‘We want you to come and play in the Irish Open Pro-Am,’ said the voice on the phone. ‘McIlroy is playing this year and if you are open to it, we’ll try and get you in the same group.’
How do you respond? Childhood dreams flash before your eyes along with the thought that maybe, just maybe, this is the moment the world realises that you, and not Rory, are the next big thing.
“Ballybunion is truly extraordinary – a place where nature, with all its mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a golf course as exists anywhere in the world.”
And that was it. How could any golfer refuse. Killarney, a stunning course. With a day to warm up at Ballybunion Old, one of the world’s best. And all I have to do is write about it?
The flight into Shannon was straightforward. As was the journey to Killarney, my base for the coming week. I tossed in turned in my hotel bedroom – no wonder. The next morning Ballybunion, a mythical name in golf, awaited. Those images I had seen a thousand times ran through my mind, one after the other. Verdant greens. The blue sea. The black Guinness. Sleep could wait.
Tomorrow would be a day for dreams of the waking kind.
The 1hr drive from Killarney up to Ballybunion, via Tralee, was a brilliant introduction to this part of Ireland – the wild Atlantic Way – mesmerising landscape, sea-salted shorelines, a rugged and unspoilt beauty, 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 jaw-dropping beauty 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. Stunning.
Nothing I found during my time on this spectacular golf course changed that first impression. Ballybunion Old Course is a truly extraordinary golf course. A place where nature, with all his mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a course as exists anywhere in the world. And in my view, it should always be in the conversation when the discussion turns to the world’s greatest golf course. It deserves to sit 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 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 provided by nature and the elements. Pure golf.
It is easy to get carried away when recalling this place, forgive me. Our arrival at the Old Course was warmly received. The clubhouse is not showy or flash but it doesn’t need to be. The summer sunshine surrounded by a sky as blue as in your dreams. The first tee awaited. What we hadn’t banked on was the funeral taking place in the cemetery by the 1st hole. The starter, with his warmth and wit, told us we would need to wait until the ceremony was over.
It was a mark of respect, a reminder that golf for all the joy it brings, is not a matter of life of death. Only in Ireland, you might think, and you might be right. But no one was permitted to hit it a ball until the hearse with the bereaved family were around the corner and gone. It was surreal. But wonderful.
And we were off with a solid drive down the right of the 1st fairway. It is often said that Ballybuinon doesn’t really get going until the 7th tee. And while I would not go that far, the opening six holes are certainly a preparation for the delights of what is to come. Yes, the 2nd fairway rises steeply up and away from you. Nothing is straightforward or mundane. But the 7th tee is where Ballybunion moves up a gear or four and leaves the rest 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, and the sea behind. The 11th is every bit as good. Another visually breathtaking hole that carves its way through the dunes, playing downhill to several tiered forwards that are lined with thick rough and heather all the way from tee to 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.
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 on a day you simply don’t want to end. 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. An order an ice-cold pint of the black stuff. Then sit down and watch the sun drop down into the Atlantic. Take every moment in. And remember that feeling.
Phone Number: +353 68 27146
Designers: James McKenna and Tom Simpson
Cost: £185 in high season.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses in the world.
Length: 6,802 yards from the back tees. Par 72.
And so to Killarney and the Killeen course. After a day of golfing witchcraft at Ballybunion, even the prospect of sharing a majestic lakeland course with some of the best players in the world felt a little after the Lord Mayor’s Show. But bear with me, it was an awful lot of fun. There are, after all, not many days when you walk onto a practice putting green to find Darren Clark and Graeme McDowell putting next to you. You feel every fibre in your body retract with the tension. That goes to a whole new level when you step onto the range.
We have all watched that scene in Tin Cup when Kevin Costner gets a sudden dose of the s-word on the range at the US Open. Every amateur’s nightmare.
Thankfully it wasn’t something I had to live out but hitting balls while sandwiched between Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els is both an extraordinary privilege and thrill but also the scariest thing you can possibly do as a golfer.
Having survived the range, the next challenge was the first tee. Or the 10th in my case. The promise of being paired with Mr Mcilroy had gone, sadly. In his place the less well know Richard Bland, currently world 425. The four-ball was made up of two well-known Irish hoteliers. McIlroy was, however, in the group one hole behind me. Which had the affect of ensuring that the crowds who wanted to catch a glimpse of the biggest star in Irish golf, ran ahead to get their spot and ended up watching yours truly and his four-ball. Lucky them. Not very lucky me. The galleries were ten deep around most greens.
As if the pressure wasn’t enough.
In my naivety, I had planned to put my bag on a trolley and go around like that. Everyone else had a caddie. And within one hole, so did I. A youngster, no more than 14, came up to the ropes and asked if he could caddy for me. How could I refuse. For him, it was the chance to taste the limelight for me, perhaps a better chance to concentrate on my golf, rather than pulling along my trolley. What could possibly go wrong? And on we went.
I played solidly, to my surprise. And even got a warm round of applause from the throngs of McIlroy fans around the 12th green (my 3rd hole) for a chip that almost dropped in. The trust golf galleries have in the pros ability to consistently find the middle of the club face is extraordinary and based on years of evidence. When the amateurs get involved, the risk goes to a much higher level. The irony was that the only injury on the day was caused by McIlroy himself in the group behind – one of his 350yd drives landing square on the head on one of the crowd behind me. Ouch. As we approached the final stretch of holes the atmosphere built, the galleries grew.
The 18th at Killarney is a magnificent hole – a 440yd par 4. A tough drive with water left, three bunkers at driving distance to the right – a gentle dog-leg left. My drive flirted with the stream on the left but landed safely, leaving me 165yds to the centre of the green, over a pond. A big pond. To a green that was surrounded by not one but three grandstands, all packed in anticipation of Rory McIlroy. Of course. My 7-iron looked dead on line all the way. It was struck well. The flight was perfect. The distance, however, was not. And much ball plunged into the bank of the pond and bounced into the water with a resounding plop much to the amusement of the crowd.
That was the signal for a change of fortunes. As we headed for our 10th tee, (the 1st on the card), the crowds had long gone, following the big names who were all on the homeward nine now. My young caddy sensed this pretty quickly. And as I pushed my tee into the ground at the 1st tee, shouted something about his mum needing him back for his tea and ran off in the opposite direction with all the conviction of an Olympic sprinter. Who can blame him? I would have done the same thing. Off he went. Haha.
The remainder of the round was delightful, actually. Without the crowds and the razmataz, it was easier to see the mesmeric beauty of this resort, sitting as it does on the banks of Lake Killarney, surrounded by mountains. The Killeen course was set up for the pros on that day. It is long and challenging but it is beautifully laid out. And perfectly presented. A true test of every shot you have. And I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
And so, that was it. I shot a round of 81. Which, on the day, wasn’t the worst. It was, in fact, better that one professional on the day, who will remain nameless.
Phone Number: +353 64 663 1034
Designers: E Hackett, W O’Sullivan and Tom McKenzie
Cost: £111 in high season to £50.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Ireland’s Top 100 courses.
Length: 6,590 yards from the back tees, par 72
The contrast between the serenity of Ballybunion and the buzz of Killarney and the Irish Open was stark. And yet it was also a perfect illustration of the quality and variety of golf available on the Wild Atlantic Way. I didn’t play Tralee, or the mythical links at Old Head to name but two. You could spend a month in this part of the world and not see it all and experience all it has to offer both on and off the golf course. This is Ireland at its very best. And I can’t wait until my next trip. It can’t come soon enough.
WHERE TO STAY: The Great Southern Hotel, Killarney. A delightful property right in the heart of Killarney that has played host to many famous folk over the years. Queen Victoria’s entourage stayed in the hotel when she visited Killarney in August 1861. While in the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy stayed here with her children – the presidential suite is named after her. Click here for more info.
WHERE TO EAT: Rozzers, Killarney. This really is a must-visit dining experience on any visit to Killarney. Geraldine and Michael and all their wonderful staff not only love what they do and care deeply about their restaurant but they went the extra mile to give us a memorable night. The sheer quality of the food on offer sets it apart and the setting at the excellent Killeen House Hotel is delightful. Click here to make a reservation, to see the menu or for more information.