“If sheer pleasure is the yardstick, then Ballybunion’s Old Course gets my vote as the No. 1 in the world.” So said Peter Dobereiner, the famous English golf writer.
Dobereiner was doing no more than reflecting the views of the locals who somehow knew through all of their struggles for survival since the day the club was founded way back in 1893 that Ballybunion Links Golf in Ireland was an unknown treasure waiting for the outside world to come and discover it.
Although, it did not happen internationally until the late 1960s, there were hints. Notably in 1936 when the English architect, Tom Simpson, was hired to prepare the course for the Irish Amateur Close Championship one year later.
The eccentric, Simpson always arrived for work accompanied by his glamorous wife, Molly Gourlay, in a chauffer-driven, silver Rolls Royce wielding a riding crop and dressed in a flowing cloak and beret. The Simpsons picnicked on the course from the contents of a giant Fortnum & Mason’s wicker basket while the white-gloved, chauffeur polished the Rolls.
By any standards, it was such unconventional behavior accompanied by a haughty personality that it militated against Simpson being regarded as a hero of classical golf architecture alongside Harry S. Colt and Dr. Alister Mackenzie. Nevertheless, Simpson’s legacy is formidable and none more so than at Ballybunion Golf Club which he declared had, “terrain that surpasses any course we know for beauty, not excepting Pine Valley.”
Simpson made minimal changes; confining his input to what he called “finishing touches.’ Perhaps, his greatest ‘gift’ to posterity was realising that the links, like The Old Course at St. Andrew’s, did not require ‘much correction’ and that nature herself could not be surpassed. That’s the essence of Ballybunion. It is elemental, natural golf amid dunes beside the ocean where all of the battles are God-made challenges with nature.
In 1969, Pat Ward-Thomas visited and wrote: “Ballybunion possesses excitement and challenge that can have few peers in all the world of seaside golf.”
Herbert Warren-Wind writing in the New Yorker magazine in 1971 said: “I found Ballybunion to be nothing less than the finest seaside links I have ever seen.”
By the mid-1970s, there was a growing trickle of well-read, international visitors that overnight turned into a flood in 1982 when Tom Watson made his famous off the cuff eulogy after accepting the Claret Jug at Royal Troon: “Nobody can call himself a golfer until he has played at Ballybunion; you would think the game originated there!”
Ever since, the North Kerry links has been one of the most lucrative and recognizable brands in world golf. Knowledgeable golfers realize that if they haven’t played golf at Ballybunion their golfing education is gravely incomplete.
(Editorial kindly contributed by Ivan Morris)