American golfers often speak of the Old Course at Ballybunion as though it were the only golf course in Ireland, so when I first visited, in 2006, I was predisposed to be underwhelmed. After actually playing it, though, I realized that it belongs right where it’s always listed, with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush and, therefore, with the greatest golf courses not only in Ireland but also in the world. At least half the holes would stand as the best hole on any number of very good courses. I could have played Ballybunion until immigration officials (or my wife) came to drag me away.
Dan Tani, an American reader (photo above), joined Ballybunion as an overseas member in 1998, when the cost was next to nothing. Two years later, he married a woman from Cork, and so now is obliged to visit twice a year. (He proposed at the stroke of the millennium, after playing Ballybunion in the afternoon and rehearsing his lines on the drive home.) Ever since, he’s made a point of playing at least one round very late in the year. This past December, he played on New Year’s Eve Eve—December 30, 2013—with three Irish guys whose fourth had exceeded the legal limit on showing up late.
Highlights from Tani’s trip report:
Golf in Ireland in December can be wet and cold, but it can also be surprisingly mild. I’ve played in short sleeves and in full winter rain gear. This year, it was cool—about forty degrees, but dry, clear, and sunny—and the wind was only about ten miles an hour. I joined Anthony, a local publican, hotelier, and landscaping-company owner; Dara, a former assistant pro at Ballybunion, now an accountant in Dublin; and Jeremy, a greenkeeper currently working on a new course in Finland. They were old friends from years ago, getting together over the holidays. Dara is from Newcastle, Northern Ireland, and he grew up as a member of Royal County Down. He had a beaten-up golf bag with the R.C.D. logo on it.
One thing I have noticed when I play Ballybunion is that I am always the oddly dressed golfer on the course. If I wear beaten-up clothing with various golf clubs’ logos, I end up playing with three guys in full Ballybunion gear: jackets, hats, etc. This time, I wore my Ballybunion sweater, and, of course, the other guys were dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed: tattered pullover sweatshirts, Converse sneakers, jeans. I envied them and wished I could be cool enough to shoot even par in sneakers and pub wear, too.
After the round, we went to the clubhouse for a lunch of “toasted specials,” which are the real national dish of Ireland. We finished at three. I had about ninety minutes of sunlight left, so I went out on the Cashen Course [which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., in 1984]. I played the first seven holes, teed off on the eighth (a six-hundred-yard par 5), then picked up my ball and went to the fifteenth tee and played in from there: eleven bonus holes. I saw only an occasional golfer, on a distant hole. My only regret is that I didn’t have any light-up balls, as I did in 2010. That year, after thirty-six holes and a full dinner in the clubhouse, we went out again, at eleven p.m.:
Tani indirectly makes a point that I myself have made before: rather than going to Myrtle Beach for winter golf, why not go to Scotland or Ireland? The weather is often worse in Myrtle Beach. Anyway, here’s one more rainbow shot, as long as we’ve broken the rule. Tani took this one from his car on the way to the course.