When we’d first arrived at Ballybunion, I took Rod and Ronan up to the left of the clubhouse to show them some of the holes on Ballybunion’s second and much younger course - the Cashen. I mentioned what a stunning back nine it is, never thinking we’d have the chance to play it. But Vari, said we were very welcome to play it after we’d finished on the Old course. As we sat in the bar after the first 18 holes, the evening was so perfect that it would have been irresponsible not to have accepted her generous offer.
It was approaching 6pm and, as it had been for my first trip around the back nine of the Cashen course in 2008, so it was again: the sunlight made giants out of the mountainous dunes, their shadows stretching across the fairways, wrapping around our feet and pulling us onwards. The grasses burned gold and looked good enough to sleep on. See the photos and tell me I’m wrong.
[Photo: Cashen's par five 15th]
For those of you who don’t know the Cashen course, it is an interesting beast. It was designed by American, Robert Trent Jones Senior (although he was born in England, so perhaps there was the faintest hint of links in his blood), and it is a divisive course. From tee to fairway, it is links golf. From fairway to green, it is not… it is target golf. In other words, you have to land the ball on the green because there are few opportunities to bump and run the ball up severe slopes to greens. On a windy day that can prove nigh on impossible and not all links purists are emphatic in their praise. But I have two things to say about that: I love a challenge and it is such a beautiful setting that it needs to be appreciated for its unique design and the excitement it delivers - hole after hole.
Ronan’s golf was getting better by the hole, but his long drives were getting him into all sorts of trouble because he was getting too close to the greens. When you can bump and run that’s not such an issue, but delicate sand wedges are not the best option to seriously difficult and hard greens. It didn’t seem to matter – he was practically drooling over the holes. I think he preferred it to the Old. Rod was more phlegmatic and was enjoying nine holes that were completely different to those he’d played earlier.
Me? I love both courses equally and I’d play them again and again. The setting is perfect, the dunes enormous, the history rich, and the challenges complicated and varied – when you see your ball on the fairway it is not just a sense of achievement you feel, it is uplifting too.
The closing stretch is utterly superb. After a short and innocuous drive on the par five 15th – when I finally convinced Ronan to put the driver back in the bag – the hole doglegs sharply to the right after some 220 yards, drops down into a hollow and then races low between the dunes, all the way to a precariously perched green. 16 is a par three that drops to a green above the beach, while 17 is a par five that curls around the dunes above the beach and has one of the toughest approach shots in golf (severe drops to the sea) - especially if you plan to go for it in two.
[Photo: approach to the par five 17th]
Ronan had been struggling with sore feet and played much of the 18th barefoot after the heels of his shoes had rubbed his flesh raw. Perhaps those extra nine holes were a walk too far, but he seemed so enthralled by what the Cashen had to offer that he wasn’t fussed.
We packed up the bags, had showers and then ate in the clubhouse with the first round of the US Open playing above our heads. Great food, great company and amazing golf. You couldn’t ask for more, especially as we watched Padraig roll in a birdie putt on 18 before we left.
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