Attracting more Americans than any other Irish golf club, Ballybunion has mastered the art of making overseas visitors feel welcome and providing them with the first-class facilities they might hope to find. And the club has accomplished this without sacrificing any of the charm, warmth and friendliness that makes golfing in Ireland such a treat.
For example, not many Irish clubs have a reception desk as you enter the clubhouse to greet you and sort everything out. Modern, spacious and comfortable, the locker rooms, which include a steam room, are five-star, as are the bars, lounges and restaurant, which all have large picture windows affording glorious views of the two great courses and the Atlantic beyond.
And if you fancy hitting a few balls before going out, just stroll a couple of hundred yards down the hill, and there's a full-blown range, short-game area and one of three putting greens.
You might even squeeze in a quick lesson with pro Brian O'Callaghan, who offers specialist instruction in the art of playing the pitch-and-run shot, as well as the secret to golfing in the wind.
36 holes of pure, Irish links golf at Ballybunion
When Tom Watson visited back in 1982, there was only the Old, which he played the week before capturing the fourth of his five Open Championships. Talking to the media after his victory, he lavished so much praise on Ballybunion that it made headlines around the world. The club wasn't slow to exploit this marketing opportunity and golfers, especially Americans, soon followed in Watson's spiked footprints.
Their dollars have helped pay for the upgrade in the facilities and the construction in 1984 of the new Cashen Course. Because the Old Course receives so much attention, it would be an easy mistake to overlook the lovely Cashen. Designed by Trent Jones and named after the adjacent river, the course occupies a truly spectacular peninsular with the mighty Atlantic on one side and the gentle river on the other.
The towering dunes are as big as cathedrals, while the canyons that weave between them provide both the fairways and welcome shelter from the inevitable wind. Although in reality, there is plenty of room, the close proximity of the really thick stuff causes many a grip to tighten and palm to sweat.
Ballybunion Golf Club: The verdict
In truth, the Cashen is more forgiving than it appears with most of the bounces -- especially near the greens -- being more help than hindrance. There aren't, perhaps, enough classic pitch-and-run opportunities as one might hope to find, but the Cashen is definitely top quality and has recently benefited from a few tweaks at the experienced hands of famous English architect Martin Hawtree.
The Old Course, too, has undergone some improving alterations to a couple of tee boxes and a few of the bunkers, but it remains as majestic as ever. Once you've avoided the cemetery at the first and calamity at the tough, uphill second, it's a joyous roller coaster around the dunes punctuated by some breathtaking holes by the sea. Fabulous and quite unforgettable.
After golf in Ballybunion
Opposite the course are several modest hotels and a number of bed and breakfast opportunities. Or just a two-minute taxi ride away is the little town of Ballybunion itself, complete with a statue of President Bill Clinton, who is a regular visitor.
Stay in town at one of several cozy hotels, and you can walk south along the wide, sandy beach beneath the course, enjoy a spectacular cliff-top stroll to the north or, if you're really brave, go swimming or surfing.
There's a beach exclusively for women, another for men and a third reserved for nuns!
Ballybunion is on the south-west coast of Ireland, about an hour-and-a-half from Shannon Airport, which serves New York (JFK and Newark), Boston and Toronto. Dublin Airport is about three-and-a-half away takes non-stop flights from New York (JFK and Newark), Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, Toronto, Montreal and more.