Ask anyone who has played golf in Ireland what two courses are absolute musts, and two very Gaelic-sounding names will come forth: Lahinch and Ballybunion.
Located about a two-hour drive apart — one in County Clare, the other County Kerry, with Shannon the closest international airport to both — they helped put classic Irish links golf on the world stage and occupy permanent spots on any serious golfing globetrotter’s Top 100.
But which is better? As with many things, it depends on whom you ask. Even then, their answers may shift with the capricious Atlantic breezes that whirl through each course’s marram-clad dunes.
We’re certainly not taking sides. Rather we’ll venture onto both, caddies at our sides, and make their case — leaving you to follow in our footsteps and come to your own conclusions.
LAHINCH OLD COURSE
A 120-year-old “course by committee” that continues to evolve with design tweaks here and there, Lahinch’s original links — the shorter and flatter Castle Course is across the road — may indeed have no rival in the world-class southwestern Irish canon if you consider its broader setting a few miles southeast from the famed 900-foot-high Cliffs of Mohr.
It’s as vital a part of the village that surrounds it as the Old Course is of St. Andrews, and starts just as memorably — with the first tee wedged between the tiny pro shop and caddyshack to the right and the two-story clubhouse on the left. Straight ahead the opening 4-par crests a small, bumpy rise and leads to a wind-exposed green.
Then the adventure really kicks in. Hook your tee ball on the par-4 No. 3 — the first of several blind drives to come — and you’ll watch it bound over a road, skip past a marina and drown in the Atlantic. The tee shot on the 5-par No. 4, “Klondike,” must find its way straight down a dune-tunnel, leaving a blind second shot over the same epic slab of sand that hides the entire green from the tee on the famed par-3 No. 5, known as “Dell.” The unique pair comprise two of the three surviving holes by Alister MacKenzie who, in the 1920s, added onto Old Tom Morris’ original nine. Both work beautifully, as does every hole here — seaside and inland, uphill and downhill, quirky or straightforward.
By the time you’ve negotiated the fantastic outward side and find yourself on the wicked 10th, a stout par 4 bordered by a river on one side and a deep, grassy gash on the other with a ruined castle dead ahead, you’re gasping for superlatives.
In fact, any pure links fan will find him or herself thinking, “This is genius.” It happens again and again and doesn’t stop until you drop your last putt on the par-5 closer. And that feeling stays with you, long after you’ve crossed the sea and found your way back to wherever home may be.
BALLYBUNION OLD COURSE
Founded in 1893, a year after Lahinch, Ballybunion also sits astride roiling, marram-clad dunes separating town from Atlantic. It’s a longer dune complex — long enough, in fact, to house a second course, Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s Cashen, to the south.
The Old originally started with what is now the sixth hole, a flat dogleg left that finishes on the course’s northwest corner next to the beach. But the five holes that now precede it, while skirting the heart of the dunes, are full of lovely quirks.
After the relative ease of the “new” opener — though many golfers, including President Bill Clinton, manage to hit their tee balls into the cemetery guarding the first half of its right side — No. 2 is one of the toughest 4-pars on the planet, especially if there’s a north wind. The green sits in a saddle a good 50 feet above the heart of the fairway. It’s a full 3-wood to get home into the gale for most mortals, in essence making it a 5-par — a bold beginning to a round that, in the end, has almost perfect design and dramatic rhythm.
No. 4 asks for a tee shot across the third green to a fairway pocked with an ellipses-point trio of bunkers. No. 5, a reachable par 5 in a normal southwest breeze, is Ballybunion’s version of the road hole (though you don’t have to clear the corner of the hotel).
After a stop at the snack hut that stands on the site of the original clubhouse, the transitional No. 6 transports you into the Old’s wily heart, starting with the picturesque oceanside 7th — a par 4 with two greens, one hugging the coast, the other ensconced in the hills.
No. 9 is a bunkerless beauty.
No. 11 is one of the best two-shotters anywhere and Tom Watson’s avowed favorite, its stair-stepped fairway framing the heart-shaped green behind a needle-eye chute. No. 12 is a brutal par 3, uphill to a blind green.
Then comes perhaps the best six-hole finish in golf, certainly in Irish golf — two 5-pars bookending back-to-back 3-pars (14 and 15) and two finishing 4-pars, all routed atop and through the shadowy dunes of our dreams.
But Ballybunion is no phantasm. It’s real, maybe the top-conditioned course in Ireland and better than ever after a recent series of tweaks to green complexes, bunkers and tee boxes. Its two-story clubhouse is a de facto museum of Irish golf history, packed with photos of champions dating back more than a century and the countless celebrities who have made their way to this sleepy corner of Eire.
And since every wall panel, window and blade of fescue carries that “our club is your club” DNA unique to this island, everybody who walks in the door and removes his or her cap feels the warm wash of belonging. Perhaps you won’t get quite the reception Clinton enjoyed back in the day — the entire village went upside-down to catch a glimpse of his motorcade — but you won’t soon forget the warmth of the Irish people, even when the weather isn’t as welcoming.
Both Lahinch and Ballybunion are (or should be) on virtually every western Ireland golf tour operator’s A-list. For more on where else to play, lodging recommendations and more, a great starting point is www.ireland.com/golf