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X: Ballybunion (Old)

Carved into on a bench atop the gorgeous 17th tee of Ballybunion Golf Club are the initials CTH, and as I processed the semi-blind dogleg in front of me, the Atlantic Ocean glimmering, I had no idea who or what CTH is or was. Grinning ear to ear, the only thing I knew was that it felt pretty damned good to be there.

In golf, there is a short list of courses with something of a mythical standing, where beyond the brilliance of the holes and beauty of its surrounds, there is a certain sense of place which cannot quite be described in words – felt only through your skin. Stepping onto the first tee at Ballybunion there’s an aura swirling in the wind, a true ‘more than a game’ feeling, and an iconic “no way is that in play” moment….


The rough and tumble duneland of Ballybunion (Par 3 15th)

At home, golf is a relatively straightforward game, obstacles and hazards are of a traditional lineage – bunkers, trees, lakes, streams and the occasional group of houses, so lining up the first fairway with the opportunity to carve one into a cemetery sent the heart rate racing with great irony- it’s not often a graveyard could make you feel so alive! Over the years, caddies at Ballybunion have seen balls bouncing off headstones and back into the fairway- a feat they have dubbed a ‘Lazarus’, the resurrection of one’s golf game. Relief overrode satisfaction as I avoided the disturbance of the deceased - one of the golfing world’s great hazards.


The graveyard lurks to the right of the first fairway

The first six holes at Ballybunion are often maligned by golfers as lacking the quality of the subsequent 12, however I would throw this down to a lazy statement based on perhaps the less dramatic visuals when compared to some of the most spectacular golf on the planet.


I found the previously discussed first to be one of the most charming and characterful openers I have played, the second hole (Tom Watson’s favourite second hole on the planet) with its dramatic uphill approach to the top of a dune to be exacting and thrilling in equal measure, contrasting the downhill third hole- a one-shotter requiring a shot landing short and bounding up to the flag. To me, the most compelling shot in this stretch is the approach to the angled sixth green with a vertical drop-off left- there aren’t many tougher up and downs out there!


The 7th hole rides the cliff, with "all of Ireland" to the left

The walk to the seventh tee, pressed against the sea with what our caddie called “all of Ireland to the left”, is the idyllic launching pad for twelve holes of the most captivating adventure golf on the planet, a seaside jaunt which time after time smacks you in the face, and a hike through the dunes I will remember for the rest of my life. The beauty of this stretch of holes, like most world-class links courses, is derived by its landforms- Ballybunion boasts land which heavily tosses and tumbles in all manner of ways amongst a sprawling dunescape.

Ballybunion’s to and fro routing had us playing towards, away and along the beach, constantly playing both uphill and downhill amongst the dunes. The 11th hole- one of my favourite holes in the world had us doing both of those things, its rolling split level fairway and tumbling dip in front of the green is an incredible rollercoaster along the cliffs and has Ballybunion reaching peaks in rarified air.


The tumbling land of the 11th- a hole I will never forget!

Like the back to back par 3s at Cypress Point, Ballybunion’s 14th and 15th holes are equally thrilling yet contrasting one-shotters- perfectly encapsulating the variety of questions in the Ballybunion puzzle. The short uphill 14th asks for a mere flick of a wedge to the small elevated green, but with no place to miss throwing a wedge up into the wind feels like a roll of the dice! The postcard image of Ballybunion- the long downhill 15th plays into a small double-tiered green with gorgeous views across the dunes and the seaside. Two completely different thrills with the same par, the magic of Ballybunion.


The stunning test of the par 3 15th 

Interestingly, this other-worldy collection of holes closes with three doglegs left- perhaps the only instance of this in links golf, however, characteristically this is where the similarities end. The par 5 16th playing blind over a dune off the tee and threading uphill through a valley to a perched up green, while the stunning 17th plays out towards the sea and across a valley to a green tucked behind a dune, with the final hole playing uphill back to the clubhouse. Similar to the preceeding par 3s, the variety of questions Ballybunion asks based upon the landforms it plays, is the soul of links golf and will be the everlasting memory of the course.


CTH: The incredible sweeping dogleg 17th

Ballybunion’s beauty, challenge and downright fun will be imprinted on me forever as the Sistine chapel of Irish golf. The perfect collision of what makes Ireland so downright special and the apex of golf which makes this pilgrimage so remarkable.  CTH – Closest to Heaven. I’m not sure anyone will argue with that.

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