There is a certain poetic rhythm to life in Ireland. Traveling this land as replete in stunning visual variety as it is in bridges to its timeless nature, one comes to understand why the ancient pagan Druids and Celts, then Christians, embraced the mystic. How else could one explain so much that is clearly outside the hands of man?
It is simply impossible to traverse this island with soaring mountains, plummeting valleys and rugged, fractured shorelines and not be struck by the realization that we all tend to take ourselves too seriously, for our time upon this earth is but a grain of sand. Like the blowing reed, we are better to bend in the direction of the wind rather than spend our lives fighting the forces of nature.
Thus was our mindset as we set off to play the Tralee Golf Club (www.TraleeGolfClub.com). Designed by Arnold Palmer, proponents of the Tralee Golf Club like to point out that the course was “Built by Palmer – created by nature.” A fitting description of this links course laid out on a stunning piece of links land from which one can see the ocean from every hole. Everywhere you look, the land stands in mute testimony to the history it has hosted, as the nearby birthplace of the world traveling St Brendan in 484 AD, to the Castle of Barrow (one of three castles that originally protected Barrow Harbor) completely frames the backdrop of the par 3, third hole. Extensive renovations have been undertaken in recent years and in particular, the back nine at Tralee could be as fine a nine hole stretch as you will find anywhere in Europe. Extraordinarily massive dunes define its routing and wild variety is the order of the day.
Barrow Castle ruins behind the 3rd Green
We were greeted in the doorway by Anthony Byrne, Manager of Tralee, sporting a wry smile.
“Good morning, Lads. You look no worse for the wear. There’s a wee bit of a breeze today,” he understated in classic Irish refrain. The “wee bit of a breeze” was sustained winds of over 40 mph, with gusts considerably beyond that. To my way of thinking, the mark of a proper links golf course is the course is playable in conditions bordering on the extreme, as we were very much subject to this day. Both Mr. Palmer’s original vision and in the modifications enacted since, Tralee embraces it all and provided us with what we came for, a joyful links golfing experience whereby due to the conditions and the idiosyncrasies of the land, one’s most formidable golfing asset on this day is pure imagination.
Following the round, we set out along the Dingle Peninsula, bound for the Dingle Skellig Hotel (www.DingleSkellig.com) and our date with the Ceann Sibeal Golf Course (www.DingleLinks.com).
One of the things that make a golf trip to Ireland so inspiring is the manner in which Ireland has the ability to lift one’s experiences to a new, higher level (even after you have become convinced that you could go no higher). The road that hugs the steep cliffs encircling the Dingle Peninsula offered as much beauty and fascination as the Ring of Kerry had earlier, yet with even more of a rugged and natural profile (this perspective was supported by the reality that the road itself was little more than a trail; winding, twisting and always precariously offering tantalizing views into the craggy rock formations and massive waves crashing below). For the next couple of hours, time stood still as the passing famine-era cottage ruins, roofless frames of abandoned churches and ancient castle remnants were accompanied by the musical score of Atlantic-fed rain, pounding waves and a swirling, dancing wind.
Driving along the Dingle Peninsula
(notice the farm house on the upper right)
We checked into the Skelligs Hotel, under the cover of darkness. Comfortable, warm and welcoming, the Skelligs Hotel was literally our shelter from the storm, and sleep that night was a welcome respite.
The Dingle Skellig Hotel
Morning greeted us with a surreal embrace. One would think that we traveled through a transitory mist en route to the most westerly golf course in Europe, called Ceann Sibeal (since its Irish name is difficult for many to pronounce, the club is well known as the Dingle Golf Club) is a golf course that could as easily be called Brigadoon Links. The golf course welcomed us with great variety and a calling for as much creativity as any links experience I have ever had. The course sat brilliantly into its rich landscape, marked by hazards that date back to the very beginning of the ancient Gaelic culture that the region still embraces (Irish, or Gaelic, is still spoken here), and well before the game of golf was even a consideration. Strong, shifting winds and intermittent, vital rains marked the round such that when we were done, we came to the realization that we were the only golfers on the course! Whether this fact was accountable to the weather or the course’s remote location is open to debate, but the reality only served to support the concept that we were still in some kind of links golfing paradise, in between the pages of reality. The one thing I can say with certainty, is that whenever the opportunity presents itself to play Ceann Sibeal, I surely will take advantage of it, for in the book of unique golfing experiences, Ceann Sibeal surely deserves its own chapter.
Following the round, we set off for Dingletown to visit the Dick Mack’s Pub for a quick libation and to gather our thoughts prior to our drive up to Ballybunion. Dick Mack’s dates back to a period when this pub was both a place to enjoy a pint and get a pair of shoes! The dusty confines of Dick Mack’s may not seem to be a place where well-heeled (and not so well-heeled) would wander, but it is cozy and comfortable in the typical manner of Irish hospitality, a place where one feels instantly at home. For me, finding the authentic Ireland. Like Dick Mack’s, is as important an experience as enjoying its golfing gems.
Friends Geoff Klinger and Matt Adams toast at Dick Mack's Pub
On account of our propensity to make frequent stops at any place that caught our eye, we arrived at the Cashen Course House (www.PlayBallybunion.com) in Ballybunion, after sunset. The lobby of this large, country B & B, glowed with the dancing flames and warmth of a coal fed fire. We had arrived home and our impeccable hostess, Deirdre O’Brien, greeted our arrival as though we were family coming home for the holidays. My room was massive, literally large enough for five or more to stay comfortably, but alas, it was just me, and knowing I had two nights ahead of me in such splendor only added to my comfort.
Guest Lounge at Cashen Course House
We had anticipated the next morning as a pinnacle of our experience for we were scheduled to play the Ballybunion Old Course (www.BallybunionGolfClub.ie), and the classic masterpiece did not disappoint. Ballybunion Old is a course that rises and falls, twists and turns and ultimately, gives and takes, in a wondrous union of vision and nature. Gazing over the Old Course’s peaked and rolling dunes, one cannot help but wonder if this land has always been a golf course; that it was not “built,” but simply discovered. Never before in the world have I seen a better marriage between what was and what is, as the line appears to be seamless.
The magic of Ballybunion Old
Our golfing performance on the Grand Old Lady could hardly be described as seamless, however, as we all seemed to be leaking considerable oil, both on account of our pace over the last few days and the subtle (and ingenious) challenges that await a golfer that fails to employ forethought. Regardless, our day was nothing but a pleasure and while it may be a cliché, if I had but one course to play for the rest of my days, the Old Course at Ballybunion would be the one. This course deserves its lofty world stature.
Our day concluded, fittingly, at McMunn’s Pub, a typical Irish pub in comfort and décor; a place where everyone feels as welcome as a local resident. However, McMunn’s is different in that it benefits from the culinary talents of Greg Ryan, Head Chef and Manager, who creates gourmet selections on a nightly basis that can only be described as world-class.
Much is made of power in the game today, but golf in Ireland requires perspective, imagination and a sense of humor that is capable of embracing nuance, the very rhythm of life itself.
For more information on touring Ireland’s southwest, visit www.SwingGolfIreland.com