Ballybunion: golfing heaven on Ireland’s stunning Wild Atlantic Way

Ballybunion Old Course in Ireland
Ballybunion is one of the world's great links courses

Where do you begin in attempting to sum up the majesty of Ballybunion Old Course, when words alone simply can never do it justice?

This is a place that inspires deep feeling and emotion. We will, of course, do our best to capture that in this piece but the message here is: read this, let it wash over you and then go there and feel it for yourself. You will never, ever regret it. 

Ballybunion Old Course
Tom Watson said of Ballybunion: “A man would think that the game of golf originated here.”

Herbert Warren Wind, the doyen of American golf writers, said of Ballybunion Old Course, “It is nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen”.  Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion, added: “After playing Ballybunion for the first time, a man would think that the game of golf originated there. It is a course on which many golf architects should live and play before they build golf courses. I consider it a true test of golf.” None of these comments are hyperbole or bluster. 

“Mother Nature has conjured up as beautiful a course as exists anywhere.”

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is a place of mesmerising beauty. A landscape, peppered with sea-salted shorelines, a rugged and unspoilt wonder, a feeling of endless possibilities. As you wind your way along the narrow roads from the town of Ballybunion towards the golf course, you are struck by the remoteness of the place but also the incredible variety of the land.

Towering sand dunes dominate the links. Verdant green patches light up the avenues, tumbling down the hills, disappearing behind dunes and all framed by the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

Nothing we found during our time on this spectacular golf course changed that first impression. Ballybunion Old Course is a truly extraordinary layout. A place where Mother Nature, with all her mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a course as exists anywhere in the world.

And in our view it should always be in the conversation when the discussion turns to the world’s greatest golf course. It sits at the top table.

While a professional, James McKenna, laid out the original Ballybunion course and Tom Simpson supervised the extension of it, there is a sense that with this golf course Mother Nature herself did the hard work. And could not be surpassed. That’s the essence of this place. Golf beside the ocean, among the dunes and battling the elements. Pure. Simple. Life changing.

Ballybunion Old Course
Ballybunion Old Course was first laid out in 1892

Our arrival at the Old Course was warmly received. The summer sunshine surrounded by a sky as blue as in your dreams, the 1st tee awaited. The starter with his warmth and wit, did not disappoint. There were jokes and warmth. A laugh or two to lift the nerves, of which there were plenty.

And we were off with a solid drive down the right of the 1st fairway. It is often said that Ballybunion doesn’t really get going until the 7th tee. And while we wouldn’t go that far, the opening six holes are certainly preparation for the delights of what is to come. And yet nothing is straightforward or mundane.

The 7th tee is, however, where Ballybunion moves up a gear or two and leaves the majority of the field in its dust. This par 4 is one of the most beautiful golf holes on earth. The Atlantic runs its length to your right, close enough to fly a wedge into the seething surf. The fairway narrows between the dunes and the landing areas are tight. But the reward for a solid tee shot is a chance to find the green, with dunes to three sides, the sea behind.

The 11th is every bit as good. It is another visually breathtaking hole which carves its way through the dunes, playing downhill to several tiered pieces of fairway lined with thick rough and heather all the way to the green. A piercing drive ran through the fairway but I found a good lie, then the green and two putts. Thank you very much. One I won’t forget.

The 7th green at Ballybunion

There are so many moments on this round that remain vidid long after your scorecard has turned to dust in the bottom of your golf bag. 14 and 15 are top par 3s, with 15 the pick – a par 3, 210yds, downhill, with your tee shot flying towards the deep blue endlessness of the Atlantic. You could be forgiven for taking your eye off the ball. But try not to. The 17th is excellent, a dog leg left. And then comes the moment you are not prepared for. The last.

The 18th, whichever day you play this course, will be a disappointment because you simply don’t want this round to end. There is a way to lift your spirits though. Once you climb the hill back towards the clubhouse, do yourself a favour – walk up the stairs in the clubhouse and out to the terrace that looks down onto the 18th green. Then order an ice-cold pint of the black stuff and sit down so you can let it all sink in as you watch the sun drop down into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Remember every moment, soak it up. You will look back on it as one of the best days of your life.

The founder of The Wandering Golfers, Ben grew up on the links of Scotland learning the game from his beloved Grandpa. Previously a writer and broadcaster for The Times and BBC

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