Like many golf lovers I know, I share a love of the game with my Dad and while I don’t get to hit the fairways with him as often as either of us would like, many of the best courses I have ticked off my bucketlist have been with the old man at my side.
The likes of Turnberry, Royal Liverpool and the European Club have been particular highlights of our golfing adventures together and while on a long car journey about a year ago, the conversation, as ever, inevitably turned to golf.
Where do we go next and how do we top the courses mentioned above?
The idea of a once in a lifetime trip to The Masters was floated by my Dad and while one day we WILL make it to Augusta National, I’ve always like the idea of returning home to Ireland (where my family is from) and embark on a tour of the famous South West coast.
The Masters will have to wait!
After all, ever since I was a youngster starting out in the game of golf, the likes of Ballybunion and Lahinch were courses my old man always vowed we’d one day play together.
It was settled then…we’d take on some of Ireland’s mighty links courses as a father and son team. Of course, we required some waifs and strays to makeup a friendly fourball and a few emails later, a couple of my dad’s chums were on board and our itinerary was set.
Here’s how we got on…
The 1st two golf courses on the itinerary were the Old Course at Ballybunion and Arnold Palmer’s Tralee so we flew into Kerry Airport which, barring one airport in a remote corner of Argentina, is the smallest Airport I’ve ever seen. As you can imagine, we were through the security checks and on the way to the Ballybunion Golf Hotel with our golf clubs in no time at all. A perfect, stress-free start to the tour!
The Ballybunion Golf Hotel – less than an hour from the airport – would serve as our base for the first few days of the tour, and while admittedly it’s not the most awe-inspiring building from the outside, the rooms are comfortable, staff friendly and, most importantly, the cooked breakfast each morning was delicious and served in the rooftop restaurant from which you could enjoy views out over the Atlantic and even down onto the fairways of Ballybunion itself.
We had a full day in Ballybunion before our first game of golf so naturally; we thought it best to sample plenty of Guinness and Smithwick’s in the local pubs, of which there are plenty!
Kicking things off in front of a football match in the pub directly across the road from the hotel, the Bunker Lounge, we made it to the final whistle and sauntered our way to the top end of the high street, past the statue of Bill Clinton – yes we found that strange too – and into Kilcooly’s Bar & Restaurant where we sat and enjoyed another sporting spectacle, this time a high stakes game of Gaelic Football.
It seemed the whole town had turned up for the match and while you might think it’d be intimidating going into that type of atmosphere, the locals couldn’t have been more welcoming, explaining the rules whenever we looked puzzled…which was fairly often!
Another few pints came and went while we decided on the format for the week’s play. Fourball better ball with 1 point on the front nine, 1 on the back and 2 for the match was the final decision for our first three rounds, and with a different partner each day, everyone had an equal chance of being crowned grand champion. An extremely high stakes skins game (1 Euro per hole) was also set for our fourth and final round…the perfect way to sign off on the trip.
The golf club is just a 5 minute drive from the hotel so we arrived in plenty of time and totally relaxed, spending some time on the range and putting green before we were greeted on the first tee by the starter.
The opening tee shot of any golf tour is usually a nervous one, and with the reputation of Ballybunion weighing on your shoulders, plenty of golfers looking on and a graveyard within reach to the right of the fairway, the first at Ballybunion is no exception!
The course eases you into things and I must admit, once we’d found the refreshments hut near the 6th tee, while I was enjoying the course, I was left thinking where its mighty reputation comes from. I didn’t have to wait very long to find out.
The 7th tee is perched right at the water’s edge and as you figure out which green the pin’s on, yes there are two separate greens here, you get a sense of things to come as the enormous dunes through which the back nine meanders loom large in the backdrop.
The back nine at Ballybunion is what links golf in this part of the world is all about. The dunes are simply staggering and the course makes perfect use of the undulations and elevation changes they provide, testing your skills to the full along the way.
The par 3 15th at Ballybunion.
With a classic closing stretch – the final four holes are simply amazing – Ballybunion ensures it lingers in the mind long after you’ve enjoyed a well deserved pint of Guinness in the 19th hole and as far as an opener for our tour; it had ticked all the boxes.
While we were, as my Dad would put it, “steeped” with the weather (not a drop of rain in sight and just a gently breeze to contend with at Ballybunion must be a rare thing), playing links golf on such a course really takes it out of you and as such, we all felt an obligatory power nap was in order before heading out for the evening. This would become a daily occurrence!
Once rested, we gathered at the lower end of the town, near the beach, and after much deliberation, umming and aahing on where we’d eat, I finally put my foot down and dragged the lads into a lovely looking pub called McMunn’s.
The pub was the busiest in town, often a good sign, and there were plenty of golfers in there, presumably on similar trips to our own. The food was simply amazing and the atmosphere was buzzing, with live music kicking off after dinner, providing the perfect soundtrack for the remainder of the evening.
As they say, you don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken, and with that in mind, we found ourselves in McMunn’s for dinner each night for the remainder of our time in Ballybunion!
Lead by a lovely lady named Una, who we presumed to be the owner, the staff at McMunn’s were so welcoming and genuinely interested in what we were getting up to on our trip and so after updating Pawdy, our bartender each night, on each day’s golfing trials and tribulations, we tucked into lobster thermidors, seafood chowders (as far as I can tell, my Dad and his two cronies have some sort of dependence on the stuff) and thick, juicy Irish Hereford steaks, all washed down with, yes you guessed it, pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s…heaven!
We spent the second half of our trip in the town of Lahinch but before leaving Ballybunion and McMunn’s behind, there was the small matter of a game of golf at Tralee Golf Club which was just a 40 minute drive to the south.
Tralee’s 17th hole runs alongside the beach where the film Ryan’s Daughter was filmed and it’s truly stunning.
In all honesty, Tralee was added to the tour mostly for its convenience, only being a 40 minute drive to the south of our hotel, rather than the 2 hours it would’ve taken to reach Waterville Golf Links. We were looking forward to the round here certainly, but weren’t expecting too much from the course, considering the loftier reputations of the other three (Ballybunion, Lahinch & Doonbeg) on the tour. How wrong we were as all four of us thought it turned out to be the best of the lot!
The drive to Tralee is a pleasant one thanks to some amazing scenery and it only takes pulling into the car park at the golf club to realise how special the location of the course is. “I have never come across a piece of land so ideally suited for the building of a golf course,” saidArnold Palmer of Tralee. It is easy to see why.
With the tee perched high in the dunes on the right of the photo, the 16th at Tralee is a dramatic par 3 that sticks long in the mind.
The course sits in a truly awe-inspiring location in Kerry, known by some as the ‘Lake District’ of Ireland, with views out over the Atlantic Ocean, towards Fenit Island and beyond to the mountains of the distant Dingle Peninsula. Even if your game deserts you, you can’t help be captivated by the journey around the course.
Many who play here think the front nine suffers in comparison to the back nine but that is a little unfair. There a numerous excellent holes on the outward half. Fail to be impressed with holes such as the 2md, 3rd, 7th and 8th and perhaps golf isn’t for you!
The 3rd at Tralee is one of the standout holes on the front nine and certainly a photo opportunity!
The back nine though, is pretty special…
Palmer also said of the course that, while he designed the front nine, “surely God designed the back nine,” andas you make your way through the vast dunes, you certainly come to understand what he meant. I took almost as many pictures as I hit shots, such was the amazement I felt at the quality of the holes and the epic scenery on offer here.
On your way around Tralee, you can’t help but stop and stare at some of the views.
After a match clinching putt on the 18th for my team, we retired to the clubhouse where the seafood chowder was once again out in force, along with the obligatory pints of the black stuff. Another power nap ensued on our return to the hotel before we made our way to McMunn’s for one last hurrah…and more seafood chowder of course.
It was with a heavy heart that we packed up the car and made our way out of Ballybunion, but the promise of more amazing links golf and a few more days of over indulgence in the surfer’s haven of Lahinch softened the blow.
Geographically speaking, Lahinch isn’t all that far from Ballybunion but with the Shannon Estuary in the way, the drive from one to another takes around 2 hours.
During our time in Lahinch we stayed at the Lehinch (there are two ways to spell Lahinch for some reason so don’t get confused) Lodge which is simply ideal for groups of golfers thanks to its prime location, literally a stone’s throw from the golf club and just a short walk into town. It’s comfortable and convenient too, and comes highly recommended by all four golfers in my group.
Like Ballybunion, Lahinch is comprised of mainly pubs, restaurants and hotels so there are plenty of options when it comes to dinner time or indeed when you’re in search of yet another pint…of the well deserved variety of course!
We settled for the Corner Stone pub which, like McMunn’s, we found ourselves returning to each night, whether for a quick pint or for dinner too. This also seemed to be the busiest pub in town each night and we even found ourselves recognising golfers we’d seen on the course just a few hours earlier. The food was good too, with hearty portions being served up by ever friendly members of staff.
With so many hungry souls after a table, we usually polished off our meals before choosing to free up a table and make our way to Flanagan’s at the other end of the street for a few more evening libations. With live music every night we were there, this was a great place to have a few laughs before wandering back to the comfort of the lodge.
With Lahinch Golf Club being so close, we could afford to have a little lie in before a delicious cooked breakfast which set us up nicely for another day on the links.
We had our best day’s weather at Lahinch. Again there was no sign of rain and what little wind there was simply served to keep us cool as the sun was out, shining brightly all day. And the course was as good as the weather too.
Like Ballybunion, the Old Course at Lahinch comes with a hefty reputation and after teeing off in front of a packed clubhouse and countless golfers watching while waiting for their time to arrive, (expect a fair bit of good natured gallery pressure) our final match before the big skins game was underway.
Lahinch follows the natural lay of the land and is the perfect blend of all the things that make links golf so unique.
After a couple of gentle holes to start – don’t confuse “gentle” with easy” by the way – Lahinch comes to life and before the end of the front nine, you’re already in love with the place.
The holes around the turn at Lahinch are particularly impressive and you may even stumble accross the goasts that roam the course, grazing as they go.
A shot-maker’s haven, Lahinch requires golfers to employ their creativity to combat awkward stances created by the endlessly rippling links land. Discipline, patience, and perseverance are required to combat patches of heather and gorse, and although they are not every golfer’s cup of tea, the blind shots here, of which there are a few, add to the challenge too. Although the various abilities throughout our group were far reaching, there was one thing made very clear very early on. Put yourself in the correct position and there are opportunities to score. Miss in the wrong spots and Lahinch really bares its teeth!
This is a great example of some of the lies that wait in store for golfers who don’t pay enough attention to the course planner! Have you ever played a shot with the ball almost at head height? Me neither…
Happily, myself and my partner managed to put away the point for the front nine win, which guaranteed me being in at least a share of the overall lead at the end of our final nine holes in the matchplay competition. As it turned out on what started out as a father and son trip, my Dad was the only man who could catch me and, as golf tends to go from time to time, my golf started to wane and our opponents, including the old man, smelt blood in the water.
On most holes where I happened to hole out first, I found myself scampering into the dunes for the perfect photo opportunity!
A back nine win and the overall match saw us tied at the top and a putting contest to decide the winner ensued. I won’t be so cruel to reveal who won that one but from the cocky tone of this sentence, you can probably guess!
Doonbeg, now named Trump International Golf Links Ireland of course, would be the scene of our final round.
From Lahinch, it was a little over half an hour’s drive until we saw the impressive Trump International Clubhouse in the distance. The one thing that immediately set this place apart from the others was the country club-like service you get from the moment you arrive. That’s not to say the service at Ballybunion, Tralee and Lahinch wasn’t good, it was, but this was exemplary.
After a quick mosey around the pro shop, we were assigned a fore caddy and off we went down the iconic first hole. In an effort to keep up traditions, my Dad’s opening tee shot sailed high and right (apparently he did this on his last trip too!), clanging off the roof of what I’m guessing is a maintenance building. In fact nobody covered themselves in glory with their opening tee shots which is a shame as the 1st is a truly amazing hole. A long, narrow par 5 with the Ocean on the left, this hole is most memorable thanks to the enormous dunes that surround the green, creating an amphitheatre effect.
The 1st hole at Trump International Ireland, formerly known as Doonbeg, is a real stunner and one of many highlights of the course.
The rest of the course is excellent too, with some of the best par 3s we came across on this trip. Unfortunately some of the course’s most famous holes, the par 3 14th included, were destroyed by a violent storm and are currently in the process of being remodelled. This took some shine from the course but overall it’s still an amazing place to play golf, and combined with the amazing customer service you get, it definitely comes recommended.
A bunker in the middle of a green is just one of the quirks that make a round at Trump International Ireland so entertaining and unique.
I won’t go into too much detail about who won the skins game but let’s just say that after holing out for birdie on the 15th for what I thought was a win and a huge chunk of skins that had built up on the previous holes, one of the guys canned a chip for what I could only reasonably assume was a 7 (his approach shot sailed miles right over the dunes that separate the course from the beach) or something similar. It was for a par with a shot. He had found his ball to both his and caddie’s amazement. I guess that’s the beauty of golf!
The 18th at Trump International is a great hole too and was a fitting end to a marvellous week’s golf, as was the steak lunch I had in the clubhouse.
From the 18th tee, you get a great view of the 1st green and up the 18th towards the amazing clubhouse.
All in all, my 3 travel companions and I couldn’t recommend a golf tour of south west Ireland more. The people are warm and welcoming, the courses are out of this world and if you get lucky with the weather like we did, you’ll want to go back time and time again.