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Ballybunion’s Old Course: Iconic Irish Seaside Links

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Ballybunion’s Old Course has long been considered one of the best links courses in the world. Located on the northwest coast of County Kerry overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the club was founded in 1893. Over the years, the original course layout has been expanded and redesigned by renowned architects to create the challenging links-style course that exists today. Herbert Warren-Wind wrote in 1971, “I found Ballybunion to be nothing less than the finest seaside links I have ever seen.”

With its seaside terrain and ever-present winds, Ballybunion provides a true test of links golf. The course routing incorporates natural features like towering dunes and cliffs along the ocean. The club also features a second 18-hole course, the Cashen, which opened in 1984 and was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Its wild, tumbling fairways carved through massive dunes provide a modern complement to the Old Course.

In this post, we’ll look at the origins and history of Ballybunion, the notable events it has hosted, course characteristics, and what makes it great. We’ll also do a walkthrough of both nines of the Old Course and learn about Tom Watson’s relationship with the club. Finally, we’ll provide some suggested reading, as well as videos to bring the course to life. As always, the images are simulated to set the scene.

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Origins of Ballybunion

Ballybunion Golf Club was founded in 1893 on Ireland’s northwest coast overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Professional golfer James McKenna laid out the original 12-hole course across seaside terrain with sandy soil and rolling dunes. However, the new club struggled financially in its early years and was forced to close by 1898.

Golf was revived at Ballybunion in 1906 when several prominent local figures came together to establish the present-day club, including ex-military officers and a bank manager. They commissioned Captain Lionel Hewson to design a new 9-hole course, which was later expanded to 18 holes sometime around the 1930s.

In Ballybunion’s early decades, the remote seaside course built a steady reputation within Ireland through membership growth and hosting domestic tournaments. This included the Irish Professional Championship in 1957, won by the legendary Harry Bradshaw.

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Ballybunion’s Evolution

Further milestones came in the 1970s. Land was purchased for an additional course, the Cashen, designed by renowned architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. Around the same time, acclaimed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind ranked Ballybunion among the top 10 courses worldwide. This recognition brought a flood of visiting players like Tom Watson, catalyzing Ballybunion’s rise to international fame.

The original routing and layout of Ballybunion Old evolved over the first half of the 20th century. In 1937, architect Tom Simpson made improvements while praising the natural terrain. Further changes came in 1982 with a reordering of holes coinciding with a new clubhouse. Recently, upgrades have focused on modernizing playing surfaces and conditions to meet today’s standards.

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The Course

The iconic Ballybunion Old Course is a par 71 layout playing at 6,739 yards from the back tees. It features classic seaside links terrain carved through imposing sand dunes and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The routing incorporates natural contours and features for a unique and memorable round of golf, offering an unmatched Irish golf experience.

The course is a true seaside links, set among dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with no trees due to its location near the windy Shannon Estuary in Ireland’s southwest corner. Tom Watson calls Ballybunion a course “on which many golf architects should live and play before they build golf courses.” In “Sand and Golf,” George Waters uses Ballybunion as a prime example of how sandy sites like coastal dunes or inland sand belts create ideal golfing terrain. 

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Outward Nine

Ballybunion’s iconic Old Course eases players into the round while posing a solid test. After the famous opening hole with its cemetery flanking the right side, golfers face the tough uphill par-4 second hole. The back-to-back par-5s at 4 and 5 provide birdie chances. The fourth is straightforward if you can avoid out-of-bounds on the right off the tee. The fifth hole also has out-of-bounds on the right and a few fairway bunkers to navigate, the second being hidden from sight.

After six inland holes, the course shifts dramatically at the par-4 7th, which bends left along the cliffs. The stunning but tough par-3 8th requires a forced carry over a chasm to reach its plateau green with bunkers to the left and a sharp slope to the right. Par is a good score on the closing 9th, which requires two great shots to reach the putting surface. The outward nine provides a solid mix before the full brunt of these legendary links is felt on the backside.

While perhaps not reaching the heights of Ballybunion’s cliffside closing stretch, the front nine presents a strong initial examination with some memorable moments. It lets players ease in while dealing with the ever-present wind and links terrain. The shift to the coast on holes 7 through 9 provides a taste of what awaits on the homeward holes.

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Inward Nine

The inward nine offers a thrilling stretch of links golf along the Irish Sea. It features several challenging holes that require accuracy off the tee and the ability to play a variety of shots into well-protected greens. The 11th hole, known as Tom Watson’s favorite, is a challenging 473-yard par-4 playing through an amphitheater of dunes and exemplifies the course’s sandy terrain.

The 13th hole, known as “Kitty’s River,” is a short par-5 where players can cut loose on their driver and set up as short of an approach as possible. A creek cuts through the fairway 75 yards short of the middle of the green, which is defended by two bunkers. The 15th, “Black Rocks,” is a beautiful one-shotter that plays towards the sea. The tee sits on a dune and plays over and through the surrounding dunes to a two-tiered green.

The 17th is a par-4 that requires a precise approach to a well-guarded green, and the 18th is a strong closing hole with a fairway bunker splitting the fairway and an approach shot to a long green that brings players back to the clubhouse. With its scenic holes, unique green complexes, and ever-present wind, the inward nine at Ballybunion offers a world-class test of links golf skill through to the final putt.

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Tom Watson and Ballybunion

Tom Watson first visited the spectacular seaside links at Ballybunion in 1981 and instantly fell in love, later declaring it his favorite course. His effusive praise and repeated visits over the following decades put the small Irish club firmly on the international golf map. Watson has returned to Ballybunion many times to prepare for the Open Championship (see our post “Watson’s Winning Ways” for more on Watson and The Open Championship). He served as club captain in 2000 to further cement his enduring bond with Ballybunion.

Several of Watson’s most admiring quotes about the beauty, challenge, and integral spirit of links golf at Ballybunion adorn the clubhouse walls and memorabilia. He once stated that the game seemed to originate on Ballybunion’s storied fairways. Watson also led renovations to the Old Course in 1995 that brought it to the layout played today, further shaping the iconic links. Additional changes to the Cashen Course are now being made under his guidance as well.

The special relationship between Tom Watson and Ballybunion Golf Links persists and is commemorated in various ways around the club, whether it’s the plaque and statue honoring him or the challenging par-4 11th hole bearing his name. In many ways, Watson put this spectacular but once little-known Irish links on the international golf map, where it has stayed for over 30 years and counting.

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Notable Events at Ballybunion

Its remote location has prevented Ballybunion from hosting many top professional events, and Major championships have eluded it, but Ballybunion has still seen some elite-level events adding to its history. The spectacular seaside venue never fails to impress the best players who come to test the iconic Old Course.

Ballybunion played host to the 2000 Irish Open on the European Tour. Spain’s Santiago Luna emerged victorious by one stroke in a thrilling finish over England’s Brian Davis. The event drew huge galleries that week and garnered global media coverage, further elevating Ballybunion’s lofty reputation. I remember taping that broadcast and rushing home from work to get a glimpse of the course. This was a few years before the DVR, so kudos to the Golf Channel for airing the broadcast!

In addition to men’s championships, Ballybunion hosted the Irish Women’s Open Championship multiple times over the decades. Winners of this prestigious national title at Ballybunion include Irish golf legends Mary McKenna (1983) and Valerie Clancy (1985).

The club has also been the site of various international team tournaments. Most notably, the 2003 Home Internationals featured the top amateur golfers from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. The Irish squad edged out England in a tight contest that year to capture the Raymond Trophy on home soil. More recently, in 2017, Ballybunion welcomed the future stars of European golf with the Jacques Leglise Trophy matches. The event pitted Great Britain & Ireland versus the Continent of Europe in an annual junior team competition.

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Ballybunion Today

Over 130 years since its founding, Ballybunion Golf Links retains its place among the premier seaside golf venues in the world. The Old Course consistently ranks in the top 20 on Golf Digest’s biennial list of best courses outside the United States. It stands as a bucket list pilgrimage for many avid players. Ballybunion also remains a popular host for amateur events in Ireland and Europe that attract future stars.

In recent years, Ballybunion’s leadership has continued to invest in the playing surfaces and conditioning of both the Old and Cashen courses. A multi-million euro project from 2014-2016 fully renovated all greens on the Old Course along with other upgrades. Additional renovations on the Cashen by Tom Watson are also slated for the near future. These efforts help the iconic links stay competitive with other modern destinations.

The small seaside town of Ballybunion punches far above its weight in name recognition among world golf travelers. The club has leaned into its history and mystique, especially the famous visits by Tom Watson over the decades. His quotes and praise adorn memorabilia in the clubhouse. But it is the timeless setting and challenges posed by the Old Course that keep visitors returning year after year to experience Ballybunion for themselves.

Visit Ballybunion online at https://www.ballybuniongolfclub.com.

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Further Reading

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

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