be any different. No. 14 plays only 133 yards but ends with a sloping tabletop green surrounded by huge dunes. No. 15, at 216 yards and with an elevated tee, heads back to the ocean to a deep, two-tiered putting surface with a monstrous dune front-left.

For my money, the best holes at the Old Course at Ballybunion are its final three. No. 16, a 516-yard par-5, is an uphill dogleg-left with gargantuan dunes on both sides. An aggressive line over the huge dune at the elbow of the dogleg is likely to land golfers in bunkers hidden behind the dune. Even a conservative play results in a second shot uphill through a funnel of dunes and a short pitch to one of the larger greens on the course. While walking down the 16th fairway through a canyon created by dunes I felt like I was as close to the "Maker" as I could be.

The 18th Green at Ballybunion's Old Course

The 398-yard, par-4 17th is set on the course's tallest dune and moves leftward down a steep hill, its narrow fairway falling toward the ocean and then twisting around a massive dune as it follows the beach. The tee shot here is straight out toward the sea.

The finishing hole is one of the most discussed after a round at the Old Course. The approach is again uphill to a deep putting surface protected by dunes and almost blind from the fairway. Avoid the bunker in the middle-left of the fairway at all costs.

Ballybunion's famous holes attract most of the Old Course's headlines, but the entire experience is awesome, from a routing incorporating hills in a variety of ways to greens whose simple appearances continually mask the intricacy of their clever slopes.

It's never a course to be taken lightly, but one to enjoy and cherish. Seeing (and playing) is believing.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's world correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, covers the Longhorns for CBS Sports, is regional editor for Texas Golfer magazine and files stories for Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com) features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com)chronicles his many travels, on which he has played more than 350 golf courses since 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.