COUNTY KERRY, Ireland - As you stroll from the first tee box to the fairway on the Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club, notice the old cemetery on the right.
It is most certainly in play, especially in windy conditions.
If your golf game needs a sense of perspective, this ought to do the trick. Ballybunion's Old Course is the kind of links you'd be happy on which to play your last round.
A coastal County Kerry village, Ballybunion is a small, holiday town. Adjacent to the golf links sit hundreds of recreational-vehicle homes.
The Old Course emerged as an icon in 1957 when it hosted the Irish Professional Championship. Esteemed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind visited the club in the 1970s and ranked the golf course among his top 20 worldwide. His assessment helped Ballybunion land its position as a necessary pilgrimage spot for throngs of American links golf enthusiasts.
Tom Watson visited and was later named a captain of the club. Watson helped renovate the Old Course in 1995. Ballybunion's popularity peaked in 1998, when U.S. President Bill Clinton - in Northern Ireland for peace talks - played a round.
Clinton teed off before a curious audience that numbered 10,000. Clinton blasted his drive over the cemetery and onto a road. The good news? American golfers before the president set the bar low in teeing off the first.
Over 18 holes, most links courses run out of premium land. The front nine at Royal County Down, for instance, features most of its famous real estate. At Lahinch, the middle holes are best, a stretch that includes the famous "Klondyke" and "Dell."
The first three holes on the Old Course at Ballybunion offer a nice experience. But for a true taste of links golf, wait until you arrive on the sea's doorstep at the sixth green. No. 7 plays along the coast and features an alternate green. If playing the devilishly contoured, seaside seventh green, swing away and hope your ball lands in the right spot, because it's mostly blind from the fairway.
The golf course certainly makes the most of its dunes holes, too, especially around the greens. No. 11, for my money, is one of Irish links golf's best, long par fours - right up there with the dramatic ninth at Royal County Down and No. 6 at Lahinch.
The par-3 14th and 15th holes at Ballybunion are night-and-day different - the first a small devil, requiring little more than a wedge uphill to a narrow green. It's followed by a turn back for a beast in excess of 200 yards that, in a headwind, demands a driver off the tee.
No. 16 makes up in a major way for the two bland, front-nine par fives. It's a dogleg left through a series of dunes and progresses uphill to a green that's not visible until you reach the crest of the hill.
The Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club: The verdict
Visiting masses at Ballybunion provided the golf club, over the past few decades, with a bit of spare cash to sink into the course and its facilities. You'll rarely find a 19th-century golf club like Ballybunion that includes a full driving range in addition to numerous practice greens. Usually, it's just a pitching area, and sometimes even that is inconveniently situated.
Ballybunion features not only complete practice facilities, but also a helipad. Should golf-loving President Barack Obama opt to veer from his tropical, Hawaiian golf in favor of the Irish links, at least he'll be used to the wind.
The links are maintained firm and fast. The green complexes especially shine, and they're full of humps, dips and pot bunkers. It's a lot of fun, even if menacing.
Peak-season green fees at Ballybunion's Old Course run 180 euros, though in 2009 the club began to offer specials - a shocking development, given the popularity of the Old Course and the region, in general, for golf. Check with a tour operator about possible discount packages, including a round at Tralee and Waterville or next door at the Ballybunion Cashen Course, a championship design by Trent Jones, Sr. You can play the Cashen Course free with an Old Course green fee.
Stay and play: Killeen House Hotel
For a charming, three-star house hotel within an easy drive of Ballybunion, Tralee , Dooks, and others, check out the Killeen House Hotel (killeenhousehotel.com) in Killarney, an Edwardian-style building with 23 rooms, dating to 1838. Proprietors Michael and Geraldine Rosney certainly know how to cater to the golf-group demographic with comfortable and affordable rooms in a cozy and Irish atmosphere.
Upscale cuisine in a casual, Irish setting is available nightly in the Killeen dining room, Rozzers, or drive 10 minutes into Killarney for some pub grub. The pub at Killeen House Hotel is inviting and sometimes offers live music at night. And if you donate a logoed golf ball to display on the new wall, there's a free pint in it for you.
Be sure to save time for breakfast. The menu includes outstanding traditional Irish offerings plus pancakes, fresh fruit and more.