At the top of every golfer’s bucket list is Ballybunion Golf Club’s Old Course, where golf has been played for 120 years. Nearly every great golfer in the game, as well as thousands of devoted duffers from all over the world, have teed up here. The latter group includes former President Bill Clinton, whose enthusiasm for Ballybunion, not to mention his role in settling the religious strife in Ireland, earned him a statue at the main crossroads in town. Caddies still talk about the drive he supposedly sliced into the cemetery bordering the first hole.
Don’t laugh too hard at the man’s errant drive, however, until you’ve successfully hit one to a fairway you can barely see in a 30-mile-per-hour left-to-right crosswind. That’s what you can easily encounter at Ballybunion, where—as on any great links course—the wind shapes your entire round, pushing the ball wherever it wants in the air and frequently even on the ground. The wind can easily blow a standing ball uphill, and caddies develop a particular skill in teeing the ball at a slant to stand up to it.
Wind isn’t the only element that can wreck your score at Ballybunion. Missing the fairway can bring on scorecard disaster, whether it comes about from an unfortunate gust or sheer duffer-ness. Countless pot bunkers await your ball in the most inconvenient places. Even worse is the marram grass, which is like fescue only meaner, since it falls over in the damp air and smothers the unfortunate ProV you just took out of the sleeve.
A local professional, James McKenna, is thought to have first laid out Ballybunion’s Old Course in 1892. It’s been redone, extended, revised, and otherwise tinkered with through the years, with the latest design changes overseen by Tom Watson in 1995. Today it plays par 71 at 6,802 yards.
Ballybunion also boasts a second course, the Cashen Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., which opened in 1984. Depending on your frame of mind, you’ll find the Cashen Course either a tremendous challenge or simply impossible. It features tight blind fairways, forced carries off the tee and to the green (sometimes on the same hole), and approaches with no safety zones for cautious players. The Cashen Course is par 72 and only 6,306 yards, but don’t be fooled into thinking it an easy walk along the seashore.
Greens fee: The Old Course: €180 ($242); the Cashen Course: €65 ($88); both courses: €195 ($263); ballybuniongolfclub.ie
The biggest problem you’ll face when playing Tralee Golf Club is keeping your mind on the game. The Arnold Palmer design in County Kerry not only has a succession of excellent holes, but every one of them has a full view of the Atlantic. Many also have fascinating stories and features—like the 12th-century Norman tower behind the third green; or the sandstone boulder between the fourth and fifth fairways, allegedly hurled there by Cuchulain, one of the great heroes of Irish mythology—to go along with the views. Plus the smugglers’ harbor behind the seventh tee box, the shoreline behind the 16th green where a ship from the Spanish Armada ran aground in 1588, and the beach along the second hole where scenes for the 1970 epic movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed.
But pay attention! You’re there for golf, right? You won’t be disappointed. Tralee presents a fabulous links golf experience. The front nine is fun, and the back nine is simply spectacular with a parade of dramatic holes that equal the best you’ll find anywhere in the world. In a country noted for great golf, Tralee should be at the top of your must-play list. A round at Tralee calls for strength, length, accuracy, and touch, not to mention a bit of luck and a sense of humor capable of taking the funny bounces of links golf in stride.
The par 3s on the back side are particularly exciting. The 13th is only 159 yards, but it’s all carry to a shallow green and generally plays with a left-to-right wind that makes club selection and aim a test of nerves. The 16th, known as “Shipwreck,” plays toward the ocean in a setting as dramatic as you’ll find on California’s Monterey Peninsula. The tee shot must carry 185 yards over a yawning canyon in the dunes, and the pin can be as deep as 216 yards onto the two-tiered green.
The finishing hole at Tralee, a 486-yard par 5, gives you an excellent chance to close out your round with a birdie, which is always a nice touch. You’ll need to be accurate, though, especially off the tee, since there are 13 bunkers waiting to add a stroke or two.
Tralee plays par 72 at 6,991 yards from the championship tees. It’s a good idea to consider playing the forward tees, though, because the golf is just as good and the views are still excellent.
Greens fee: €170 ($229), traleegolfclub.com
You’ll find every distinguishing feature of great links golf at the Old Course at Lahinch in County Clare. Hard, fast greens. Narrow, rumpled fairways. Blind shots. Tangled rough. Wind, rain, and goats. Yes, goats. Local lore holds that when you encounter the goats around the course, you can expect an interlude of bad weather. From my experience, local lore is dead on.
The course was originally laid out in 1892 and redesigned by Old Tom Morris in 1894. The present fifth hole, a 154-yard par 3 that plays more like 180 over a dune that blocks your view of most of the green, was Old Tom’s handiwork. Alister MacKenzie, who redesigned the course again in 1927, is given credit for the current course, although it was modernized for today’s game by Martin Hawtee in 1999.
From the tips at 6,950 yards and at par 72, Lahinch demands a firm stroke and steady nerves. The wind off the Atlantic affects every single shot, including your putts. You play the wind from every angle, too; MacKenzie routed the holes so that six play into it, six play with it, and six play across. But you play the landscape as well. Fairways can be as narrow as 20 yards and thread their way through dunes covered by knotty rough. The heavily contoured greens look slow, but they roll fast and are guarded by numerous deep bunkers.
Blind shots add to the fun. The fourth hole, for example, is a simple 475-yard par 5. It plays straight away downwind, too, which should mean a birdie fest. But 40-foot-tall Klondyke Hill stands in the middle of the fairway about 300 yards from the tee, blocking all views of the fairway and green beyond so completely that a club employee is stationed atop it to let you know when it’s safe to hit over. Your strategy? Hit your blind second shot over the white rock on top of the hill and trust it.
A good second round (or a first if you’re looking for an easier warm-up) is the Castle Course at Lahinch, which plays a little shorter through less hilly terrain, but still requires precision shot-making due to several water features. It’s par 69 at 5,488 yards.
Greens fee: Old Course: €120 ($162); Castle Course: €30 ($40) lahinchgolf.com
Getting to Southwest Ireland is easy with direct flights to Shannon from several East Coast airports. A good central place to stay is Kilcooly’s Country House (golfballybunion.com) in Ballybunion, a congenial small hotel with character, a fine dining room, and an intimate, well-stocked bar. The place is filled with antiques and tasteful bric-a-brac, but unlike so many Old World hotels, the rooms are spacious and uncluttered.