Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we’re going to dive into our pot of gold once again and share more insight into the places to visit while on Ireland golf vacations. This time we discuss a stop that should clearly be on your bucket list – the Ballybunion Golf Course.
Note, there are actually two golf courses at Ballybunion – the Old Course and the Cashen Course.
The Ballybunion Golf Course (old) measures 6,600 yards from the back tees, 6,209 from the whites, and 5,300 from the forward markers.
Standing on the elevated 1st tee, we are struck by the formidable nature of the landscape, the colossal 70-foot-high grass-covered sandhills that, instead of consistently paralleling the shoreline, often run at right angles to it. The result is a variety of dogleg holes carved through the sharply contoured land as well as straightaway holes where sandhills right and left patrol access to the greens in sentinel style. Though bunkering is light (only 63 sandpits), the round cannot be other than adventurous.
There is an ominous quality to the opening shot. A graveyard on the right, with its assortment of Celtic crosses, awaits the feeble slice. This 392-yarder plays slightly downhill, and the green is open across the front. Though not a great hole, it is an ideal starter, while we are getting our sea legs under us.
The 2nd is a great hole, the first of 10 such! Measuring 445 yards and playing at least 490, this par four begins with a blind drive into a hummocky landing area bracketed by sand. Then comes one of the most heroic shots on the links—up, up, up through a gap in the dunes to a shelf green silhouetted against the sky, pot bunkers right and left. Anything less than a perfect strike fails. The green slopes wickedly down from back to front, and the ball that comes up just short will often retreat 40 yards down the hill. This dramatically climbing shot to the green points up something else Watson said about the course: “I love its vertical dimension, which creates a variety of shots second to none.”
Describing all of the other genuinely great holes would require far more space. What is astonishing is that the back nine has seven of them. No sooner do you complete what you are certain must be one of the finest holes on the planet, such as the glorious and unique 453-yard 11th (skirting the cliff’s edge 60 feet above the beach, the fairway descending in three separate steps, the green all but sealed off by a pair of fronting sandhills), than you are confronted by the arresting—and intimidating—12th, 192 yards across broken and hostile terrain to a plateau green perched high above.
The round concludes with a pair of splendid 380-yarders: the 17th, boldly downhill and doglegging sharply left around a majestic dune to the one green that sits squarely beside the beach, and the boldly uphill 18th, traversing a broad sahara on the second shot to gain a long, narrow green in the shadow of the clubhouse.
This is mighty and thrilling stuff, pulse quickening, the pressure on the swing intense. Ranked 16th in GOLF Magazine‘s recent listing of the world’s top 100 courses and 9th in GOLF WORLD‘s (U.K. publication) top 100 in the British Isles, Ballybunion may well possess more great holes than any other eighteen in the Irish landmass. It is unsurpassed for pure golfing pleasure, a remarkable balance of honest challenge, naturalness, aesthetic beauty, variety, originality, and sheer exhilaration.
Also at Ballybunion Golf Club you will find the Cashen Course, named after the river on its southern border, opened in 1984. Robert Trent Jones laid it out, and it is the only links course among his more than 400 designs worldwide. Disdained by many when it was unveiled—satanically contoured greens, fairways too constricted by the encroaching sandhills, ups and downs that were unwalkable and unplayable—the course has been somewhat tamed over the years. But it is still a tiger.
Against a par of 72, it measures just 6,306 yards from the tips, 5,031 yards from the forward markers. Clearly, muscle is not called for. Essential are canny judgment (steep elevation changes make selecting the correct club a frustrating exercise for most visitors) and precision (shots even a hair off line are often severely punished in the tangled marram grass that mantle the dunes). Deep hollows lurk at every turn. And in a wind of 20 or 25 miles per hour, which is common here, our swing can be in tatters before we’ve even reached the 6th hole.
The entire eighteen is routed through duneland, gentle sandhills on the first three holes, massive sandhills the rest of the way. The result of all these mini-mountains, with the land continually in motion, is a stunning assortment of roller-coaster holes, of tees on summits and in chutes, of shelf greens and plateau greens and amphitheatre greens, of fairways rising, dipping, and surging along cloistered dune-encased valleys, of every kind of epic shot that golf at the sea can offer.
Among the Cashen’s numerous unforgettable holes are the 378-yard 7th, precipitously uphill on the second shot to a green on the heights sited perilously within three or four paces of a 50-foot vertical drop to the beach; the 210-yard 12th, knob to knob in the very depths of this topsy-turvy linksland; the 13th, 395 yards, the drive along a channel of low dunes out into a generous fairway to disclose an utterly heart-stopping prospect: the green well below, on the far side of a deep swale and on a shelf jutting out of a grand pyramidal dune; and the short par-five 17th, 487 yards, a semi-blind drive followed by a second shot launched down into a scrawny neck of fairway claustrophobically enclosed by lofty sandhills, the pitch shot climbing abruptly to a plateau green. Are there four more holes here this marvelous? At least four.
Admittedly, the Cashen Course takes some getting used to. But whatever its very occasional excesses, it is nonetheless a great and compelling links, a worthy companion to the Old, and one of Ireland’s dozen best courses. To be at Ballybunion and not play it would be regrettable.