(This is the third in a series of columns from Rick Cleveland’s bucket-list golf tour of Ireland.)
BALLYBUNION, Ireland – We came to Ireland prepared for weather. We expected rain, wind and then perhaps a squall or two. For two days, we got a lot of sunshine and a nice breeze off the Atlantic Ocean.
So on our third day, we came to Ballybunion, one of the most highly rated, most famous golf courses in Ireland, and, for that matter, the world.
Weather greeted us. Wind. Rain. More wind.
In America, we would never have teed off in weather like that. In Ireland, at a place like Ballybunion, there was never a doubt. We pulled on our rain pants, bundled up in sweaters and rain jackets, put on stocking caps and headed off to the first tee.
Just to the right of Ballyunion’s par-4 first hole, aptly named “Tombstones,” there stands a prominent burial ground. On this gray, rainy morning, it appeared positively ghostly. And I thought to myself, “Please, Lord, don’t let me hit my drive into that graveyard.” (Charlie did, Donnie almost.)
I didn’t. I hit a nice draw down the right side of the fairway, followed by an 8-iron to the fringe of the green and then a nice two-putt par.
This is not so bad, I said to myself.
The rain slackened but the wind blew harder. Every hole we played going out was into that relentless wind. High shots ballooned higher still. Fades turned into slices, draws into hooks. I tend to hit high shots, and I have never found a way to dial it down.
Ballybunion’s lush fairways are guarded by grassy dunes, often including thick, yellow-flowering gorse. You hit your ball into that gorse and you might as well forget it. As an Irish caddy once put it: “You could have wrapped that ball in bacon, and Lassie still couldn’t find it.”
Through the wind and the misting rain of the front nine, I tramped all too often through the gorse, often choosing to thrash at the ball instead of taking an unplayable lie and a one-shot penalty. As an intelligent man once put it, “The first law of holes is that if you are in one, quit digging.”
I kept digging. I shot 45 on the front nine. My friend Bob shot 39. “That’s B-O-B, Bob,” he said when told I would probably write about our round.
Now then, here’s the thing about Ireland: The weather can change in a flash. You can experience four seasons in one day. The rain clouds blew out. From over the Atlantic came sunshine. The wind slackened. What wind we had on the back nine was usually at our back.
I shot 38 on the back, marred only by one more lost ball in the gorse that resulted in a double bogey. The resulting 83 was not all that bad. It did beat ‘B-O-B.’
Ballybunion, you should know, rates in the top 10 on several prominent lists of golf courses in Ireland and the world. Of the Old Course, no lesser an authority than Tom Watson, said, “Ballybunion is the course on which many golf architects should live and play on before they build golf courses.”
The signature hole is named after Watson because he says it is one of his favorites in all the world. A par-4, it measures 473 yards from the back tee, and, if you can take your eyes off the ocean and the cliffs, it will scare the bejeezus out of you. The fairway winds down and up through surrounding dunes. The approach shot must carry over a valley to a green framed by dune scape. A par-4 is a championship score. I made my only bogey on the back side and was glad to get it.
As with all the links courses we have played, the Ballybunion views are stunning and will help take your mind off the gorse and the double bogeys. It was an unforgettable experience. “B-O-B” always will remember shooting 39 on the front side, and I’ll darn sure remember 38 on the back.
Next: Old Head