Founded in 1893, Ballybunion has a reputation that has long drawn in golfers from all over the world
Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course Review
Green Fee Range: €100-€210
Medal Tee: Par 71 – 6,319 Yards
Visitor Times: Mid-April to October – Monday to Friday only
Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course Review
Situated on the Atlantic coast in County Kerry, Ballybunion Old has been presenting a considerable challenge to golfers since the links was first laid out in 1892.
Related: Top 100 golf courses UK and Ireland
The opening holes provide a relatively slow start to the round with little to hint at the drama to come.
From the 7th, however, the course really takes off as you embark on a rollercoaster ride through the dunes.
Some holes cling to the cliff-top while others elbow their way through the sandhills.
The club made the brave move to replace all of its greens a couple of years ago and in 2017 doubled the size of the closing green at the same time as enlarging the famous Sahara bunker at the end of its fairway.
It was love at first sight back in 1981 for Tom Watson, prompting the five-time Open champion to reflect that, “after playing Ballybunion for the first time, a man would think that the game of golf originated here”.
Watson’s rave reviews sparked a stream of overseas visitors, strengthening the club’s reputation and paving the way for a new clubhouse and a second magical course – The Cashen – in 1984.
Watson went on to oversee design changes to the Old in 1995 before serving as millennium captain. The opening stretch is less dramatic than what follows, although the long par-4 2nd and testing par-3 3rd are both fine holes.
But from the 7th onwards, when you first hit the Atlantic, the links takes you on a mesmerising journey, at times hugging the coast, at others snaking though dunes that are at their tallest on 16 and 17.
The star hole for many is the demanding par-4 11th – Watsons – which plays gently downhill via a series of shelves to a green guarded by such a narrow entrance that there is little choice but to fly the ball all the way, unless your long iron or fairway wood play is supremely precise.
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Course changes since previous ranking
According to general manager John Eggleston, “In 2015 we identified that the Old Course required an agronomic return to its original links character. We set about ensuring the promotion of fine fescue on playing surfaces. To this end, all greens were renovated and converted to 100% fine fescue. No architectural change was allowed or undertaken during the renovation except for the 7th green which was made larger. Fescue was also extended into a 1.5 hectare green surround to ensure the greens complexes encourage “bump and run” style of play.
In 2016 the last of the stone pathways were removed and replaced with turfgrass. We now have a network of grass pathways that meander through the dunescape. The artificial stone pathways were a scar on the landscape and we are proud of their removal from this historic property. Marram grasses were added around tee complexes to help integrate them into the landscape.
In 2017 The 18th green was changed. The original green was always considered a weak finishing green. Being just 300 m2 in size we extended it in size to a total surface area of over 650 M2. The Sahara was described by Tom Simpson back in 1936 as “one of the finest cross hazards we have seen”. It was made larger and less forgiving during the 18th green renovation.
In 2018 the dry spell afforded the club with a tremendous opportunity to convert our fairways to fine fescue. The drought stressed the weed grass population to a point of non-competitiveness. We undertook a significant overseeding program in September with fine fescue. Our intention is that the height of cut will be the only discernible difference between our greens surrounds and fairways.”
Proposed course changes
“Winter 2018 will see the development of our irrigation infrastructure to include fairway irrigation in 2019. The final piece in our agronomic jigsaw for the old course will be to replace the semi rough with 100% fescue turfgrass in 2020. We hosted two successful R&A events since 2017 and this afforded us an opportunity to evaluate the strength of the Old Course for modern “big hitters”. Recently Martin Ebert of Mckenzie Ebert undertook a detailed review of the Old Course and is providing guidance for its architectural future. Mr Ebert is paying particular attention to the findings of Tom Simpson’s 1935 assessment of the Old Course and we look forward to his recommendations.”
Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course Review – Golf Monthly Verdict
Some of the most dramatic holes in Ireland, echoes of Pebble Beach