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If there is one name that says Irish golf more than any other, that name can only be, Ballybunion, one of the world's truly great links courses. Ranked # 7 in Golf Digest Magazine's most recent listing of The 100 Best Courses Outside the USA, Ballybunion is firmly entrenched as a world leader. Small wonder golfers come from around the globe to pay homage and savor the privilege of playing such a wondrous layout for themselves.
Whether the course's true potential was understood back in 1896 when Ballybunion's founding fathers laid out the initial nine holes, is a debatable point. The terrain however was very much appreciated by the great English architect, Tom Simpson, when he arrived in 1926 to improve upon the original and extend Ballybunion to a full, 18-holes.
Little of significance has been done to change Simpson's design during the intervening 83 years and Ballybunion thrives, gracefully accepting the accolades, which continue to be bestowed upon it. There isn't a golfer around who fails to be captivated by the magical spell that Ballybunion conjures up for every visitor. This is links golf at its very best and whatever pre-conceived visions any visitor may have in mind, the reality always surpasses them, and by a wide margin. Disappointment is not in Ballybunion's vocabulary.
Fronted by the pounding Irish Sea and close to the Shannon River Estuary, the setting is impressive - a remote, wind-blown corner of southwest Ireland's golf rich County Kerry, amid some of the most imposing sand dunes you will ever encounter. It's a fascinating combination of raw, wild beauty and as tough a challenge as exists in golf. Add to this an intriguing if not complex personality, as the course tracks through the sand dunes, one minute running alongside, then up, over and around them, and Ballybunion's repertoire of ever-changing, never forgiving examinations is revealed. Boring this course is not.
The first hole is relatively straightforward and almost gentlemanly, as Ballybunion politely introduces itself, but take warning from the cemetery that lies to the right -- could its occupants be lost souls who failed Ballybunion's rigors?
The second provides better indication of the test in store -- a rigorous par 4 with a second shot to an elevated green, where par will be reassuring. Take the glory while you may, the real test doesn't begin until the fifth as Ballybunion's true personality comes to the fore. By the sixth it's there with a vengeance, as a frighteningly narrow approach takes you to a green perched atop a plateau and the adventure among the dunes begins in earnest. Ballybunion will confound and confuse with a complexity that makes even the thinking golfer, think again and maybe one more time, just to make sure.
The seventh runs its entire length along the shoreline and may be one of the best par 4's you will ever play. The eighth takes you back down the dunes and is a deceivingly short par 3, ready to punish any shot missing the green, severely. The test continues without let up.
With some heartache you reach the world famous eleventh, one of the world's greatest two shot holes. Knees tremble as you stand on the tee with the waves of the Atlantic pounding below, enormous sand dunes to the left and the fairway dropping away in front. Any intimidation you may feel is completely understandable. Perfectly visible, the eleventh green lies directly in front -- a windswept plateau overlooking and protected by that mighty Atlantic Ocean.
The fifteenth is a magical par 3, ready, willing and able to take on the very best and both the sixteenth and seventeenth are as brilliant as any on the entire course -- a pair of beauties envied by links courses the world over.
Tom Watson was the first of the great American players to regularly visit Ballybunion; Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickleson and Tiger Woods have all followed in Watson's footsteps, falling for Ballybunion's feisty personality and charm. The course has become a part of the regular warm-up routine for many of our American golfers as they prepare for each year's British Open, the ultimate test of links golfing abilities.
Fame brings with it popularity and Ballybunion has not been immune, becoming the most requested course not only in the glorious, golf-rich Southwest, but in all of Ireland. Demand now exceeds the availability of visitor times by a margin that only grows wider each year, so early booking, even a full year ahead, is strongly advised. It may seem like a long wait, but like everyone else, you'll probably agree, the wait was worth it.
Ballybunion Golf Club also has a second layout here that is well worth experiencing, The Cashen Course, a Robert Trent Jones design and an excellent links that has produced some controversy since it first opened in 1984. Though sharing the same impressive sand dunes as its older brother, Jones did not fall into the trap of being influenced by the senior course, producing a design that many consider to be an even greater challenge. This is links golf with a slight American accent, where target golf may bring more success than the traditional bump and run approach. Accuracy and good club selection are mandatory and technical ability will get you further than gut feel and intuition.
Living in the shadow of a famous older sibling, can never be easy and for a golf course, matters are no different. Place The Cashen 20-miles away and no doubt it would have earned a reputation of its own and visitors would be clamoring to play it. Unfortunately it suffers from the being Ballybunion's second course, together with the stigma that innocuous label carries. Love it or hate it, The Cashen deserves to be included in any itinerary to this part of the Emerald Isle. Play both Ballybunions and if nothing else, you will at least gain an idea of what all the fuss is about.
For a few suggestions on how best to include Ballybunion in your Irish golf trip, click here
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