When the great holes of golf are discussed such holes as the iconic par-3 16th at Cypress Point, the superb two-shot par-4 8th at Pebble Beach, the par-5 13th at Augusta National, the par-4 1st at Machrihanish, the par-3 8th at Royal Troon are often cited, to name just a few. But there is one in Ireland unquestionably worthy of such lofty inclusion - the 11th at Ballybunion’s Old Course.
The long par-4 - now measuring 473 yards from the championship markers - marries the scenic and strategic dimensions in a tour de force manner. The tee pad provides a panorama which can easily overpower the senses. The pounding surf from the Atlantic Ocean hugs the entire right side with the weather elements always a part of Irish golf. The wind is generally from the southwest - meaning gusts can sweep across the hole or even be in the player’s faces when ready to hit from the tee.
Interestingly, the hole is called “Watsons” in honour of Tom Watson, the 8-time major winner and victor in 5 Open Championships. Watson accompanied his long time companion and former USGA Presidents Frank “Sandy” Tatum in 1982 when preparing to play in The Open that year at Royal Troon. The American was spellbound by the majestic dunes, and the superb manner by which the holes flowed from one to the next.
A new championship tee was created in 2012 and all the greens at Ballybunion were redone in 2016, whilst recent course revisions have been carried out by acclaimed architect Martin Hawktree.
The tee shot at the 11th requires a balancing act between distance and direction. One without the other will not suffice. The hole drops down roughly 40 feet with 3 distinct landing areas providing a gradual step-down process through the landing area. There is sufficient room in the fairway, but when golfers arrive at the 11th the sensory overload can quickly inhibit any golfer’s backswing.
2018 marks the 125th anniversary of the club. The 6,802 yards / Par-71 layout has often been cited as Ireland’s equivalent to The Old Course at St. Andrews. There is little doubt the Old Course at Ballybunion can stir the emotions as the soul of golf is clearly embodied here. The ebb and flow of the round clearly changes with each hole. Smartly, the club changed the routing of the course back in the early 1970’s when the new clubhouse was built and the ending is now much more climatic. The famed golf chronicler Herbert Warren Wind wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 1971, “I found Ballybunion to be nothing less than the finest seaside links I have ever seen.”
Even when finding the fairway, the approach to the 11th green is a daunting one. The putting surface is slotted through a dunes opening which is quite narrow. The green is also a devilish target to hit - only 4,482 square feet available. For those finishing short of the green, the pitch can be a relatively simple matter. However, for those golfers wishing to land near to the day’s pin placement the requirements can be exacting and severely punishing for sloppy execution. The green is set like a table top with fall-offs to either side. Recovery from those positions is no simple matter. When the pin is placed in the extreme rear position the landing area narrows considerably.
The 11th at Ballybunion’s Old Course is a hole forever etched in one’s memory. The strategic elements are top tier and the link with Mother Nature is simply glorious. Simply grand stuff.