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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 3)

With nary a dent to his confidence, the caddie emerged from the bunker, handed the visitor the club and announced: "There, that's what you are doing wrong."

It would not be over the top to say that you can do no wrong playing Irish golf. Most would agree that you are oh so right when you play in the southwest. Here you find Ballybunion, an hour and a half south of Shannon Airport, a drive that can take you through Limerick or by ferry across the Shannon River. An hour south of Ballybunion is Tralee, and another hour to the south is Dooks, and perhaps another 45 minutes is Waterville, at the very bottom of the Ring of Kerry. Inland is Killarney and its two wonderful courses--Mahoney's Point and Killeen--as well as the Killeen House Hotel and its golf ball currency.

Ballybunion. It is a lyrical, magical name that conjures thoughts of Brigadoon with tee times. For the most part, the two golf courses at Ballybunion are lyrical and magical, even if the town itself is more Blackpool (the English Coney Island) than Brigadoon. And about that clubhouse, the new one? Was someone trying to build a catering hall? "The O'Reilly wedding is right this way, thank you." There is something too modern and slick about it for courses that are much more about the old, even if one of them is called the New.

Everyone comes to play the Old Course at Ballybunion, and why not. But lest you think you will be driving off into links heaven from the first tee, think again. The first hole plays around a graveyard, a small plot of tombstones that has buried the start of thousands of rounds of golf. Out of bounds, you see.

If the first hole doesn't bury you, the second might. It's a long, uphill par 4 into the dunes, with the green on the most natural of plateaus. It requires two terrific shots to get home, and getting on in three is hardly a sin and usually a relief. Ballybunion offers many dramatic holes, all naturally wandering through the dunes and many perched on cliffs high above the Atlantic. It's a tough, tough golf course, a downright ferocious one in the winds that come barreling off the Atlantic.

The New Course was designed by American architectural icon Robert Trent Jones and completed in 1984. There tend to be too many forced comparisons to the Old Course by golfers who have played both, too much nit-picking about too many holes that seemed contrived. Funny how holes on the Old Course, which appear contrived through they have never been violated by a bulldozer, never seem to come in for like criticism. The New Course, while not the Old, is just fine.

Ballybunion tends to be the most difficult of the public courses on which to obtain tee times. Those planning on going should phone a year in advance, at least for summer season times (011 353 0682 7146). Tour operators tend to gobble up a bunch of times in the summer. First-time visitors to Ireland might want to consider one of a legion of agents who specialize in Irish golf, though the thrill of exploration and serendipity is well worth the effort by the visiting golfer to find his own hacker's nirvana while getting lost a dozen times.

Down from Ballybunion is Tralee, where Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay built the new course for the town in 1984. The setting is dramatic, the cliffs high and mighty (the land was used for backdrops in the movie Ryan's Daughter). But the course isn't so much dramatic as difficult. The 12th hole is a backbreaking 440 yards with a green surrounded by rough high enough to lose your caddie. On a calm day a bogey five is acceptable. On a windy day a triple bogey seven is merciful, a quadruple bogey eight no embarrassment.

Farther to the south is Dooks, a course that Englishmen like to play. It is memorable for an 18th green that is virtually impossible to find and a 13th green that can be impossible to putt. The green of the 13th is in two parts, a high ridge and a low ridge, with fierce slope and several breaks of the horseshoe variety. It would be quite easy to be on the green in one, off in two, on in three, off in four.

Waterville is at the bottom of southwest Ireland, set near Ballinskelligs Bay. It is a long way from anywhere to Waterville, though those who make the journey are rewarded with a splendid course that was developed by American Jack Mulcahy in 1970 and designed by the old links master, Eddie Hackett. You must play the par-3 17th from the back tee, which is known as Mulcahy's Peak. It provides a view of virtually the entire course, a view that Mulcahy used often as the course was being shaped. The peak is also the highest point on the course, a dune top planed down to provide a small launching pad for the green. (Mulcahy's Peak also serves as a final resting place; his ashes were buried here following his death in October 1995.)

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