By: Jeff Thoreson
Call me a milksop, a namby-pamby, a cry baby, a wimp – all of which my friends would have on a May day a few years back in Ballybunion had I not pried myself from the coziness of hotel lobby peat fire to join them in a round on the Old Course on a day so abysmal the seagulls grounded themselves, jackrabbits burrowed deep and even the hearty Irish livestock took cover.
We were the only three to play the course that day – a day of ferocious Irish wind and proverbial sideways rain. Not a single Ballybunion member dared the elements. But that is the siren call of the Old Course for aficionados who venture to the wonderful little town of Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland. The old girl beckons and we come.
On this atrocious day, I played so hard on the monster, uphill par-4 18th against a wind considered nasty even by Irish standards (it kept blowing my ball off the tee until finally I just heeled up a clump of turf and hit three-wood off it) and incomprehensible rain because I, a low single-digit handicap, needed to make a double bogey to avoid shooting 100. It was a most satisfying 99.
The Atlantic jet stream races unencumbered across 4,000 miles of ocean and dumps its payload on the first piece of land it reaches – the Irish southwest. There have been many a Ballybunion morning when I have been roused from a deep sleep by the locomotive-like whooshing and whistling of the wind forcing its way through tiny gaps in the window pane; or the sound of rain not gently pitter-pattering against the window but raucously splashing against the glass as if thrown up from a car speeding through a puddle. I look out and say there’s no way we can possibly play today. But we do. We always play. It is the Old Course at Ballybunion.
The golfing astute who believe their hopelessly subjective opinions of course rating should be aggregated as defining say Ballybunion is one of the finest pieces of golfing ground in the world. But I wonder, had Tom Watson not visited the little seaside town in 1981 – before anyone even tried to rank the world’s best courses – and said such nice things about her that maybe Ballyb would be no different than dozens of other small Irish towns with a quirky links course largely passed over by international travelers; the kind of course that maybe you stumble across once, but you walk off swearing you’ll never return.
The links at Ballybunion to me are at once an object of admiration and a commodity of contempt. I have a love-hate relationship with the old girl. I have pilgrimaged to Ballybunion a dozen times with a group of friends that has gone there every summer for the last 30 years for the sole purpose of playing the Old Course for six straight days. Why, you ask? So do I.
I have had the honor of scrimmaging with her about 60 times and she the honor of kicking my ass 59 of them. There was a round many years ago on a frightfully calm, ridiculously blue-sky day where she did me the pleasure of allowing me a nifty 75, but beyond that epiphany I can’t recall a single round across her rugged links where I got the better of her. And I suspect I’ll fare about as well in my next 60 go-rounds.
It’s not the old girl’s fault that I simply don’t have the requisite skills to tackle her mesmerizing charms, her intriguing quirks, her rude unfairness, and quite frankly her outright bitchiness. I own up to that. If I were to pick the 18 holes from around the world that I’ve played and hate the most, six would be at Ballybunion. It’s not that they are bad holes, it’s just that their over-the-top-difficulty has worn on me over the years.
You can argue that after all these years I should have learned my lesson, and I can’t say that you’re wrong. It’s just that the old girl’s lessons come hard.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve aimed for the back pin on the ninth green knowing full well that it would take such an exacting mid-iron that it is a fool’s errand and that the safe, smart play is to the front of the green and hope to two-putt, knowing that a three-putt bogey will still be better than most in your group can manage. I know that on the seventh tee, all of Ireland is to my left, and you can’t recover from the Atlantic Ocean to my right; yet I try and often fail to hug the coast line to set up a slightly better angle to the green.
The problem with Ballybunion is that your own mistakes are compound the calamity the course deals you through no fault of your own. I’ve played many a quality shot to the sixth green only to have the wind drift it ever so slightly off line and land it a little too close to the edge of a roll-away green far more severe than anything at Pinehurst No. 2, and I watch the shot I had such high hopes for carom into fairway-length swales that surround the green. I’ve watched many a good player attempt the necessary recover shot only to face exactly the same shot from the opposite side on his next try.
Sometimes I think the only things missing from Ballybunion are windmills and pirate ships. If Sigmund Freud were to probe the Old Course for sanity, I doubt he would come up with anything more analytical than “bat-shit crazy.”
I mean, who in his right mind would create a 220-yard, uphill, into-the-wind par 3 over a cavernous and unplayable links wasteland with a small green and barely an inkling of a bail-out area? And what’s up with the tiered 11th fairway that, if you’re good enough to hit it, leaves you a field goal shot between two towering dunes that each protect its side of the green the way a massive lineman protects his quarterback? Or the ninth green, where the false front is so big and so steep it might be better employed as a skateboard half pipe for Ballybunion youth.
The bitch of Ballybunion often reveals herself like a ghost, and the player who hasn’t made an in-depth acquaintance with her may disregard her mordacity the way he would a faint voice or disembodied footsteps in the night. But believe me. If during the course of your round, you hit 10 reasonably good shots that could bounce in your favor, nine-and-a-half of them won’t. The bitch.
So for you, my friend and fellow aficionado, I offer the following advice, observations and personal guidance for playing Ballybunion. May you use it better than I.
- Always aim down the center of the fairway and to the center of the green. Give yourself a margin of error of ten feet to the right and ten feet to the left. If you miss that target, pray hard.
- Never play Ballybunion by strict rules of golf. If you have to hit provisional shots, go back and replay shots every time your caddie says, “Oh, we’ll find that one” then you don’t, invoke the unplayable lie rule when you do find the ball but realize it is impossible to hit, count every shot it takes to extricate yourself from the demonic bunkers you wind up in (often through no fault of your own) and putt everything out, the average 10 handicap won’t be able to better 100 on a good weather day and probably won’t be able to complete the course when the Irish weather has it dander up.
- Always go one week earlier than you’ve arranged because when you get there and the wind is blowing, the rain is driving and you’re having a post-round pint of Guinness with the other drowned-rat Americans, Ballybunion members, none of whom will have played that day, will buy a round to honor your intrepidity (or is that stupidity) and say, “Oh, you should have been here last week. The weather was grand.”
- When the members tell you the rough is wispier than normal, ask them to define “normal.” It has been my experience that when the rough is wispy at Ballybunion you have a one-in-10 chance of finding your ball rather than the typical one-in-20. But even when the rough is wispy you still have only a one-in-50 chance of actually being able to get enough club on the ball to advance it more than a few feet.
- Once the Old Course has kicked your ass, go play the more difficult Cashen Course; or, better yet, do something that is loads more fun than 36 holes at Ballybunion – like licking some of the 220 volt outlets in the clubhouse.
- Never believe a caddie, a member, or a playing partner from America who tells you it’s OK to hit driver because there is “more room out there than it looks.” That is never the case at Ballybunion.
- Enjoy the first hole. The tee shot plays downhill with a panoramic view of the course and the town of Ballybunion as the backdrop. You can hit driver if you avoid the two fairway bunkers on the left and the town cemetery on the right because “there is more room out there than it looks.” The green is the easiest on the course to hit and one of the easiest to putt. Still, I’ve watched many a good player walk off the first with a par on his scorecard, a smile on his face and optimism in his heart, only to trudge up the 18th distraught and wondering where it all went wrong.
- If you play the Old Course a few times on your next trip you will look back over your rounds and realize that on two or three holes you have made maybe a par, a bogey and an X. You will be dumbfounded when it occurs to you that the quality of the shots you hit on those holes had no relation to the scores you made.
All this said, whenever I leave the wee town of Ballybunion, I can’t wait to get back. The hard truth for the 1,800 or so residents of this quintessential Irish town is that they don’t reap much from those who come from around the world only to pillage. They arrive on a tour bus, play the course because it’s on their bucket list and get back on the tour bus off to their next destination.
Not us. We stay the entire week mingling with locals, contributing to the economy –largely through the purchase of pints of Guinness. We get up the next morning to bang our heads against the Old Course once again, as if maybe somehow during a night of revelry and over indulgence the old girl’s Holy Grail might have been revealed to us.
In the town of Ballybunion there are no luxury hotels; no Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s a small town at the edge of Ireland; the Internet still runs slowly. The pillagers come to see Irish golf. We come to see Ireland. And if the town’s golf course won’t reveal its true destiny to us, the town itself and its gracious people are more than happy to do so. And that’s why we return.
Never has there been such an accommodating town with such and unaccommodating golf course. I hate this place. I mean I love it, but I hate it.