By William Rocke
BALLYBUNION, Co. Kerry — When President Clinton takes time off from problems at home to display his golf swing in Ballybunion during his three-day visit to Ireland from Sept. 3-5, he’ll be playing on one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the Emerald Isle.
The 105-year-old Kerry club bordering the Atlantic, with its towering sand dunes and subtle greens, is today world famous, thanks to top U.S. golfers like five-time British Open winner Tom Watson and current British Open champion Mark O’Meara practicing there to hone their skills.
These days, Ballybunion’s venerable old course rakes in an amazing $2 million annually in green fees from visitors — mostly American. And if you’re a non-member and fancy sampling a fast 18 holes there forget it — starting times on the first tee at Ballybunion Old are booked up almost to the end of the year. Only U.S. presidents and the like have first call at Ballybunion these days.
If you are fortunate enough to make the first tee at Ballybunion, you’ll pay £55 ($80) for the privilege of playing 18 holes demanding skill, stamina, and an eye for spectacular beauty. In 1984, another 18 holes, the Cashen Course, was opened to cater to the burgeoning demand on the course. Although green fees at the Cashen are almost half those at the original, three out of every four golfers pay to tackle the old monster. They generally come away satisfied, but lighter by several golf balls.
As an amateur golfer playing Ballybunion for the first time, Bill Clinton will need all his golf prowess, especially if the wind blows, as it invariably does around north Kerry, to get around in less than 100 shots on what is recognized as one of the best links (seaside) courses in the world.
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Fortunately, Watson is being tipped as one of the foursome to play in the Clinton party. Watson knows where the pitfalls are around Ballybunion, and no doubt will be giving Clinton the best line into the greens nestling between the sand dunes. One of Ireland’s best-known golfers, the affable Christy O’Connor, Jr. (remember his glorious 2-iron to the 18th green to defeat Fred Couples in the Ryder Cup against America in ’89), plus Ballybunion club captain Brian McCarthy, have also been mentioned as foursome partners. Also in the running for a foursome spot is former Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Dick Spring, a regular White House visitor while in office.
Almost unknown 30 years ago, Ballybunion is now a legend in golf terms. Yet unlike its rivals in Ireland and the UK, it has never hosted a tournament of major importance. It has other distinguishing features: it is probably the only golf club in the world with an ancient graveyard running alongside the first fairway, and it features an arch’ological site — with a mixture of sand, shells, ashes, stones and even bones — incorporated into the Sahara bunker running across the 18th fairway.
When Watson first laid eyes on Ballybunion he came up with the memorable quote: "A man would think that the game of golf originated here." On Saturday, Sept. 5, Bill Clinton will be playing a golf course of such natural links texture that its like is practically unknown in America, where many of the top golf courses feature man-made lakes and hazards. Ask a local in Ballybunion who designed the golf course and you’ll be told: "the Almighty."
No mean golfer himself, Clinton won’t feel too intimidated when he steps onto the first tee. At 366-yards, the first hole has a wide fairway and the green is visible in the distance. But one hopes the most powerful politician in the world keeps his left arm straight on the follow-through; a sliced shot is likely to end up in that famous graveyard.
If the president’s ball does land in that hazard, no doubt his local caddy will fill him in on some of the site’s more famous inhabitants, while the army of Secret Service men and Irish gardai accompanying the foursome go on a search-and-discover mission among the gravestones.
Ballybunion on the map
Amazing to think that as late as 1971, the greatest of American golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, played Ballybunion for only the first time. He was so astonished at what he saw hidden away in the southwest corner of Ireland that he wrote in his column in the New Yorker: "To put it simply, Ballybunion revealed itself to be nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen . . ." Ballybunion was on the way to the big-time.
The strip of land, with the Atlantic running along one side, the Cashen River at one end, and sweeping fairways running through the sandhills, was opened by a small band of local golf enthusiasts in 1893. Its origins are buried in time, although it is believed its original 18 holes were laid out by someone hired by the local railway company in a bid to attract visitors to Ballybunion. It was refined a few years later by locals William McCarthy, Tom Simpson and Molly Gourlay.
Three years ago, when Clinton first visited Ireland, he let it be known that he wanted to test his golf skills over Ballybunion. But it was December and there wasn’t enough daylight hours in his tight schedule to allow him to do so. This time around he was determined to tackle the links where top American golfers like Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara honed their skills before playing in the British Open last July. O’Meara went on to win the Open, which garnered more publicity for the Kerry course.
In the wake of the Clinton visit, Ballybunion secretary/manager Jim McKenna expects phone calls from thousands of American golfers anxious to play the course that has attracted their president. Problem is that Ballybunion, like St. Andrew’s in Scotland, is such a magnet now for golfers from all over the world that there is simply not enough daylight hours to accommodate all who want to play there.
McKenna said ,"Right now the first tee at Ballybunion for visitors is booked up almost to 1999. I spend most of my working day turning down golfers who want to play here.
"In the past few years we’ve catered annually for between 26,000 and 28,000 green fees on our premier course. In addition, we have to cater for our own members. We’ve reached the absolute limit. The course is beginning to suffer."
Earlier this month, a luxury liner stopped off at Foynes in the Shannon estuary and 60 American golfers took off to play Ballybunion. Planeloads of Japanese golf enthusiasts occasionally fly in to Shannon for a pre-booked round.
A summer day’s golf at Ballybunion will see green-fee paying visitors teeing off continuously from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then it’s the turn of members in the afternoon and into the evening until the sun disappears behind the sand dunes. At any one time more than 200 golfers will be swinging their way around Ballybunion during the day. The club has 2,000 male Irish members plus a women’s section of 250. There are also 650 overseas members, each of whom paid $5,000 for life.
It’s all a far cry from the day over 60 years ago when John Moriarty, now a sprightly 84-year-old and Ballybunion’s oldest member, joined the town golf club for an annual fee of £1.50p. Then the elite membership totaled about 30 and played mainly at weekends. The clubhouse then was an old tin hut with no lock and no showers.
Today, Ballybunion boasts a state of the art clubhouse which cost nearly $4 million in 1993, is a world-famed links, and is one of the town’s major revenue earners.
On Saturday, Sept. 5 the signature of the President of the United States will join many other distinguished names in the Visitors’ Book in Ballybunion Golf Club. And when the 18 holes are complete and pints of Guinness are being enjoyed, don’t be surprised if Christy O’Connor Jr. puts his golf clubs aside, takes out his accordion, and regales the distinguished company with a couple of songs.
For Clinton, the Irish hooley that follows will be all part of an unforgettable Ballybunion experience.