Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ballybunion and Lahinch - Golfing in Ireland

My first trip to play golf in Europe was to Ireland about ten years ago. A friend who was born and raised in Northern Ireland arranged the trip and we went in late September. He is an aggressive type 'A' personality and we played about 12 times in 7 days. Ireland has 32 counties (26 in the Republic and 6 in the North). During our brief stay on the Island we drove through 20 of them while making a complete circuit of the country.

We started in Dublin, traveled South, then West, then North, then East before traveling south to Dublin again. We played five courses on the top 100 list (Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, The European Club, Lahinch and Ballybunion) and several others that are not (Ballyliffin in County Donegal, The K Club and Druids Glen).

I credit this trip for infecting me with the golf bug. I've been addicted ever since.

I have returned to Ireland many times on golf trips and played throughout the country including at Tralee, Waterville, Old Head, Portmarnock and Killarney. Irish weather in late September can be hit or miss. On this trip it was a miss. Wind like you cannot believe; rain; cold; damp. We usually played 36 holes each day and would then drive between 2 and 6 hours to the next course. Luckily, we had a driver to take us around. He was a farmer whose crops were awaiting harvest and he was doing this for spare income.

Having grown up in America I have a certain perception of what a hotel room is supposed to be like and what constitutes a meal. These were all shattered on my first trip. The first thing you grasp is that Ireland is basically still a third world country outside of Dublin. I in no way mean that in a derogatory or negative sense, but they have limited infrastructure. Things have certainly changed in the last 10 years as Ireland has joined the EU and become a massive beneficiary of roads and other projects, but the Irish countryside is still based on a centuries old agrarian economy.

Almost all the roads we traveled on were two lane roads with barely enough room for two small cars to pass. On a map, two locations appear to be 60 miles apart. In the States it would more or less take an hour to travel between them. In Ireland it would probably take the better part of three hours. I found it astonishing that most people we met on the trip had never left the county they lived in. Even with a driver and a map it was very difficult to get around. The road signs in each town only point the way to the next town. If you are looking for a town that is 15 miles ahead and pull into a gas station or a pub to ask for directions, you may as well be asking for directions to Des Moines.

There is also no such thing as a hotel chain or a recognizable brand name in Ireland. We stayed at B & B's or small country hotels throughout the country, most of the time in small villages where we were playing golf. In the United States you can stay at a Hyatt or Hilton or some other known brand. Not in Ireland -- everything is local, and it is great. What a refreshing break from the bland sameness that America has become. They may not be luxurious, but they have personality. The rooms are miniature, the showers alternate between ice water and scalding hot, there are no hair dryers and if you are lucky there are three channels on the TV. We have stayed at our fair share of "Marine" hotels that saw their best days in the 30s or 40s. Paper thin walls and no room service.

Although they lack amenities they make up for it in charm -- like a night porter making you toast and coffee at 5 am so you could have something to eat before a long drive. Or the owner fixing you sandwiches upon a late arrival.

On our first morning in Ireland we were introduced to something that has become a beloved part of our trips to the British Isles - the full fry. You have to understand we did not stay at 4 star hotels -- No Adare Manors or K Clubs for us. The first time you get the eggs, sausage, bacon, blood pudding, tomato, mushrooms, hash browns and toast you think to yourself, wow! This is not a country where you have a bowl of cereal with skim milk or a bagel.

I had been warned to bring plenty of wind breakers, turtle necks, sweaters, rains suits, many gloves and two pairs of golf shoes -- one to wear while the other was drying out. I used them all on that first trip, often times multiple times each day. It is not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a day in Ireland.

I fell in love with Ireland immediately. There is an understated simplicity to the place that I really liked. The countryside is spectacularly beautiful throughout. It is not uncommon to see a rainbow every day. There are rolling hills everywhere: more shades of green that you can describe; old stone walls that mark the farmers fields. Rounding the bend on a curved road we were once startled to see a farmer walking his cows down the middle of the road on their way to an alternate field. It is a timeless scene.

Ballybunion's lovely 12th hole

Although normally a Scotch drinker, while in Ireland I only drink only Guinness. Under U.S.D.A. regulations the Guinness that is imported into the U.S. must be pasteurized. The Guinness here is unaltered and it tastes different -- and better. One of life's simple pleasure is enjoying a pint of Guinness in Ireland served at the correct temperature after it has been properly poured.

I was also very surprised at how knowledgeable the Irish people were of the U.S., in particular U.S. politics. Even in remote villages you can engage in a discussion on a variety of topics.

Lahinch (ranked #73 in the world), is the antithesis of an American-style parkland course, wide open with sweeping views and hummocks. One of the things you hear over and over that makes Pine Valley such a great golf course is that you can't see the other holes when you are playing the hole you are on. In fact you can on several holes, but the point is that you do feel a sense of isolation throughout the round.

The adventure at Lahinch begins on the first hole, which has a plateau green. Try stepping up to this first tee after flying all night with no sleep. Where do you aim again?

Welcome to Lahinch. The tricky first hole.

If there is a polar opposite to Pine Valley, it is Lahinch. My advice to you at Lahinch is be ready to duck at any time. It is wide open. The fourth, fifth and eighteenth fairways literally criss-cross, I kid you not. Talk about hazards in front of the green? How about the fourth hole named "Klondyke". It has a fifty foot sand dune in front of the green, making it a blind approach on a 400+ yard hole! The narrow fairway snakes through the dunes as seen below.

The tough fourth hole at Lahinch, "Klondyke"

The completely blind par three fifth, the "Dell" hole, pictured below, is reportedly the site of many a hole in one, sometimes with the minor assist of a caddie who gets a much enhanced tip.

Look at the comments of those that have completed playing the top 100 golf courses in the world. Coincidentally or not, almost all had poor weather when they played Lahinch. Bottom line, Lahinch has bad weather. Having been there twice I can attest to rain and wind both times. The second and third holes, which are not really shielded by the dunes, play impossibly difficult in windy, rainy conditions. Wind in Ireland is different than where I live. It is not an exaggeration to say that you can play in a four-club wind at Lahinch.

Why is Lahinch on the top 100 list? It's hard to articulate, but it should be there. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, Lahinch takes time to appreciate. It was designed by Old Tom Morris and Alister Mackenzie revised the layout in the 1920s. Despite all its shortcomings, Lahinch has an intangible quality that is unmistakably Irish. It is a cult course in the same vein as a Cruden Bay, North Berwick or Prestwick. Love it or hate it, but play Lahinch once and you will always remember it.

Listen to what some of golf's most knowledgeable writers have said about Ballybunion Golf Club (ranked #13 in the world). James Finegan calls it, "the greatest links I have ever played." Herbert Warren Wind said, "it is nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen," and "like a Gaelic version of Pebble Beach." Tom Watson says, "I am now of the opinion it is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world."

I am a fan of Ballybunion and agree that it is a pure links course. The first hole is a good starting hole, with an unusual hazard down the right hand side - a cemetery. The last time I played Ballybunion was two years ago and we had a 7:00AM tee time, the first group out. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm day and the round was very pleasant. My only criticism of the layout is that the 4th, 5th and 6th holes are all routed in the same direction, and all into the prevailing wind. This makes a total of 1,400 yards into the wind that can wear you down early in the round. I'm a bigger fan of routings such as Carnoustie and Royal Portrush that have more change in direction. Despite this shortcoming, Ballybunion is a worthy entrant in the top fifteen courses in the world.

The serene dunes landscape of Ballybunion

I am also a fan of the second course at Ballybunion - the Cashen. It is a new course designed by Robert Trent Jones but looks like its been there a long time and is a fun and imaginative routing. Ballybunion has a new American style clubhouse that doesn't really fit the course or the surroundings. Despite these shortcoming, golf in Ireland can hold its own with golf in any region of the world.


Anonymous said...

Lahinch has undergone changes recently that have been greeted with enthusiasm. It's well worth visiting again.

Next time you're in Ireland, try the Redbreast whiskey...

Anonymous said...

i think the people of ACTUAL third world countries would disagree.

Anonymous said...

ummm i dont know what you're on about man... ireland is nowhere near as backward as you describe. sure there are coutry places like you described, but these do not make up the majority of the country. most of Ireland is by no means a third world country - in fact, it is the exact opposite.

Mike Moynihan said...

You can not have been there recently as in the last five years things have improved ten times over

Anonymous said...

I am not sure what this guy is smoking but Lahinch ranks up their as one of my favorite. I have played PV over 20 times. They are different golf course and different experience. If you are in the south of Ireland this is a must play along with tralee and waterville. Bally I am not sure what the thrill is could take or leave plus they treat you poorly there.

Anonymous said...

No question that Lahinch is one of of game's purest layouts, as the archicture of each hole seems to have been dictated by the dunes, as the opposite approach in modern resort courses. I had only experienced this perfect framing once before, at Turnberry 4 years earlier.

Played Ballybunion and Lahinch with friends last summer and, with all due respect to Tom Watson, BB is a somewhat depressing place (opening tee shot over a cemetery - neat, but need I say more?).

If you believe in a more free market approach to judging the beauty of a given golf course, check out the modest homes selling in the millions on the inland side of the course.

Fritz Ewert said...

Thank you for posting, in general, but, specifically, including all the contrary feedback.

After picking through the reviews, I am systematically reviewing them. I haven't enjoyed something so thoroughly since "The Golf Digest" issue awhile back w/ the top 50 teaching methodologies detailed.

All of us owe you for your effort. Again, thank you, your work is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Lahinch is a must play. My favorite. Started to sleet sideways mid-way through the round so my partner and I sought shelter under a group of big shrubs near the tee. After a minute a greens keeper came flying up in a John Deere Gator seeking shelter under the same shrub. Startled by finding us, we heard "dersahootahed". Not able to understand that, or anything else he said, we were thankful when before long it stopped and we resumed play. A few holes later we came across a little building or hut off the right side of the fairway. Since then, whenever it rains, we hope "Ders a hoot ahed"

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your website very much but have to disagree with your Lahinch comments. I just returned from an Ireland trip; we played 13 rounds in 8 days! Lahinch was in perfect condition and I enjoyed it more than Ballybunion Old. However, the course I am most impressed which is a course that is (for some reason) not on the top 100 list...OLD HEAD. This must be the most underrated course in the world because I thought it was better than Pebble Beach. Your thoughts?

Top 100 Golfer said...

I agree with the above comment that Old Head is an absolutely fabulous program that is really under-rated among the golf cognoscenti for some reason - perhaps because it doesn't have the correct pedigree. There are few better places on the planet to enjoy a round of golf if the wind is down and the sun is shining.

Unknown said...

BB (old) is the best of the Ireland courses with the variety of holes unique to Ireland. Hard to get two as it seems all Irish courses are. Weather is always tough but as a golf historian like Hebert Warren Wind "This experience includes terrain changes, weather, and unique play from hole to hole unmatched".

Anonymous said...

Old Head? The scenery is breathtaking,but that masks the fact that the course itself is below average and nowhere near top100. There is no way it comes remotely close to pebble. It is way overpriced for what it is. If you wantsea views then go to the beach, If you want to play a good golf course then play Pebble or Ballybunion.

RJDunne said...


I’m a new blogger and your site is quite related to mine - well the part about Ballybunion golf club; I thought it would be beneficial for both of us to do a blogroll link exchange.
My site is http://ballybunionhotelshq.com

Please let me know if you’re interested.

P.S. I live out by the Portmarnock course - its nice but I prefer the Royal Dublin (its usually more challenging due to extreme cross winds).

Best regards, Rod Dunne

Anonymous said...

I guess Ireland has been ruined now because of all the "improvements" since joining the EU. What's the point of going there now, since it is not distinctive. It is becoming just another diverse place that seems the powers that be want to turn everything into. Let's even put in expressways all over the place. Alas, the economy has tanked and the boom is over, but the real Ireland is lost forever.

Anonymous said...

The only reason I can think of why Lahinch ranks so low in these ratings is due to its difficulty in adverse weather conditions. Its a stunning course, with some truly memorable holes on the finest golfing terrain, comparable to anywhere im Ireland - including Ballybunion - and way more appealing than the likes of Portmarnock. It does have its quirks, blind shots, holes weaving through - and sometimes over - the huge dunes, but in no way do these detract from the golfing experience, in fact only enhance it. Probably my favourite of the Irish links.

Anonymous said...

I played Lahinch on my 2 trips to Ireland 8 & 9 yrs ago. It is one of the more fun places to play anywhere. We did have sun,wind,cold,rain,wind and sun,again...all in 4 hours. The blind shots are cool, the town is fun and I loved every minute of it.

millracer said...

I don't think you give Lahinch the justice it deserves. It is a truly wonderful layout and the routing is not as problematic as you make it sound. There are only two things wrong with Ballybunion: 1) the clubhouse (looks like a bomb shelter)and the mobile home park which is off site but detracts from the ambience of the front nine. The cemetery adds to the history and every hole is spectacular.

Anonymous said...

PLayed BB twice. One with the WORST weather conditions, and the other with a great sunny day. I loved them both. I think it's the best golf course ever played. LAhinch was also great, with spectacular holes, and some dull ones. Would rank it below BB. From Argentina, Damian

Anonymous said...

there is a motorway almost the whole way from dublin to lahinch, galway to lahinch and limerick to lahinch.
there are numerous flights from LAX everyweek direct into shannon which is a thirty minute drive from doonbeg and lahinch.
doonbeg then is only a 15 minute drive a quick ferry and 5 minute drive to ballybunion
I cant believe you went to the effort of playing all these courses and just coppied the magazine your were reading in toilet for ten years.
why didnt you make ur own opinion.
ballyb is outdated and too short. still a wonderful course but not anything as good as lahinch.
st andrews is a great place to play one of the greatest but
st andrews is not no. 6 either its flat, wide open and has big greens. its actually quite easy.

Scott said...

It has been 4 years since we made a trip to Ireland and played LaHinch, Ballybunnion (both courses), Tralee, Waterville, Doonbeg, Dooks, and Old Head. I loved Ireland, and plan to return. The Irish people are wonderful. I really enjoyed LaHinch and Ballybunion (old, new- not so much). Tralee was one of my favorites. Old Head was incredible. I have played Pebble Beach a few times and it is my favorite PLACE that I have ever been. But Old Head was worth the extra effort that it took to add it to my trip. Part of our group stayed an extra day in order to play it. If you make it to Ireland to play golf, especially southern Ireland, you MUST play Old Head! It is great to read your blog and comments from others and hear true viewpoints from people, not something from a publication that I suspect might have been paid for. THANKS. Scott in Missouri

Anonymous said...

third world country? idiot!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Did a SW Ireland trip at the end of Sept 2010. Adare, Ballybunion (old), Lahinch, Waterville, Tralee, Doonbeg. Fave was Ballybunion with Tralee a close second. Doonbeg was impossible; don't waste your money unless you are a 7 or better. All other courses very good. Enjoy the Ring of Kerry while riding out to Waterville (like PCH in CA).

Anonymous said...

Pity about all of the irish on here commenting about it not being a third world country and how things have "improved" in the last 5-10 years.

What you don't realize, is that even for a young Irish person (yes, of 100% Irish descent) the americanization of the country is a disaster. Cities like Galway are slowly being eroded of their Irish ways to accommodate snobs. Worst of all, it's Irish snobs that are ruining the country for all of us!

Leave it! Small roads, cottages and real people are better than 10 kinds of eggs and 100 kinds of coffee on the menu!

Unknown said...

I played Lahinch the summer before last on a glorious sunny afternoon. The wind was up at various times during the round and it sometimes approached 3-4 clubs if in the face. The course has some of the most amazing dunes I have ever seen. Unlike the author I don't recall it being a place with a lot of crossing/parallel holes. There are some that are parallel but no more than most links courses I'd say. During our visit the rough was so deep it took a seriously offline high flying shot to find another fairway. The ball certainly wasn't going to roll through the rough. A fun, beautiful mix of great holes, really hard holes and a few strange ones. All in all one of the best values for money on the rota of famous courses in Ireland. People were fantastic and the Indian restaurant up the hill in town was great afterward.

Anonymous said...

As you correctly point out, there is one part of Lahinch GC where players should be advised to wear a helmet, i.e. when walking off the 18th tee across the front of the 4th green. The 4th is a par 5 but reachable in two, which means that many approaches to the 4th green will be hit from back in the fairway behind the large sand-dune...completely blind. Players walking off the 18th tee take their lives in their hands when walking in front of the 4th green!
The par 3 5th hole 'The Dell' was one of the most disappointing and over-hyped holes I have ever played. I would even go as far as to say that it is the worst hole on the course. The 8th and the 16th are much more exciting par 3's. Some very tough holes at Lahinch and typical Irish weather will no doubt complicate your round! If you can try and get a round in at nearby Doonbeg...a dramatic links, albeit slightly rough around the edges.

Grand Golf said...

Great blog Sir. Must have travelled to Ireland 20 plus years ago as a lot has changed with a good infrastructure btw major cities but once you get close to the courses you do have to drive some narrow roads. That is a lot of driving in 7 days and unless you have a driver I would just stick with the south west of Ireland for first timers. Lahinch is definitely a must and very doable on day of arrival as only an hours drive from Shannon Airport. Just hope the jetlag is quickly washed away with a wee shower at the clubhouse before teeing off.

Another course worth catching is Doonbeg of course and if you can stay in Lahinch the first night then why not play Doonbeg first then Lahinch the 2nd day before heading south to the Ballybunion area.

Love Ballybunion as have played there twice and each time played as well as I could and still lucky to break 90 due to high winds. There is days where a 160 yard par 3 can be reached with a PW and the next day a driver wont get you there.

Waterville is another must play but can be a bit of a hike and of course a lot of golfers have added Old Head to their wish list. Great views, some stunning holes and worth the drive. I know Killarney is most peoples base while down South but check out Kenmare as well as its a mini Killarney, more local & less touristy but still central to many of the courses. Most days you will have to drive up to 90 minutes each way for golf but staying at one base for 3 or 4 days makes it more enjoyable I think.

Unknown said...

Lahinch went through a major renovation a couple years ago and now, after playing it,I think it is definitely one of the world's greatest golf courses and should be ranked higher. It is pure, fun adventurous golf with great scenery and some great holes. It is an absolutely unforgettable experience and, if you get the chance,play it!

Ian Bradley said...

I'm an avid golfer in his early fifties who has played around 60 of the top 100. I enjoy reading other people's thoughts on different courses and the associated comments. I've read most of yours and have come to the conclusion that I don't think you've played some of these courses. To describe Lahinch as a 'cow pasture' is nothing short of ridiculous. I could go on and on with other reviews but I think this whole site is suspect....

Top 100 Golfer said...

Ian - Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Whether we agree on where Lahinch sits in the pantheon of courses, I can assure you I have played all the courses on this site. In fact, I have played Lahinch three times (all in the rain, thus my focus on the weather). I think you are reading too much into the cow pasture comment, I was contrasting it to other courses that don't have such open vistas. In fact, I like Lahinch, as I say in the post it belongs ranked among the best courses in the world. In particular, I would re-iterate this comment from the review,"Lahinch has an intangible quality that is unmistakably Irish."