Ballybunion & Killarney: The Wild Atlantic Way

‘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 verdant green of Ballybunion Old

1. Ballybunion Old

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.

The 7th green at Ballybunion (credit: Gary Lisbon)

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 scorecard for Ballybunion Old

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.

KEY FACTS
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.


2. Killarney (Killeen)

The Killeen course, Killarney

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.

The opening hole at Killarney

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.

A view across Killarney Lake

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 scorecard for the Killeen course

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.

KEY FACTS
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

Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast

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.


THE REST

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.

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Sunningdale Old Course review: England’s best course?

Bobby Jones hit the nail on the head in 1926. “I wish I could take it home with me,” he said of Sunningdale Old. It may be the only thing he and I have in common but I share that sentiment as I step off the 18th green after a round I’d be happy to repeat every day for the rest of my life.

When you receive the invitation to visit Sunningdale for a round on the Old Course, the feeling is comparable to the excitement you feel as a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve. You know you are in for something very special, you hope the day lives up to the hype and you don’t sleep the night before.

The great American golfer, Bobby Jones

The Sunningdale estate is tucked away behind gates just off a quiet lane near the village centre. Once the gates close behind you, you could be forgiven for forgetting a world exists outside of this idyllic spot. It simply melts away, disappears delightfully into soft focus.

The clubhouse is majestic and traditional in equal measure. The main bar overlooks the practice putting green near the first tee and, of course, onto the famous Oak tree that has become the symbol of the club.

There is a driving range away to the left of the 18th green that is functional rather than fancy and the short game area is extensive and varied enough to ensure even the most dedicated of golfers is ready for the round of their lives.

The beautiful par-4 7th hole at Sunningdale Old

The course itself is a true inland masterpiece. As good as anything you will find anywhere in the world. Willie Park Jr, who designed it in 1900, carved through the Berkshire heathland and forest so carefully, delicately as to create a layout that feels natural. It rises and falls over varied and challenging landscapes and it presents so many wonderful and memorable holes. The condition of the course is, as you would expect, immaculate from tee to green.

Sunningdale Old Course 12th hole

The only reason the best players in the world no longer grace these hallowed fairways is because Sunningdale Old is not a long course. It is not a beast. It doesn’t need to be. It prioritises placement above distance, accuracy above power.

The opening hole is a good example. A 492yd par 5, that invites you to begin your round with a birdie. The second is a gentle reminder that things get harder quickly. A 470yd par 4 with a wicked green that slopes sharply front to back.  The 4th is a delightful uphill par 3 that always and then the 7th, with its blind tee shot, is perhaps the best hole on the course – certainly the most picturesque.

The view from the tee at the 10th

And the long 10th, with its incredible view from the tee, is another instant classic in a round full of them. The bunkering is clever and subtle throughout and the fairways, although not narrow, are framed delightfully by towering trees, vibrant heather and, at times, difficult rough. If you miss these fairways you will drop shots.

“It is majestic. It is beautiful. It is challenging and varied. It is a real joy to play.”

The halfway house is worth stopping at. The sausage sandwiches are wonderful and wholesome. The setting in the middle of a delightful woodland is idyllic and tranquil. A perfect spot to consider the final stretch.

The 12th is another outstanding par 4, stretching 416yds. I could go on, but I won’t. I am sure you get the picture. Sometimes golf courses and luxury resorts receive acclaim that, when you finally get there, does not live up to the reality. Sunningdale Old Course is the opposite of that. To many it is England’s best inland course. It is consistently ranked in the top 5 courses in the UK. And yet when you come to play it, as I have been fortunate enough to do on a number of occasions now, it still manages to surpass your expectations.

It is majestic. It is beautiful. It is challenging and varied. It is a joy to walk and to play. And I think I know what I want for Christmas next year …

Here’s all you need to know.

The scorecard for Sunningdale Old
  • Best hole: The 7th – 393yd Par 4.
    A blind tee shot over a hill, opens up to a truly beautiful fairway and green, in among the forest. When the heather blooms there may be no more picturesque par-4 in all of England. Really wonderful to play and not long.


  • Hardest hole: The 2nd – 470yd Par 4.
    After a gentle start, the Old course reminds you that it is no pushover with this challenging par 4. A drive up to the road that crosses the fairway, leaves you around 170 yards to a green that is down in a dip and slopes front to back. Par is an excellent score.

  • Best Par 3: The 4th – 157yd Par 3.
    An excellent and varied opening stretch is completed with this charming par 3. An uphill tee shot means it is hard to grasp the size of the green. With pin position varying by as much as 30 yards. Heather lines both sides of the fairway and will ensure any wayward shot disappears.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
 01344 621681
Designers: 
Willie Park Jr.
Cost:  £95-£230
Where it ranks: At the very top. 12th in Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses in the world.
Length: 6,329 yards from the back tees. Par 70.

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Fulford Golf Club review: Langer lives on

It was an iconic image that travelled around the world.

Bernard Langer, with a shock of blonde hair, playing from a tree 10ft off the ground. It was a moment in time. A moment of golfing history that put Fulford firmly on the map and ensured it always be associated with one image.

Langer plays his shot to the 17th green

I grew up dreaming of playing there. Perhaps it was the image of Langer, or the 23 successive years during the 1970s, 80s & 90s that it hosted the Benson & Hedges Championship, a prestigious European Tour event.

Winners included Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle, Sam Torrance and Mark James. Many of whom are immortalised on the scorecard with the holes named after the famous faces that produced great moments at each of them.

Fulford Golf Club

The images of Langer in his tree endure at Fulford.

These days there is a plaque attached to the tree, just to the left of the 17th green from which he played onto the green. He would drop a shot on his way to a round of 67. And finished second behind the American Tom Weiskopf by, you guessed it, one shot. Langer never did win at Fulford. The event moved to St Mellion in Cornwall in 1990. The German won a year later. All that happened in 1981 and some 37 years later, it was my turn.

A plaque marks the spot where Langer played from a tree

Fulford is only a mile or two from the centre of York, hidden away in the leafy suburb. The clubhouse is imposing and impressive and the pro shop, housed in a separate building close to the 1st tee, provided the warmest of welcomes.

The land on which Fulford sits is mature and varied. Each hole is set in its own amphitheatre. Each carved through woodland and heathland of this beautiful part of North Yorkshire. The first five holes take you out away from the clubhouse. The par-three 3rd is an excellent par 3. A footbridge crosses the A64 to a stretch of eight holes that are the highlight of this excellent layout.

The 10th at Fulford

There is certainly a hint Sunningdale Old when the heather is in full bloom. Throughout the bunkering threatens almost every tee shot. Rarely is there an easy landing spot and the straight hitters will be rewarded over power.

A string of tremendous par 4s culminates in the challenging 13th and at each the fairway appears to narrow at landing distance to make your task of finding the fairway, even harder. The greens were fast and yet receptive to spin on the day we played. The slopes are subtle and you always felt that good putts were rewarded once you found the pace. As with all good golf in Yorkshire, the wind can and likely will have a major impact on your round. The final stretch of five holes back to the clubhouse played into the breeze for us. Making what was a relatively straightforward run into something much more challenging. And, despite our best efforts, we could not get the ball to stay in the tree on 17.

One of the many brilliantly placed bunkers at Fulford

The clubhouse sits close to the back of the 18th green. Only a stumble from final putt to pint.

Fulford is not a club attempting to escape its past and that image of Langer. Why should it? What I found out on my visit to York was a golf course that is so much more than that photograph. I would recommend it to anyone and my feeling is that it is as good as inland course as any you will find anywhere in Yorkshire. It will test you, it will delight you and you would be mad not to add it to your bucket list. That said (and I speak from experience) I do not recommend trying to climb the tree!

Here is all you need to know.

The scorecard at Fulford

Key Facts: 

Telephone: 01904 412882
Designer: James Braid and Major Charles Mackenzie.
Cost: £35-£80
Where it ranks: 77th in Today’s Golfer top 100 courses in England, ahead of Stoke Park and Close House
Length:
6,743yds, Par 72.

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Woburn Marquess course review: UK’s Augusta?

It’s early on another stunning summer morning.

I’ve just finished a hotel breakfast overlooking the pitch at MK Dons, surrounded by mechanics from Ferrari, in town for the British Grand Prix along the road at Silverstone. It’s fair to say the day has begun in the sportiest of ways. Surely a good omen for a trip to one of the UK’s great golf venues?

“There are so many memorable holes on the Marquess”

Woburn is a name that instantly resonates with all golfers of a certain age. In my formative years it was the annual venue for the British Masters, which at the age of 7 I thought was the fourth major. British Open, US Open. US Masters, British … it kind of made sense. Anyway, these days Woburn may not regularly feature on the European Tour but it does boast three beautiful golf courses and two world famous ambassadors in Ian Poulter and Charley Hull, who add a dash of star dust.

The 12th green of the Marquess

As soon as you enter the forest that engulfs this estate, you get the sense you are in for something special. The clubhouse is modern and bright. The welcome is warm and my bag was taken away as a pulled up and all I had to do was walk in and enjoy a hearty bacon sandwich.

The layout at Woburn is excellent. The practice putting green and extensive chipping area is a bump and run from the pro shop and breakfast area. The range is vast and gives you the option of hitting from mats or turf. There is an even bigger practice area across the small road that runs between the clubhouse and 1st tee should you so wish. But the bottom line is that there are no excuses.

The Dukes and Duchess courses may have the history but the newest of the three, the Marquess is now widely regarded as the sternest test at Woburn, having hosted the British Masters in 2015, not long after opening. Since then it has become a regular Open Final Qualifying venue.

And so to the course. And what a course. What a thing of beauty. The 1st hole is as gentle as the Marquess gets.  A drive and a wedge to a flattish green. Things soon pick up, however. And it soon becomes clear that this is a course that rewards the golfer who plots and thinks his way around. Rather than one who simply hits and hopes. The other defining feature of this course is the vast and undulating greens. Which ran as true and fast as any I have ever played in the UK. Granted, Open Qualifying was to be held the next day, but at the time I visited they were running 12 on the stimp metre. My grampa would have said it was like putting on glass. And it was.

There are so many memorable holes on the Marquess. The 2nd is short a dogleg par 5 that vaguely reminds you of the 13th at Augusta. The 7th with its split fairway is a brilliant risk/reward hole. The short par 4, 12th with its island fairway. The long par 3 with a wicked three tier green. The fantastic par 5, 15th and the 18th with a fairway bunker that demands a long straight drive. I could go on. I genuinely loved this course and would recommend it highly. It does have an unmistakeable whiff of Augusta about it. More than enough to make it feel special and to draw me back time and again.

The scorecard for the Marquess

Here’s all you need to know.

  • Best hole: The 9th – 441yd Par 4. This is another beautiful hole to look at it. A long straight drive will leave you around 160yds to the flag but take more club than you think you will need, to find a green that sits atop a ravine and guarded by two bunkers that gobble up anything short and right. Long and left will leave a tricky chip back down the hill. Par is a very good score.

  • Hardest hole: The 14th – 230yd Par 3. Further than it looks and harder than its par. The 14th is a brute of a par 3 and requires a long iron or wood to get you anywhere near. Clever bunkering captures plenty of balls and if you manage to evade those, you will have a very tricky putt from a three tier green. Good luck.

  • Longest hole: The 15th – 558yd Par 5. A really brilliant par 5 that rewards the golfer who plots his way down the hole. From the elevated tee, you can see the many bunkers that challenge your drive. The second shot must be guided carefully down the fairway to avoid more bunkers and should leave you with a wedge or a short iron in to a shallow green that slopes wickedly.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
  (01908) 370756
Designers: 
Peter Alliss, Clive Clark and Alex Hay.
Cost:  £105-£169
Where it ranks: Ranked 37th in England by Top 100 courses.
Length: 7,214 yards from the back tees. Par 72.

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