Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The thrill of the west

There are certain things that tug at the heart strings: a song, an ocean, an ex-girlfriend, a dinner your mother used to make. Everyone has a weakness. When it comes to golf, I imagine every golfer has such a weakness – either a course they’ve played (and probably scored 48 points) or a course they’ve dreamed of.

[Photo: the exquisitely difficult par three 15th, into the prevailing wind, 200+ yards]

Ballybunion is my weakness (or one of them at least), and I got to scratch that particular itch recently when a friend invited me down. Since we were going all that way, I arranged for us to play at Adare as well, as it is my favourite parkland (alongside Druid’s Glen). There were four of us to start, but one had to drop out last minute. That left Ronan, Rod and me, trekking down to Listowel in Ronan’s car on a perfect Wednesday evening. As per a perfect boys getaway, our ‘food’ supplies consisted of beer and crisps (Rancheros specifically). In a brief nod to healthiness I brought carrots and celery for the houmous.

Thursday morning was perfect too – it helped that I’d won all the poker money – and we arrived at a sunny Ballybunion before 11am, for a 13.18pm tee time. Nothing quite like soaking up the atmosphere. I stuck my head into the office to say hello to Simon, the General Manager, only to find he’d left shortly after my visit in 2008, heading to ‘greener’ pastures in Dubai. Now it’s Vari McCreevy – ‘no relation of Michelle at Failte Ireland?’ I enquired. Sister, it turned out. ‘Are you as good a golfer?’ I continued. ‘Better,’ she replied. You’ve got to love that sibling rivalry. Imagine what the Maguire twins must be like!

Ronan discovered he’d left a couple of clubs at the house and headed back to collect them, leaving Rod and me to enjoy the practice facilities. We chipped and putted for an hour, and while I have always appreciated the value of practice, on this particular day it was telling. As the high and low handicappers, Rod and I took on Ronan and Evan (who came up from Killorglin) and we gave them a good thumping: 2 up on the front, 1 on the back (after three late birdies from the opposition). Combined, Rod and I had 44 points, and Rod made a mockery of his 17 handicap, rolling in 8 pars.

I put my good play down to the love of the course. Sometimes you just feel right when you step onto the 1st tee. A light breeze in your face, the sun splitting the clouds, good friends and the fact that you’re playing for free (Ronan had a fourball voucher) all come together to lift your spirit. And then you split the fairway. What could be better?

What worked so well about the day was a list of shots that any pro would be happy with: on the 3rd, from off the green, Ronan tickled a six iron up a bank, across the shoulder of a bunker and onto the green where it broke towards the hole and resulted in a par; Evan hit an even more delicate shot on the 9th, over a rugged bank and onto a green that was hard to hold from any direction; and Rod just kept knocking in putts for par, halving and winning holes from everywhere. There were plenty more too, including three eagle opportunities.

[Photo: the steep 6th green rises all the way to the back. View back towards the tee: JD, John, Peter approach]

Like any great links, your ball will be tossed about at Ballybunion, and after the 5th hole the greens become increasingly difficult. The 6th (after a brief stop at the halfway house where we met a mother and daughter suitably red and roasted – sun screen doesn’t rank high on the list round here) doglegs out to the sea and has steep fall-offs that will break your heart if you’re a fraction off target. The 7th and 9th are also brutes. Missing them in any direction makes getting up and down nigh on impossible for ordinary golfers, and if you’re unlucky enough to hit the downslope you’ll probably be in thick, impenetrable rough.

We had expected (and been told) that a five hour round was on the cards. The course was busy (over 3,000 euro in green fees) and we were held up from time to time, so it was impressive to step off the course after four hours. These days there’s an expectation that it will take you five hours to get around the big, popular-with-American courses, so this was a rare treat.
[Photo: the 18th green back to the tee, shot from the 1st tee box]

A three-ball behind us – complete with caddy/wife – remained patient all day. And no sooner were we off greens than balls came zipping in at the flags. We didn’t see much bump-and-run, but when you can stop a ball as quickly as these guys could, why bother. The 18th tee sits up high above the beach, with the 17th green immediately in front of you. As we waited to drive we watched the three guys approach. The flag was tucked tight to the left, behind a bunker, and all three shots landed next to the pin and stopped. Two of our group who had tried the ground route ran off the back of the green. Not fair - this is links, damn it!

In the bar we discovered that the three ball was made up of JD Guiney, back from Orlando where he’s on a golf scholarship; John Fitzell who plays off 3, and went round in 2 over; and Peter Masters, the writer for Golf World who was over reviewing a few courses (Doonbeg, Ballybunion and Portmarnock Links). He plays off 9, but looked like he was comfortably matching his playing partners.

It was interesting meeting a golf writer who was reviewing a course. I got the impression from his comments that he preferred Doonbeg to Ballybunion. It will be intriguing to read his reviews in the magazine to see how he compares the two.

[Photo: the tee shot from the 1st]
I chatted to them for a few minutes, heard a few interesting Kerry expressions (unrepeatable on here), and then had to leave as three of us (minus Evan who had headed home) headed out the door to play nine holes on the Cashen course.
Ballybunion Old is a glorious track. It is packed with so many memorable moments: views from the 2nd green, tee shots on 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17, and the dunes that turn the back nine into a mountainous affair. You have choices all over the place: on tee shots, approaches and around the green. It’s about using your head, trusting your swing (and club selection) and putting with confidence. Grip it and rip it by all means (the par five 13th turned into a drive and 8 iron for Ronan, and he then drove clear over the boundary of the course and onto the beach on 17), but a well steered iron will serve you just as well. Remember that when you stand on the 1st tee and glance nervously at the cemetery alongside the fairway. It is a pertinent reminder of what can happen to your ball if you are over-exuberant.

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