Ireland is still a place of castles and thatched-roof cottages. A land of music and easy laughter but in golfing terms the country is far ahead of the curve. In the 2000s, Ireland is the home of four major champions, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy as well as, perhaps, Europe’s greatest Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley.
One reason for this ‘out of proportion’ development for such a small country is the challenges and variety of the golf courses dotted all around the Emerald Isle; over 400 of them on an island no larger than the state of Maine.
To research the new account he had been offered by the fledgling, Irish Tourist Board, John DeGarmo, a New York Advertising Executive, made a magical journey through Southwest Ireland in the early 1960s. The deal was that if he could not come up with a suitable strategy to ‘sell Ireland to Americans’ he’d pay for the trip himself.
After spending a number of weeks driving along the narrow, twisting roads, which are now but a distant memory, endeavoring to become familiar with the product, DeGarmo landed in Ballybunion.
“In golf there are certain places that send emotional charges through the bodies of avid golfers but few can boast the awesome power of Ballybunion. Carved out of towering dunes, ‘Ballybee’ is the greatest golf course in the world. As wonderful as Scotland is, Ireland is better.” Wrote DeGarmo later.
In 1969, Herbert Warren Wind pitched up at Ballybunion unannounced and after playing a leisurely 18-holes with the club’s general manager, Sean Walsh, he wrote in the New Yorker magazine: “Ballybunion is the finest seaside links that I have ever played.” Almost immediately the steady trickle of American golf tourists that had begun because of DeGarmo’s advertising campaign turned into a stream. When Tom Watson extolled its virtues after winning The Open Championship in 1982 the number of visitors heading in Ballybunion’s direction became a flood.
Ballybunion Golf Club has changed dramatically since DeGarmo’s first visit. There are two courses now and a palatial clubhouse featuring fine dining and a pro shop dripping with high quality merchandise. The course looks quite different too. It’s manicured and can no longer be disparagingly described as a ‘rough and ready, rabbit warren.’
The standard of green keeping is world class and it is fully intended that it will remain that way. Earlier this year, the local membership voting overwhelmingly to lift and re-lay all 18-greens on the Old Course next winter, but a more striking development is a whole ‘new look’ developed by course architect, Graeme Webster, that creates a stunning amphitheater effect.
The process of ‘dolling up’ the links is well advanced. The objective is to uplift the overall appearance, define margins and increase the proliferation of native, fescue grasses so necessary to maintain traditional links characteristics. However, the shot values and the way the links ‘plays’ won’t change one iota. The course will look harder because the playing corridors will look narrower but, in fact, they will remain exactly the same.
To read the full John DeGarmo story look for his out of print book: The Road to Ballybunion – A magical Journey Through the Golf and Lore of Southwest Ireland, beautifully illustrated by Ray Ellis and published by Longstreet Press, Atlanta, Georgia in 1997.