The town of Ballybunion was named after the Bunion family, who owned the local 15th century castle. For many people, the name conjures up a vivid image of a wild links golf course on the edge of the Atlantic with fairways set amongst the gigantic duneland. Herbert Warren Wind, the distinguished American golf author, described Ballybunion as “nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen”.
As you drive from the historic town of Ballybunion, along the winding road to the golf club, your eyes feast upon the most spectacular links land imaginable. It will come as no surprise that this course, located on Sandhill Road, has the largest, most formidable sand dunes in Ireland.
Originally founded in 1893 as a 12-hole course, the 1897 Irish Golfer’s Guide names the designer as Jo McKenna. Ballybunion Golf Club struggled financially at this time and then folded in 1898. The course was re-established in 1906 as a 9-holer, designed by the prominent Irish golf journalist Lionel Hewson; the Old course was extended to 18-holes in 1926. The Old Ballybunion course remained relatively anonymous until it hosted the Irish Championship in 1937; prior to the tournament, Tom Simpson and Molly Gourlay were called in to make suitable alterations to the layout. Little has changed since.
Ballybunion is a thrilling challenge, a supreme test of golf. If you are a very good golfer and there’s a gentle breeze blowing, you might score well. If there’s an onshore gale blowing, you are best to forget scoring well and simply try to enjoy this exhilarating golf course. Bill Clinton played here in 1998, apparently making full use of his "mulligan" allocation.
There are so many excellent holes on the Old course at Ballybunion that it is fickle to single out one, so we’ll select three. The 2nd ("Kennells") is a long 445-yard par four, the line for the tee shot a narrow gap between two towering sand dunes. A strong accurate drive will leave a long approach shot to a raised plateau green. The 7th ("Castle Green") is another tough par four measuring 432 yards with its tee perched on the cliff-edge overlooking the seashore. It’s an absolute cracker. If there is such a thing as a signature hole on the Old course at Ballybunion then it would have to be the 11th, called "Watsons", yet another supremely challenging par four of 472 yards.
Tom Watson fell in love with Ballybunion and he goes out of his way to extol the course’s virtues. After several visits, Watson agreed to write an article for the course guide/planner. He writes: "After playing Ballybunion for the first time, a man would think that the game of golf originated here. There is a wild look to the place, the long grass covering the dunes that pitch and roll throughout the course making it very intimidating... in short, 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."
At the end of 2015, Ballybunion embarked on an intensive upgrade project which involved the replacement of all eighteen of its soft poa annua greens with fine fescue putting surfaces, the addition of revetted faces to around forty bunkers and the implementation of key design changes to several of the holes.
At the 7th, the green was shifted closer to the sea and dunes installed behind the new putting surface to mask the tees on the next hole whilst shaping was carried out on the right side of the green at the 8th, allowing the hole to blend into the dunes more elegantly. Stone paving on the back-to-back par threes at the holes 14 and 15 was also replaced with stylish grass paths.
The work was carried out by Atlantic Golf Construction, supervised by architect Graeme Webster, and completed within the very short time frame of a couple of months. The club could have spent years overseeding to hopefully achieve similar results but its bold approach to convert in one fell swoop is one it should be given great credit for.