Let’s get the chest-puffing out of the way first. My birdie at No. 11 on Ballybunion Old — one of the best holes in the world, let alone par 4s (and Tom Watson's avowed favorite) — notched a net eagle for our Great Irish Links Challenge team of media guys (myself, BBC and CNN golf journalist Shane O’Donoghue, Links Magazine executive editor Tom Cunneff and Kiawah Partners public relations director Mike Touhill). I pumped my fist like any self-respecting American golfer would, fist-bumped Tom and let myself believe, if just for a fleeting moment, that I was now a links-style golfer in full.
Sure, I’d had my share of fine rounds on my favorite style of golf course. I almost aced the 17th at Pacific Dunes a few years back, and scored in low 80s on that same Oregon masterpiece (my personal No. 1 worldwide, though that status is now in jeopardy) just last year. I’ve manufactured recoveries from all manner of gunch, dune, bunker and hollow, putted from 40 yards off the green and bumped-and-run to Old Tom’s content. But the way this birdie came to be — hybrid to the top of No. 11’s three-tiered fairway, low-grooved 7-iron through a narrow chute that bounced just right off a mound at the green’s front-right edge and a 7-foot putt with two balls of break, as described by our Jack, our County Kerry-born caddy who also happens to be a Ballybunion member — will forever have a center spot in my mental trophy case.
My teammates reeled their own highlight moments at Ballybunion, too, and we racked up 85 Stableford points on this cloudy, chilly but amazingly dry Thursday, easily the day’s best total at any of the tournament’s three courses (Doonbeg and Lahinch were the other two). The final result? Second place overall, five measly points behind the winning foursome of ringers from Galway and two points clear of a team including NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
Maybe we’ll take the top spot next year, or whenever I’m blessed to visit Ireland’s southwest coast again, but in the meantime I’ll continue to struggle with a nagging and delicious question: Just a couple days after Lahinch charmed my links-craving heart and captured my soul, did Ballybunion “do it” for me even more?
At this moment I can’t decide. I loved Lahinch’s Old Course so much at first play that I spent an extra day in Ireland to give it another go, and even though it ate my lunch thanks to strong winds and weak execution, my passion for it only deepened. But “Bally B,” as the locals call it, now tugs at my deepest affections, too, and not just because of that beautiful bird.
Ballybunion’s Old Course ranks tops for many an American pilgrim, including a few of the 160 or so guys who took part in the second annual Great Irish Links Challenge. Several of them did their best to shrug off the effects of a late night pub crawl in Doonbeg Village the night before, make the bus for the 90-minute ride from Doonbeg (including a 20-minute ride on the Shannon Ferry) and make their tee times. Had they blown it off and slept in, they would never have forgiven themselves. It’s that special.
Founded in 1893, a year after Lahinch, Ballybunion also sits astride heaving, marram-clad dunes that separate town from Atlantic. It’s a longer dune complex — long enough, in fact, to house a second course, the Cashen, to the south (Lahinch’s Castle Course, in contrast, sits on flat terrain across the road from its big brother). The Old originally started with what is now the sixth hole, a flat dogleg left that finishes on the course’s northwest corner, next to the beach. But the five holes that now precede it, while avoiding the heart of the dunes, are full of lovely quirks. No. 1 After the relative ease of the “new” opener (which plays next to a graveyard), No. 2 is one of the toughest par 4s on the planet, especially if there’s a north wind — the green sits in a saddle a good 50 feet above the heart of the fairway. It’s a full 3-wood to get home into the wind for most mortals, in essence making it a par 5 — a bold beginning to a round that, in the end, has almost perfect design and dramatic rhythm. No. 4 asks for a tee shot across the third green to a fairway pocked with an ellipses-point trio of bunkers. No. 5, a reachable par 5 in a normal southwest breeze, is Ballybunion’s road hole. Then, after a stop at the snack hut that stands on the site of the original clubhouse, comes the transitional sixth and, starting with 7, the Old’s wily heart. Nine is a bunkerless beauty with another strongly elevated green; 12 is as stout a par 3 as there exists in Ireland, uphill to blind green. Then comes the best six-hole finish in golf in my experience, and that includes Pebble Beach, anything at Bandon or on either the U.S. Open or Open Championship circuit — two par 5s bookending back-to-back par 3s (14 and 15) and two finishing par 4s, all routed atop and through the kind of mountainous dunes that inhabit our dreams.
But it’s real. Ballybunion’s otherworldly brilliance is right there in front of us and, like all great courses, should be required playing. That the two-story clubhouse is a de facto museum of Irish golf history, and probably the best-conditioned layout in Ireland, just jack up the magic even more.
Here’s an idea: Sign up for next year’s Links Challenge, May 6-9. Go for that birdie at 11, and a handful of others. Soak it in along with nearly a couple hundred other players, and get Lahinch and Doonbeg — plus four nights of unmitigated fun, great food, a slew of new Irish friends and, yeah, all that Guinness — in the bargain.