Ballybunion Old and Cashen
After a two-hour drive from Waterville, we pulled into Ballybunion in the late afternoon, scheduled to play the Cashen Course, a much-discussed design by Robert Trent Jones that has fans and, well, many detractors. We dumped our luggage in the nearby Teach de Broc, a charming boutique hotel across the road from the course, and drove up the laneway to the lot in front of Ballybunion’s decidedly modern clubhouse.
Ballybunion doesn’t need much of an introduction. It is generally ranked as either the second or third-best course in Ireland, behind Royal County Down and neck-and-neck with Portrush. It is also heralded for its massive dunes and old-school approach to golf. Yep, there’s the occasional quirk shot there, but you knew that before you booked your flight. I take that as it comes, even if it requires a bit of a double-take when scanning through the yardage book.
Anyway, despite our scheduled round at the Cashen, we found the first tee of the new course packed and the Old Course wide open. It didn’t take much discussion before the three of us – me, and golf designers Ian Andrew and Yannick Pilon – set out on the Old Course amid thickening skies that threatened rain, and a wind that was growing stronger by the minute.
The Old Course is largely credited to Tom Simpson, and it is intriguing for a number of reasons. The opening might underwhelm some, especially when they look to the sea and witness the massive dunes. The first seven holes don’t encounter those dunes very often, though the second does play between a couple of the smaller ones on the approach. Instead, you’re faced with an opening shot over the corner of a graveyard on the opener (unlike anything you’re likely to experience anywhere else), as the holes ramble alongside the property line, with a road on the right, before hitting the sixth hole, a fine par-4 with a terrifically difficult green. And yes, you might be a wondering what the fuss is about for the first few holes, given the relative lack of aesthetic appeal. There is a road on the right, relatively unattractive houses and finally a trailer park (common to many links, they aren’t really trailer parks, but “caravans,” where those in this part of the world come to holiday) to draw your eye.
That said you won’t likely be too distracted by the surroundings – the golf, even on this low land, is very good.
Then Ballybunion amps it up a bit, turning into the dunes – some of the largest I’ve ever seen. By point of reference, I’d previously felt Cruden Bay’s dunes were large, but they don’t hold a candle to those at Ballybunion. These are massive, 100-foot dunes that plunge and jut out of the land and roll and meander over the remainder of the golf course, culminating on the 17th hole, which dives into an area of linksland far below the tee.
There are many, many all-world holes over those that follow the sixth. Though the seventh is just damned tough, featuring a long drive along the ocean to a green perched in the side of a dune near the beach, the 8th, at only 163-yards from the tips is surely remarkable for its green that has surely been the inspiration to many. It is narrow with a steep drop on the front left and the back right, with a slope on the front right where the green runs into a small hillock. Though it only has three bunkers – two left and one center front – all are devilishly placed. In fact that’s common at Ballybunion, where small bunkers punctuate the landscape. Interestingly Ireland doesn’t seem to be big on sod walls, so Ballybunion’s bunkers are just round, grass-faced pots that are simple and clever.
The great holes come fast from there – the 9th, with its steep-sloped green setting the tone for a tough hole and the 10th, a slight downwind par-4 that plays over a rise to a green that requires a delicate pitch. Then there’s the 11th, the all-world par-4 that plays alongside the beach and plunges downward to a green situated between two large dunes. It is surely an amazing hole, but with little room for error on the approach – deep grass swales to the right of the green are the only option versus losing a ball in the high fescue on the left – it might be too exacting for some. That might be the slight – if there is one – on Ballybunion. The golf course often has options off the tee, but fewer around the greens. Missing one can often yield a big score.
There are unusual decisions coming in – including back-to-back par-3s (the short 14th and the tremendous downhill 15th) – and the 16th, a decidedly odd par-5 that doglegs hard to the left and then rising tightly between two large dunes. Even after playing it twice, the 16th felt too jammed in for me, but it is made up by the 17th, one of the most dramatic shots on a links anywhere, demanding a slight draw to catch the slope and offer a short approach.
The 18th isn’t my favourite – and I recognize the course has been re-routed so it wasn’t intended as the closer – but just like 11, it felt like there were few options if you missed the green on this tough par-4. Perhaps a little snip of the grass here and there around the green complexes would increase the potential for recovery. But if you like a tough closer, Ballybunion has it.
There’s no doubt that Ballybunion is among the absolute elite in the world, but there’s a second course on the property that some hold in an equally high regard. The Cashen course was Robert Trent Jones’ effort in the 1980s to build a links. It has been wrecked with controversy since opening, with critics derisively saying it just doesn’t play very well.
I was hopeful having seen the opening holes – they offer width and the greens seemed unremarkable but not without interest. Even through the sixth or seventh holes – the later being a par-4 along the water that seemed bermed on the left, blocking the sea on – before it loses the plot. The greens are impossibly small, making Pebble Beach look gigantic in comparison. I’ve seen pitch-and-putts with bigger greens, and that’s saying something. The problem is that it really limits the way the golf course plays – and the scale of the place, with its massive dunes and tiny putting surfaces, seems wrong to me. I’m not the only one, it seems, as the pro at Ballybunion, Brian O’Callaghan, noted that the Cashen is now thrown into a package for any golfer who plays the Old Course. A plan was in place by Martin Hawtree to essentially re-do the course, but that also seems off the table for now. Hard to imagine that people wouldn’t rather play the Old Course twice even if given the Cashen for free, though I recognize that since the Cashen allows carts, it will appeal to some. Just not me.
From Ballybunion we made a relatively easy 4-hour drive (well, as easy as any 240-minute drive can be) to Sligo, a town near a
harbour that separates two areas of land that jut out into the sea. We stayed at the Radisson Blu, which was nice aside from the terribly questionable Internet service. I know, I expect a lot now that I didn’t when I made my first trip to Ireland in 2005. Before dinner we used the nice sunshine to make a quick trip to Strandhill, a lesser-known course with a couple of very big dunes. A member named Jimmy took the time to walk to the course’s high point and show us the routing of the holes. Some were routed over flat land, but the best holes played alongside and off a big dune, and included the fifth hole, a par-4 with one of the wildest lumpy fairways I’ve ever seen. Looking at it I immediately wished we had time to play it, but instead it was off to dinner and bed so we could start the next day with an 8 a.m. tee time at Co. Sligo.
Tomorrow: Co. Sligo (Rosses Point) and a remarkably windy tour around Enniscrone