Ballybunion struck me as having the most Irish of essences. ¬†It‚??s a reflection that‚??s drawn several puzzled looks of late, both from Michael and from locals alike. ¬†But I‚??m sticking to my guns. ¬†The place; the people; the golf club ‚?? they are all, for me, the epitome of Irishness. ¬†And I love it.
The golfers among you will know that The Old Course at Ballybunion is held in high regard among golf aficionados. ¬†You‚??ll see it pop up in the top 20, or even top 10, in many world rankings. ¬†It‚??s easy to brush aside ratings as sham exercises of bribes, kickbacks and prejudices; but the more and more we play these Top, Top ranked courses, the more and more we see why they invariably end up atop the pile. ¬†There are exceptions, of course. ¬†But Ballybunion ‚?? I can categorically report ‚?? is not one of them. ¬†It‚??s Class with a huge great C. ¬†More on the golf later though.
There‚??s a character by the name of Gav Quinlivan that I want to introduce you to first. ¬†We‚??re indebted to the man on a number of counts, the first of which dates back to our last day in the US. ¬†Remember when we were driving around Long Island trying to find somewhere to play, after having been a bit nonchalant about it all? ¬†Gav was the chap at Piping Rock (over at the time seeing his brother Sean, the pro) who helped us out in our time of need (he‚??s since admitted to having been grilled by older brother for failing to make further inquiries at the time about whether we were just scammers wanting a free game!). ¬†We nipped around Piping Rock that day in just over an hour, then caught a flight bound for Iceland. ¬†Gav mentioned he was from Ballybunion, and said there was a bed at his place for us if we needed one when we eventually arrived. ¬†He‚??d only just met us, and in unusual circumstances at that.
Well, Gav got in touch again a couple of weeks back and reiterated his earlier offer. ¬†We gratefully accepted, of course. ¬†Gav also arranged for the Assistant Pro ‚?? one of the most enigmatic characters of the year, Padraic O‚??Rourke ‚?? to make up a fourball. ¬†The stars were aligned then for a memorable visit to the famous little town. ¬†
After a sublime morning at Lahinch ‚?? and a chance encounter with the very interesting John Ashworth (founder of Ashworth clothing) and nephew Jeff (who together are working on a great project called Linksoul) ‚?? we ducked down the road and over the Shannon ferry to meet Gav in Listowel. ¬†Even though we‚??d only spent 15 minutes or so with the guy on Long Island, and hadn‚??t really spoken to him since, it was as if we‚??d been friends for years. ¬†He‚??s a champion among men. ¬†Soon we were back at base camp (a wee house in the country Gav bought a few years ago; he‚??s a reclusive school teacher!) eating a finely crafted meal of frozen pizza, readying ourselves for a bit of craic down the road in Ballybunion Proper.
Scores of the locals were out in force at one particular tavern. ¬†What I didn‚??t know at the time was that the same characters would all be down at the golf club the next day ‚?? either working or playing. ¬†The whole town really does revolve around golf, much like some of the Scottish towns we visited. ¬†The likes of the Head Pro, the local news guy, Padraic, Denny (Padraic‚??s caddie) and a good few others were out ‚?? although given Golf was the order of the day in the morning, moderation was strictly observed. ¬†Still, there was sparkling craic and the anticipation of what the morning would bring was at fever pitch.
Our fourball congregated for breakfast at a tea room type establishment in town. ¬†Fresh as daisies we chowed down enough bacon, eggs and black pudding to feed the Black Watch Regiment and, in my case, enough porridge to plug BP‚??s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. ¬†Down to business.
It wasn‚??t surprising that on a changeable Saturday morning the club was alive and kicking with the buzz of a thousand golfers. ¬†Coach tours and locals alike filled the carpark, the clubhouse and the putting green to the brim. ¬†This be golf country. ¬†Inside we had the pleasure of meeting Vari McGreevy, the General Manager of the club and a lovely lady from what we could gauge in a few brief moments. ¬†Vari very kindly presented us each with a fine Ballybunion vest, which will no doubt get a great deal of wear given the temperatures are dropping and I have an aversion to sleeves on the golf course. ¬†
After all the extra-curricular fun the time had finally come to do what we had come to Ballybunion to do: golf. ¬†The rain clouds were threatening, but for the moment the sun was trying its best. ¬†To the right of the 1st hole is a very ancient looking graveyard, into which a few famous personalities have driven. ¬†Y‚??er man Clinton is reputedly among them (there‚??s even a statute of him in the town, I guess he must be well liked around these parts). ¬†With my strong draw it was never looking in play, but I‚??d be lying if I said the thought wasn‚??t buried just below the surface of my consciousness. ¬†We all escaped unscathed, mercifully.
Right away I was fascinated with the militant march that Paddy (pronounced ‚??Pawdy‚?Ě) demonstrated. ¬†As soon as the fourth ball was struck from the tee, Paddy was off like a shot, marching upright with his huge frame down the fairway. ¬†Denny his admiring and charismatic caddie would rush after him and squawk a few words on the way. ¬†They were like twins born 30 years apart ‚?? hugely entertaining.
Things got serious when we stood on the 2nd tee, which is stroke index 1. ¬†No messing about. ¬†The second is a gargantuan par 4 that plays between 2 huge dunes up to an elevated green; and on this occasion there was a stiff breeze into and from the left. ¬†The Chairman of the Council appeared from nowhere as we were approaching the green to greet us; poor Michael at this point was pitching and managed to double hit the ball, sealing his fate with a certain triple bogey. ¬†There wasn‚??t a par between us.
While we were pondering the 3rd hole Gav took a couple of moments to show us the Payne Stewart memorial plaque that‚??s been erected on the tee. ¬†Payne obviously made quite an impression over here in Ireland, and particularly at Ballybunion. ¬†A stalwart of the game and its traditions, he struck a chord with a lot of people. ¬†Golf needs more Payne Stewarts. ¬†I‚??d like to think one or two of the future Paynes will come out of The First Tee.
If you were going to be a nitpicker you might say the back to back par 5s, 4 and 5, are the course‚??s only weakness in this day and age. ¬†To be sure they were playing difficult enough with OB right and strong winds coming off the left, but the wind really is their only defence. ¬†Mind you golfers are their own worst enemy: believe me, I know ‚?? I took 6 on both after standing with a lob wedge in hand for my 3rd. ¬†Tragic.
6 is one of the great par 4s of Ireland if you ask me. ¬†A real stroke of genius. ¬†It‚??s a tough enough tee shot, right enough, to a fairway that doglegs left in the foreground of the caravan park behind. ¬†Those straying too far right and with enough heat on their ball can end up out of bounds; those biting too much off the corner (as Gav tried to do on every dogleg left with his canny fade) are left with a grassy lie and a gnarly angle. ¬†Hell, even from the middle of the fairway the probability of keeping your ball on the putting surface is slim if there‚??s any wind to speak of. ¬†Which there was. ¬†Not a single bunker guards the green; rather, the contours have been beautifully used to make the landing zone much smaller than it appears. ¬†On this occasion, about a square foot. ¬†Most mortals will be bumping and running or flopping to get up and down ‚?? but you can easily enough putt from one side over the other, as Paddy had the misfortune to do. ¬†Innocuous enough to look at from the fairway; treacherous when you get there.
The weather really started coming at us when we reached 7 tee. ¬†Here‚??s a photo of 4 likely lads in survival mode (from left to right: Paddy, Denny, Mike and Gav):
And here‚??s a snap of something you won‚??t see many places outside Ireland ‚?? a tractor down on the beach, gathering seaweed. ¬†Another one of those times where I found myself uttering ‚??only in Ireland‚?Ě.
7‚??s class too, and again it‚??s all about the approach. ¬†Coming from the left I couldn‚??t see the left side of the green, but assumed the contours would bring any ball landing left of the pin down towards the middle of the green. ¬†I was wrong, and Gav being the swine that he is declined to tell me because I was on the other team. ¬†My partner was way over on the right hand side so he had an alibi. ¬†Gav had a sly grin on his face as he walked up to the green ‚?? I‚??d managed to cling onto the left edge of the green, just ‚?? obviously thinking what I was thinking. ¬†Gloves off.
It‚??s a spectacular view from the 8th tee, right along the strand and down to the stroke index 2 11th ‚?? like the 2nd, a leviathan of a hole. ¬†8 is a tremendous little short par 3 in its own right, with a knife edge green guarded by an arsenal of bunkers and sharp drop offs to the right. ¬†Par, again, was a good score. ¬†
By this stage I was beginning to get the impression that at Ballybunion you can‚??t just hit your ball at the green and hope to have a makeable putt or even an easy chip. ¬†No, sir. ¬†The contours are such that you need to be coming in with the right trajectory and landing on the right portion of the green; Or Else. ¬†Nowhere was that more the case than on 9, which has a terrifying table top green that probably plays a central role in its indexing of 3. ¬†
10‚??s a gorgeous dogleg left par 4 (again, Gav tried in vain to cut the corner!) playing to a green perched above the Atlantic. ¬†The girl you can see in the photo below is Gav‚??s friend Joanda ‚?? a Kiwi ‚?? who joined us for a stroll on the back nine. ¬†There are Kiwis everywhere, even in Ballybunion (although Jo lives in Cork)! ¬†Also note Paddy reaching the green first, on the double.
Now we‚??ve seen some intoxicatingly beautiful views in Ireland, but the one from 11 tee has to be up there with the best. ¬†If you could bottle up the euphoria it induces the stuff would the next big problem drug. ¬†Breathtaking. ¬†The tee shot is an inviting one too, to a fairway that runs away from you through gullies and up towards an elongated green. ¬†A giant of a par 4; and one that you can‚??t help but stare back at once you‚??ve left it. ¬†Likely to make the Top 10 Par 4 List come December 31.
12 as a par 3 is a thing of beauty, and a hole I can‚??t gloss over without mentioning. ¬†It plays quite sharply uphill to a green that slopes front to back ‚?? albeit with a slight bowl in the middle ‚?? and that‚??s exposed enough to bring wind very much into the mixer when you‚??re putting. ¬†Apart from anything else, the 12th green‚??s just a gorgeous creature to look at too.
13 would be one of the more gentle par 5s at a driver and a 6 iron (with the breeze helping ever so slightly), but true to the course‚??s calibre the green complex makes up for what the hole lacks in length. ¬†3 pot bunkers stand guard, and there‚??s a steep drop off from the back and left ‚?? not to mention a false front. ¬†Ballybunion‚??s not going to give shots away that easily now...
14 and 15 are back to back par 3s that present very different challenges. ¬†The former is an uphill shortie to a narrow green; the latter is a monster when played into the wind, but the two tiered green‚??s the size of Texas. ¬†Gav God Bless Him hit one of the shots of the year into 15 with a driver (he‚??s only a little man, mind) to set up a high class par. ¬†He was getting a shot too...sod.
16 would be one of the easier par 5s ‚?? perhaps Ballybunion‚??s only weakness ‚?? but it is no less enjoyable to play for it. ¬†Indeed if it wasn‚??t down wind the 16th would no doubt have proved a more challenging beast. ¬†Walking through the natural chute created by the dunes I felt like Jason with his Argonauts going in search of The Golden Fleece. ¬†Loved that movie as a kid. ¬†Those dunes had a mystical energy about them ‚?? although no sign of the giant with lava in his heel.
Just as we reached the high point of the course (17 tee) a force 9 gale decided we posed a threat, and tried to eliminate us. ¬†If it weren‚??t for our studs we may have been whisked off to Dublin. ¬†Devil‚??s Elbow is tough enough ‚?? a sweeping dogleg left towards the ocean ‚?? as it is. ¬†I‚??d managed to hold out without making a double bogey until then, but The Devil and his Elbow spoiled the party. ¬†Another gorgeous hole though I must admit.
As was 18, which gives you options when the wind‚??s behind. ¬†Paddy Daly took the high road with driver and dam near pulled it off ‚?? which would‚??ve left him with a chip. ¬†Those up in the clubhouse have a great view of the weary golfers down below struggling up the final stretch. ¬†Had Paddy flown it All The Way (over a sharp incline into which a deep bunker is cut) a few old biddies looking on might have choked on their scones. ¬†In the end Paddy and I made four, which was enough to earn a just half I feel. ¬†Gav had been burgling strokes all day despite hitting 15 fairways and 19 greens in regulation. ¬†The little tyke‚??s handicap will be coming down, I‚??d predict. ¬†Mind you he was good enough to buy us lunch so I can‚??t level too much abuse at him.
Ballybunion was, as I said up top, the epitome of Irishness. ¬†The grass was a bright emerald green; the people across the board were instantly endearing and hospitable; and the weather, well, you‚??ve heard the ‚??four seasons in one day‚?Ě clich√© before. ¬†Once I settle back into life in NZ I‚??m going to try teeing up a bi-annual match between Paraparam‚?? and Bally B...any takers? ¬†Swap heaven for heaven for a week? ¬†Go on...
Thanks to Vari and everyone at Ballybunion GC for making Day 253 one of the best of the year. ¬†And to Gav and Paddy for being such smashing hosts. ¬†I‚??ll be back for sure.
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