Keating Championship

Page 1

KEATING The Championship

Pure, raw, untamed beauty. Cruel and capricious. Magnificent and magical. The linksland – Ballybunion. Against the Atlantic ocean, above seaside cliffs, up, down and through windswept dunes, Ballybunion offers a mystical experience, the embodiment of Irish golf. It is a test that any serious golfer must undertake. It is the essence of the game, a links masterpiece that will both soothe and sear the golfing soul. It is here, at Ballybunion, where one of golf’s greatest tournaments is contested, home of the Keating Championship, where the Guinness is good, the golf great and the competition pure. Welcome, friends.

No. 7 Old Course

One of the great – and confounding – holes is the oceanside par-4 seventh.

© Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved

No. 17 Old Course

One of the most daunting but beautiful tee shots on the planet.

© Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved


No. 17 Old Course

. . . and the incomparable view from the tee box.

The Keating Championship officially began in 1987 when John Sr. and John Jr. visited Scotland and Ireland for the first time. The previous year, Michael Keating walked onto Ballybunion, wearing jeans, utterly clueless that it was one of the world’s finest golf courses.

John Sr. and John Jr. played the greatest courses of Scotland and Ireland, including Ballybunion, and Senior won every round except Ballybunion, but it was there where the old man’s love of Irish golf was born. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1988, it was declared that the Keating Championship would be an annual event held only on Irish soil.

For the next four years, the event was held at Ballybunion and Lahinch. In 1992, the three Keatings grew tired of arguing with each other and opened the field to more family, inviting son-in-law Scott Templeton. By 1995, Scott grew tired of the Keatings, but not the


golf and Guinness, and invited his father, Allen Templeton, who, in turn, invited his other son, Sean, and brother, Jimmy.

That year, the first “outsider” was also invited.

With the sacrosanctity of the event now violated, close friends of the Keatings were welcome. And the Keatings by then had become proselytizers for Ballybunion, saving golfing souls, with few regretting the pilgrimage to the hallowed linksland of southwest Ireland.

John Sr. joined Ballybunion as an overseas member in 1989 and by the time the two sons calculated that sentimentality was more important than practicality, they, too, joined 14 years later for 14 times the price.

By 2015, 37 others had journeyed to Ireland with the Keatings, including three brothers-in-law, five other father-son combos, three brother pairs and a husband and wife duo that ushered in the first (and still only) woman competitor. Eleven different players have won the championship, which has been played every year except 2003. John Sr. has played in every event while Michael missed the tournament’s inception and John missed one year due to back surgery.

The competition has been held at numerous other Irish courses – Doonbeg, Royal County Down, Portmarnock, Tralee, Ballyliffin, Ballybunion’s Cashen Course and Lahinch – but after sampling the great Irish offering of golf, it is now the Ballybunion Old Course that is the permanent home of the Keating Championship. And it’s not a bad venue, being ranked annually among the world’s top 25 courses by all the notable golf magazines.

There is nothing quite like Irish golf and nothing quite like Ballybunion. And there is nothing quite like Irish weather. It had been suggested that someone should take home a handful of Irish soil and sprinkle it on the first tee of some Caribbean resort the next year and continue with the Keating Championship. The idea, not without appeal, has ultimately been rejected and all future Keating Championships, hopefully into the next generation, will be staged on the venerable links of the Old Course.

A joint victory for John and Michael in 1990 and John’s triumph 19 years later.


Ballybunion (bally means “town of”) was named after the Bonyon family, who once owned the local 15th-century castle that sat atop a cliff looking westward past the Shannon estuary out to the Atlantic Ocean. The Bonyons lost the castle after participating in one of many squashed Irish rebellions. Today, the east wall of that castle remains and has been a national landmark since 1923. It is also the logo of the esteemed Ballybunion Golf Club.

Ballybunion is a small, dreary town by American standards, though in Ireland it is a popular resort destination. Besides bars, arcades, discotheques and takeaways, the town is renowned for its seaweed baths – basically a tub of kelp and seawater. The therapeutic efficacy of the experience is debatable but, still, better to be known for a healthy concoction other than what pours from Ballybunion’s 35 pubs that once served just 650 residents. Most participants of the Keating Championship prefer another liquid elixir, usually Guinness, that flows profusely from those pubs.

Besides its cliffside beach – spectacular by anyone’s standard – it should be noted that Ballybunion is the host city to the International Bachelor Festival and is the site of the first-ever statue erected, so to speak, of president Bill Clinton. The 10-foot sculpture of the golfing president stands just outside the garda station, just a pitching wedge or so down the street from the erstwhile Monica’s Dry Cleaners that once proudly claimed “Stains Removed Here.”


The real lure of Ballybunion is its two golf courses, though it is the Old Course that aficionados of the game have on their Bucket List. The modern Cashen Course, often damned with faint praise and a pretender to the adjacent links that make up the Old Course, is stunning to look at, stupid to play. That may be too harsh an assessment, but it speaks to its unfair comparison to the spectacular Old Course, annually acclaimed one of the world’s best.

When a 12-hole course opened in 1893 in remote Ballybunion, it was dismissed by the Irish Times as “a rabbit wren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls.” The latter is perhaps still true, but the course underwent several revivals and expansion before famous American sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind in 1971 proclaimed the Old Course “nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen.” A decade later, Tom Watson became smitten, too, which helped boost the course’s popularity and green fees –from $25 in 1985 to $250 today. International memberships are about $20,000. As a private club, Ballybunion until recently allowed the town residents unlimited play for as little as $300 annually.

Several designers have been credited with the Old Course, but God obviously had the most influence on it. Indeed, the 6,802-yard medley of magnificent holes now has a secure spot in golf’s hallowed shrine.

© Photography by Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved

“Playing in the Keating Championship is like going to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History with the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and Little Rascals combined. Here you are at one of the world’s classic golf courses playing the game you love and you spend most of your time watching the antics and actions of your fellow competitors. It just doesn’t get any better than that. One thing’s for sure, the Keating Championship over its 35-plus years has left its mark on Ballybunion – the town, the course, the Cliff House, the Bunker Bar, and numerous other points of interest. And all are better off for the experience, including me. What an unusual and special collection of participants. I have enjoyed every minute and hope to have many more memories to collect on and off the course.”


An Irish Blessing

“May you have all the happiness and luck that life can hold, and at the end of your rainbows may you find a pot of gold.” How about finding a freakin’ par on the impossible second hole of the Old Course instead! Jeff Thoreson’s twoclub uphill approach shot found only a pot of bunker.




t just over 6,800 yards, Ballybunion is the shortest of the world’s top 25. The Irish Open was contested there in 2000. Tour officials feared an ambush and ordered the rough be dramatically cut. It was thought that wind and rain would embarrass the Euro pros. The weather was perfect and Sweden’s Patrick Sjoland won with a 14-under 270. Members and guests typically play the course tougher than it was set up for a European Tour event.

z Ballybunion was a popular course for the Tour pros just before the British Open. The big names helicoptered in and out without regard to member or guest play. A few exceptions were Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Mark Calcavecchia and Billy Mayfair. You’d be just as likely to see them sitting at the bar with the locals rather than rushing to the helicopter (before Watson’s problems with wine, wife and Ryder Cup). A few Keating Championship participants can be seen among the throngs in the clubhouse’s framed picture of Tiger Woods at Ballybunion. The year Tiger came to Ballybunion is second in stature only to Bill Clinton’s visit. The Pope has yet to visit.

z One particular visitor, Greg Norman, brought his entourage and, not surprisingly, was oblivious to other golfers. While playing a parallel hole, Michael Keating grew impatient with the Shark’s din and yelled across the fairway for Norman to shut the bleep up. The next year, Michael was paired with Norman at an event in Virginia and did not bring up the incident.

z Michael Keating (twice) and Richard Lion share the low rounds of the tournament history at 72.

z Richard Lion’s 72 is one year removed from his high round of 102.

z 2004 was the only year the event did not include Ballybunion. That year it was contested in Dublin and Northern Ireland at Royal County Down.

z Until 2011, John Keating Sr. was the only player to average under 80 for the week. His mark stood for nearly two decades at 79.5 until Larry Den took advantage of spectacular weather with equally spectacular golf and a six-round gross average score of 77.3. Michael Keating was three shots behind with an average of 77.8. Michael has averaged under 80 four times, all after the age of 50.

z Ireland’s west coast is notoriously known for its wet and windy conditions. Still, despite occasional hurricane-force winds and torrential rain, no round of the Keating Championship has been cancelled, much less postponed, spanning some 170 rounds over 33 years.

z Guinness is the famous heavily creamed beer favored by the Irish. It takes two pours


z Ballybunion is perhaps the only championship course in the world where you can play five consecutive holes without playing a par 4. Holes No. 12 thru 16 on the Old Course are pars 3, 5, 3, 3 and 5.

No. 13 Old Course

from the tap to properly fill a pint. Contrary to popular belief, it has fewer calories than a typical American beer.

z Of the 60 contestants who have played in the Keating Championship, they own more than a combined 100 holes-in-one. They have played more than a combined 6,000 par 3s in Ireland and none have scored an ace.

z The worst-weather round was October 6, 1988, at Lahinch. Torrential rain and temps in the 50s were accompanied by 60+ mph winds. John Sr. was low with a fine round of 107.

z Bob Buesinger holds the distinction of winning the title without ever hitting a driver or fairway metal wood.

z For anyone walking down the fairway, ball in pocket and grateful for the “double par” rule, gratitude is

The short par 5 that bisects the course is perhaps the only “birdie hole,” but double bogey is far more common. An iconic Irish ad claims, “Guinness for Strength!” Rod Smith agrees.

owed to the misery of others. It was the carnage of 1992 that forced a more enlightened scoring method. Michael Keating’s 12 on the par-4 11th at Ballybunion was mildly humorous. Scott Templeton’s 13 at the par-4 17th was funny. John Keating Sr.’s hillside hilarity on 16 before exerting senior privilege was gut busting. But it was John Keating Jr.’s travails on No. 13 that proved the most fun. He could not extricate his ball from the high grass on the right side of the fairway. He persevered, however, and carded a 23 on the par 5.

z Pubs close relatively early in Ireland. “Members Bars” for hotel guests do not close. It was that unfortunate discovery that caused the one and only homeward flight of the event to be missed, a 1989 ticket to Paris. Now it is less common to find at least one Keating in the bar past 3 a.m., but the sons learned from the best – John Sr. .

z Six-time champion John Keating Jr. owns the most agonizing shot – now mentioned in the same sentence as the infamous Scott Hoch and Doug Sanders efforts in golf’s other majors – a missed two-footer on the last day on the final hole with the final shot that cost him a share of the 2006 title

z Michael Keating is the only player to average below par for any hole during the event’s history. In 22 rounds at Lahinch’s par-5 “Klondike” hole, he has averaged 4.84.

z The most unusual rules development occurred at No. 18 at Ballybunion. John Keating Sr. hit a poor shot toward the huge “Sahara” fairway bunker. A local dog chased after the ball, retrieved it and ran into the bunker. Another dog ran after the first, mounted her and did his thing while the bitch continued to clench the golf ball. Now what?

z The statue that commemorates Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to Ballybunion – where he spent six hours on the golf course and had to be convinced to spend 30 minutes in the town – has two defenses against what comes naturally to an American partisan leaving a pub after several pints. The statue is raised on a concrete platform and stands outside the police station. Impressive, but hardly impregnable – that’s all we’ll say. It should be noted that Clinton fancied himself a good golfer. His triple bogey on the first hole at Ballybunion didn’t include two whiffs from the right rough. Mulligans, of course.

z Following Michael Keating’s and Richard Lion’s low rounds of 72, the under-75s are M. Keating’s 73 at Tralee, Larry Den’s and Michael Keating’s 74 at Ballybunion, Den’s 74 at Royal County Down and John Keating Sr.’s 74 at Lahinch. John Keating Jr., Bob Buesinger, Jeff Thoreson, Rick Zarlengo, Joe Johnson, Dick Blackburn, and Bob Thomas are also members of the sub-80 club. The three Keatings have shot in the 70s in the same round exactly once.


z With the exception of injury, only one round has ever been missed. A contestant was so enamored with the townfolk of Ballybunion that he stayed in the pub past closing time right up to tee time. His opening drive, to his fellow competitors’ dismay, split the fairway. He whiffed his second shot. Whiffed the third. And the fourth and fifth. That was enough; he headed back to sleep it off.

z Not a single participant of the Keating Championship can name the mayor of Ballybunion. For one week each year, hundreds of the town’s residents knew the mayor as John Keating Sr.

z The greens fee at Ballybunion was 25 pounds (about $40) for the first Keating Championship in 1987. For 2024, one round costs 325 euros ($360).

z We’re not saying the Keating Championship is a big deal, but in 2002, there was a disagreement over a rules infraction during the tournament. When the issue was finally resolved, on the day of departure, the pilot of our U.S.-bound United Airlines flight announced the decision mid-flight.

z The Irish-American Challenge began in 2011, when members of Ballybunion play their U.S. visitors in a one-day match. It is a day of intense competition, followed by a night of international camaraderie.

z The Cliff House hotel is the annual host to the Keating Championship contingent. The proprietor has noted that he sells more wine the week Keating & Co. are in town than any other week (and most months) of the year.

z A ritual of the Keating Championship was enjoying a few pints at the bar and discussing current affairs or days of past. An oft-trivial disagreement could last hours. Then one year our most techknowledgeable participant brought a Google machine with him. Now, when disagreement arises, two or three will simultaneously look toward gadget-man and say, “Larry . . .”, who is already getting the answer from Google. And within a minute, the sustenance of the debate and the certainty of being right is gone.


Johnny is a longtime Dublin correspondent and punter who takes no offense to his moniker. He earned it a half century ago and was loathe to change it because of American sensibilities. Johnny prognosticated on the Keating Championship since its inception, with somewhat mixed results. Come to think of it, he was rarely right, due partly to the low-grade bottle of whiskey he was rarely seen without and the wild vagaries of Irish golf. So that made him like an American political pundit – always sure of himself and usually full of it. Still, the Keating Championship owes Johnny a debt of gratitude for putting the tournament on the Irish golf map. Wherever ye are, Johnny, we hope the craic is as good as the odds.



Every golf event, from the foursome at Pinehurst to the 2,000-player World Amateur, has its requisite paperwork. The Keating Championship is no different and has seen the process evolve from loose papers, pencil and tattered folder to data input into an Excel worksheet. The latter, while quick and mostly efficient, doesn’t recognize that the process of paperwork was part of the event’s charm. The daily sight of John Keating Sr. sitting at the bar with his tumbler of Jameson dutifully recording the day’s numbers has been replaced by the rhythmic, impersonal repetition of scores and keystrokes. What’s the charm in that, as opposed to seeing Senior nodded off, sometimes in mid-round or mid-handicap, then going over all the numbers again at breakfast? And we miss the “Scorekeeper,” Bob Buesinger, hovering about, anxious to tell Senior that so-and-so had an 8, not 7, on that hole. Asked how he knew, Bob would simply recite every shot the suffering player took. Now, Bob looks at the printed or e-mailed scores the same way he looks at an oil field’s production report – dispassionately. Time and technology march on, but Senior does retain the role of Handicap Chairman and, for that, the paper, pencil, folder – and process – remains unchanged.

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved

“I joined the Keating Championship in 1996 as a rookie to Irish links golf and quickly earned the nickname of ‘Scorekeeper’ because the competitive nature of the event meant that we played every shot to the bitter end, which kept me counting such wonderful scores like 17 or more. Then my nickname evolved into ‘Replay’ as I recalled every shot of every competitor. Now, some 25 years later, I’ve mellowed like a fine Irish whiskey as the Keating Championship friendships have grown stronger. These days, I can’t remember every shot of every competitor, but if anyone isn’t sure about his score, it can’t hurt to ask me.”

“I never feel I have to practice golf before the Keating Championship. I have to practice drinking. Not only because I’m a singles hitter in a group that swings for the bar fence every night, but because after a day on the Old Course enduring the old girl’s discordant quirks, eccentric vagrancies, in-your-face weather, and, let’s be honest, downright bitchiness, the only place to find solace is at the bottom of a pint of Guinness. Yet, for some reason, I always look forward to returning.”

“Visiting Ireland was a trip of a lifetime. The country is beautiful, the people are friendly, the food is excellent, the weather is totally unpredictable, and the Guinness is a gift from God. Being a part of the Keating Championship is something I will never forget. Playing golf at Ballybunion is something that every avid golfer should have on his Bucket List. Playing golf at Ballybunion more than once is an indication that the individual suffers from self flagellation and a psychiatrist should be consulted as soon as possible.”

2023: Richard Lion, Richard Ellender, John Keating, Larry Den, Bob Buesinger, Michael Keating, Ross Weinberg


The official lodging headquarters of the Keating Championship is the uniquely Irish Cliff House, owned by the magnanimous Kevin and Fiona O’Callaghan. It is adjacent to the oceanside cliff and overlooks the ruin of the town’s 15th-century castle. The O’Callaghans are the hosts extraordinaire of Ballybunion. Dinner at 10 p.m., no problem. Breakfast at noon before a late tee time, no problem. A wine tasting for the group that definitely appreciates it, no problem. The Cliff House is the sister hotel to a more grand lodge in nearby Listowel, and for first-time players it is definitely not a Hilton or even a Holiday Inn property, but no other site is even considered for the Keating stay. Irish hospitality is not a cliché at the Cliff House – there’s even wi-fi now! For each of the last 15 years, Kevin and Fiona’s family has grown by a dozen or so for the week of the Keating Championship and the local hoteliers ensure that at the Cliff House, “sláinte” is 24/7.

Photography © Larry Babilya


One time last century, Gary Grimes found himself in Ballybunion’s version of Hell – one of the pot bunkers guarding No. 8, one of the coolest, if not exasperating, short par 3s in the world. The late Texan had few options in the soft sand, his ball near the rivetted seven-foot face – in a footprint. With the same determination and focus he exerted on his first attempt, Gary splashed the ball out on his sixth. Walking off the green, he announced his score of 9 with the grace and equanimity that mirrored his gentlemanly demeanor on the course, in the pubs and at home. Since 2002, the player with the lowest aggregate score on the par 3s has been awarded the memorial Gary Grimes Footprint trophy.


This is perhaps the most frustratingly simple and short par 4 in the world. Nearly every newcomer goes over and back on the severely steeped green before accepting that lob wedge is the worst option for a greenside miss. Playing smart, bogey is a relatively easy score, but par is elusive. President Clinton’s recollection of Ballybunion included: “On a short par 4, I couldn’t stop the ball on the small green atop a fast, bald five-foot rise. I hit it back and forth until it finally stopped and I putted in – for a 12!” He was talking about No. 6. Herbert Warren Wind, considered the Bobby Jones of golf writers, put it this way: “From the tee the hole appears to be a rather banal par 4, but upon reaching that point in the fairway where an adequate drive would finish, a short to medium iron away, you study the long narrow green and the convolutions of the land in the green area, and your assessment changes radically. It is then you perceive a formidable arresting hole.”

“Golfing in Ireland was a great experience, especially when you’re able to play one of the world’s greatest courses, Ballybunion. It was wonderful to travel together and play with my two sons, Scott and Sean. The time spent golfing and socializing is a time I will never forget. The boys tried to beat their Dad, but to beat their old man they had their hands full. On my first of three trips to Ballybunion, playing the Old Course was quite humbling. My caddie said to me halfway through the round: ‘Sir, you have carried me places I have never been on this course.’ But it was still a memorable trip and I will always appreciate being able to play with my sons, the Keatings and new friends.”

“From horizontal rain to sunburn, from a strong 3-wood from 140 yards to a putter from 20 yards off the green, the Keating Championship was my introduction to a very different game of golf. But the sometimes extreme challenge of the weather and terrain is tempered by the stunning beauty of the Irish links. And when the golfing challenges are done for the day, a pint of Irish Guinness (again,

“2014 was my first time participating in the Keating Championship. The golf was great but the fellowship even better. The bond of the Keating family, the fantastic golf course at Ballybunion, the Irish-American Challenge and the hospitality of the town combined to make a great experience. I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of golf with my father, but having a family golf tournament in Ireland for 30 years is just amazing. Thanks for including me.”

very different from the American version) with our golfing companions might be the best part of the competition. Of course, some of us don’t want the day to end and will need to be gently escorted from the hotel bar to our room, at 4 a.m.”

“Cold, driving rains, gale-force winds, hailcovered greens, tight lies, awkward lies, wet grips, blinding sun, perfect conditions – then we start the back nine. I’m pretty sure I would have never experienced Irish golf if not for my relationship with the Keatings. Should I thank or curse them? Given our 40-plus years of friendship and the opportunity to compete with a great group of guys, I choose to thank them.”

The Keatings, circa 1990, and exactly a quarter century later. Erin Keating at Ballybunion, 1990
Courtney Keating at Ballybunion, 2015


As far as John Keating Sr. is concerned, there’s Phil Coulter, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, maybe the Chieftans, and definitely . . . Noel Nash. The silver-topped 17-handicap crooner is a constant of the Keating Championship, regularly performing at the Cliff House bar. No trip is complete until the balladeer pours out the Fields of Anthenry and The Town I loved So Well for Senior. Noel spent his early music years in Washington, D.C., where KC participant Rob Buhrman did the sound work for one of his albums. Thirty years later, Rob (left) brought that album to Ireland for Noel to sign. Noel occasionally travels to the U.S. to play and in 2013 treated the Keatings and Bob Buesinger to a night of nostalgia at the Mucky Duck in Houston. Noel annually competes in the IrishAmerican Challenge, is a dear friend to John Sr., and long ago became an integral part of the Keating Championship.

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved


It’s a post-round ritual everywhere in the world and beer, especially Guinness, rarely tastes better than after a round of golf on a great course. Usually, the disappointment of unmet expectations dissipates by the second pint. The Keating Championship abhors slow play, but on this hole, the 19th, play is sometimes at a glacier pace. Once, a few players went for a second round (of golf –

the bar a second round is a given) while the rest of the group remained at the 19th hole. When the 36-holers were done, the 19th was still being played, only much, much louder. More than once –OK, countless times – the 19th hole lingered and the pints piled up. But, alas, later tee times and advancing age have tempered play on this hole. Still, it’s only a pint or five until sunset and, sometimes at Ballybunion, the slow play is worth it.

at The clubhouse view of No. 18 as another day at Ballybunion nears its end. © Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved


Really, what is there to say other than it sucked, and then it got worse. Before the Keating Championship was moved to a summer date, the competition was held in late May and early June, or the remnants of winter in Ireland. All the clichés applied – four seasons in a round, just wait a minute it’ll change, etc. Generally, the more prepared you are, the better the weather will be. Seeing your fellow competitor showing off his new $500 rainsuit is good news. Statistically, there haven’t been that many terrible days – the good still vastly outnumber the bad. It’s just that the God-awful bone-chilling, wind-whipping, soaking days are impossible to forget, as Jeff Thoreson (top left) surely remembers this drenching 50-mph tempest, as does Larry Den (center), thoroughly beaten by the mother of all Irish days. One thing’s for sure, the event had a propensity for picking the exact wrong week, as the locals, without fail, were sure to tell us how wonderful the weather was last week. Finally, in 2015, luck of the Irish was with the Keating Championship, giving three glorious calm, sunny days and nary a drop of rain. So, going forward, there will be a lottery to determine who buys the plane ticket for the week after the event so that, technically, we’re playing “last week.”



American golfers often bestow upon loopers in the United Kingdom an aura that usually exceeds their expertise. The Keatings were no exception, and in contrast to the one-and-done visitors to Ballybunion, they stayed and played for up to a week and used the same caddies year after year, spending time with them in the pubs and getting to know their families. Then the caddies went on strike. Then it was noted that the Keating Championship didn’t tip as lucratively as the Pine Valley contingent. Then the Championship started using its member’s afternoon times, or about the time the caddies headed to the pubs after their morning loop. Then everyone, truth be told, figured he could read the greens as well as favorites Jimmy, Mickey, Liam and Les. Other than having someone to unjustly blame after a poor round, the lure and charm of the caddies waned. The caddies of yesteryear no longer carry and advise, and only a few, usually the antitheses of the aging, weatherhewn Bunker Bar townie, are employed today. There are fond memories of many caddies, but as an entertaining and integral element of the Keating Championship, they are no more.

Opposite page: Longtime favorites Mickey Sugrue flanked by brothers Teddy and Jimmy Julian. Pictured, Michael Keating recruited his favorite caddie, daughter Courtney, for a memorable week. Below, Les ‘The Brit’ Collins and Liam Donaghue, and post-modern caddies that are reading books (education) as much as reading greens. Photography © Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved

Inside the Ballybunion clubhouse, a wall is adorned with quotes about its two courses. Yeah, the Old Course is great, but it’s the Cashen Course that gets most of the wall’s space touting its grandiosity.

Odd, since anyone who’s played both usually raves about the Old Course and offers polite praise for the Cashen, kind of like complimenting your friend’s bratty kid. The club’s local members go out of their way to extoll the Cashen, but most of the Keating cadre are dismissive of the 30-year-old Robert Trent Jones Sr. layout.

That’s because the Keatings played it in its infancy and the course was simply detestable, not to mention unplayable. The routing was incomprehensible and it had a slope rating of about 750. Playing the course on a 30-mph day back then would require at least two dozen golf balls – for scratch golfers. Higher handicaps rarely finished.

Over the years, the layout has been dramatically altered and softened, and a major Tom Watson-led redesign is underway, but the fact remains that not all links courses are meant to be great. However, the Cashen Course boasts the more spectacular scenery of the two courses and does have some of the more unique, even cool, golf holes on the planet, such as Nos. 8, 13, 15 and 17. And, on a relatively calm day, it’s now the easier of the two layouts. Sometimes, unsuspecting tourists are put on the Cashen Course and that becomes their Ballybunion experience. Too bad for them.

No. 15 The you-have-to-play-it-to-believe it par 5. © Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved


Why any tourist who isn’t an adrenaline junkie would drive in Ireland is a mystery, but the Keating contingent persisted, despite broken mirrors and daily kamikaze jaunts down the “wrong” side of the road. The front passenger, who was constantly leaning away from hedges, stone walls and tractor combines, was about as comfortable as the turret gunner in a B-17. Sometimes, cars were returned in the condition they were acquired. Sometimes not. With age, supposedly, comes wisdom and, finally, it was decided that enough testosterone had been spent on Ireland’s harrowing lanes and loose chippings. By 2008, all the driving was entrusted to the wonderful Enright family, and now the white-knuckle rides are found only on the course.

Liam and Rose Enright with son David © Larry Babilya


The opener is one of the easiest – if there is such a thing – holes on the Old Course. However, you first have to navigate a cemetery that lies to the right and extends about 180 yards past the first tee box. It is one of the most iconic golf landmarks in the world. Avoiding the graveyard does not appear too daunting until you step onto the tee in a stinging rain and a northwest wind coming off the ocean at 40 mph. Any soft fade will find certain death. About a dozen Keating Championship drives have found buried lies off the first tee, one landing uncomfortably close to a mourning widower. Occasionally, play is halted when a town member finds eternal rest on the golf course. Speaking of which, more than a few international members have asked about the possibility of spending the afterlife at Ballybunion, but, no, they are told, the town has enough residents who already have a final tee time reserved.

© Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved 28

“I’ve been to Ireland five times and have never been in a castle. Who can relate to the irony of that comment except my fellow Keating Championship partners? The images our eyes have seen – Ballybunion, Lahinch and Royal County Down. These memories are enough for anyone, but we get to pair them with friendship, competition and Guinness as pure as the golf. Stepping from the red-eye onto Lahinch in a dampness and mist so smothering it would take three days to recover. Hitting the longest drive of my life at Royal County Down – that baby ran and ran and ran. I trust the castles are special, but starting my tee shot over the Atlantic Ocean on Ballybunion’s 11th and trusting the wind to carry my ball back to Ireland – that is really special. Even more special, my father enjoyed Ireland so much with me that he went back without me.”

– Richard Lion, Springfield, Virginia

“There are no finer moments than putting your game on the line, finding your soul on the course, and tasting the fresh Guinness afterward. Couple the primeval weather, the challenge of the layout and the competitive spirit of the crew and you realize that your golf game will be tested that day as much as your discourse at the hotel bar that night. The experience has allowed me to develop a love for people and country which is not thine own. For that, I thank the Keating Championship.”


No. 2 Old Course

The field typically records only a handful of pars – if that – for the entire week on this extraordinarily difficult par 4. A green in regulation here is accomplished either by accident or by a professional-caliber shot. © Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved

No. 12 Old Course

One of the most unique and challenging par 3s you can play. To say the tee shot is uphill, usually with a 20-plus mph crosswind, and that there is a huge cavern to the right of the green and a massive mound and hidden pot bunkers to the left does not adequately explain the hole’s severity. © Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved

“ “

Having already played Ballybunion, particularly the greatest back nine ever, it was special to introduce my Peruvian father-in-law to Ireland and the Old Course. The week before, he had played the immaculate Blue Monster of Doral in Florida and stayed at a five-star hotel and drank champagne. Then he came across the pond with me to experience the wonderful, raw beauty of Ballybunion. He enjoyed the golf, the whiskey, the camaraderie and the weather – in that order! His best round of the week was without me in his ear translating, but rather hearing just the wind, the surf and the occasional ‘good shot.’ ”

What a wonderful annual golf tradition held on Irish soil with family and friends. The great competition on the even greater Ballybunion course combined with the social atmosphere after the round brought lasting fond memories that my son, Michael, and I will cherish forever. I would like to personally thank the Keatings for allowing me to participate in this unique event. ”

“There is no better golf experience than joining Mr. Keating, John, Jr. and Michael to participate in the Keating Championship. They are purists and respect the game the way its founders intended. A most memorable quote that will stay with many of us who have been to Ballybunion is when Mr. Keating pronounces after splitting the first fairway with his tee shot, ‘Just 17 more holes to Guinness.’ The event is a time-honored family tradition, and Kim and I are blessed to have been included. ”



While most of Ballybunion’s 30+ pubs have been amply sampled, it’s the Cliff House Bar that now pours the Guinness, Powers and Middletons. Closing time is 11 p.m. for any pub that doesn’t have a special one-day permit. The Cliff House’s “member’s bar” is open until the last man is standing. It’s routine to be awakened at 3 a.m. by the night’s survivors trudging upstairs. Every now and then a sunrise is witnessed from the bar. One player even stumbled straight from a glass of whiskey to church, which God duly noted that afternoon with a 90 for the single-digit handicapper. The pub’s denizens come and go, but there’s always one there who knows that Keatings & Co. are in town. Even after nearly 36 years, there’s still something special about a pint and a familiar face in Ireland. Sláinte!

Steve Dunn & Jon Lindberg 2005: John Keating Sr., Richard Ellender, John Keating Jr., Bob Buesinger, Steve Dunn, Bob Thomas, Michael Keating, Larry Den
Richard Ellender & Wally Saczawa Kevin O’Callaghan & Michael Keating

Royal County Down

One of the 2004 Keating Championship venues during the only year the event did not include Ballybunion. RCD is ranked among the world’s top 10 courses.


Jim Beaney

Dick Blackburn

Bob Buesinger

Bob Brown

Robert Buhrman

Tim Conery

Larry Culler

Allistair Dawson

Tom Dawson

Larry Den

Steve Dunn

Richard Ellender

Dave Ellis

David Fuchsman

Gary Grimes *

Mike Hanafan

Rick Itzkowich

Jerry Jaffee

Bill Jones

John Keating Jr.

John Keating Sr *

Michael Keating

Shawn Kirkpatrick

Jerry Lindberg

Jon Lindberg

Richard Lion

Hal Lion *

Bob McCabe *

Walter McMullen *

John Orcutt

Chuck Parcelles

Al Peterson

Eric Pitrofsky

Joe Pitrofsky

Michael Saczawa

Wally Saczawa *

Tim Scully

Mike Slopak

Rod Smith

Frank Standifer

Allen Templeton

Jim Templeton

Michael Templeton

Scott Templeton

Sean Templeton

Bob Thomas

Kim Thomas

Jeff Thoreson

Ross Weinberg

Mario Zanca

Rick Zarlengo




| Doonbeg | European Club | Lahinch

Portmarnock | Royal County Down | Tralee

Ballybunion Old | Ballybunion Cashen | Ballyliffin Glasheedy Old Doonbeg Tralee © Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved)
© Steve Carr, All Rights Reserved Ballyliffin Ballybunion Cashen European Club 35

Through 2023


2012 U.S. squad: Mario Zanca, Rod Smith, David Fuchsman, John Keating Jr., John Keating Sr., Michael Keating, Bob Buesinger, Larry Den and Richard Ellender 2022 (U.S. in vlue): Ross Weinberg, Paddy Dee, Joe Pitrofsky, Rory Mehigan, Michael Keating, Kevin O’Callaghan, Eric Pitrofsky, Noel Nash, John Keating, John Corridan, Rick Itzkowich, James O’Shea
Traditional matchups through the years: Noel Nash vs. John Keating Sr., and Kevin O’Callaghan vs. John Keating Jr.

“Walking off the 17th green and onto the 18th tee box at Ballybunion, you get one last breathtaking view of the Irish cliffs, beach and sea that run alongside the great Old Course. It is always a bittersweet moment. I’m glad the round is almost over but long to go back and play it again, knowing I can do better. It is a simple course laid out right in front of you, but, oh, how many surprises await the onward marching participant hole after hole, demanding precise skill and flawless execution to navigate this unyielding piece of land protected by wind. The Old Course never fails to bring out the best and worst in me as a human being and a golfer. It forces me to address my shortcomings while providing me a road map on how I should strive to be better at both. You can’t help but think you’ve had a religious experience as you pick the ball out of the last cup. But after careful review of the day’s events, you realize, once again, you have fallen short of the glory of God.”

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved

My most vivid and recurring thought of Ireland and Dad involves him and his two sons walking off the first tee of Ballybunion in our first round there each year. For some reason, my memory depicts a calm, sunny day as Dad mentions this moment being his ‘favorite part of the week.’ It’s mine, too. Of course, the mind is playing tricks – it’s rarely sunny and we’re walking into the teeth of Ballybunion, like lambs to the slaughter. But at that moment, we’re hopeful our game is intact, basking in the bond between father and sons.”

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved
2019: John Keating Sr.’s final visit to Ballybunion included two grandsons.

“I have to admit, I was the one who suggested – early and often – that we take a piece of Irish sod, move the Keating Championship to a warm, sunny locale, put the sod down on the first tee and proceed. Of course, back then I lacked the perspective of a father and didn’t appreciate how tradition is nurtured, nor did I have the vision to see how a game, a place, a group of people –particularly family – would create a lifetime bond.”

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved



“After my family, there is nothing in the world I enjoy more than this annual trip to golf paradise. The pleasure of walking down the first fairway with sons is one of the great joys in my life. And each year the pleasure is greater. I hope each of you enjoyed the experience of Irish golf. For newcomers, I promised a golfing adventure second to none. For the returnees, my thanks for being with us. You add to the spirit and joy of my favorite week of golf. ”

© Larry Babilya, All Rights Reserved


CHAMPIONS, 1987-2023








1993 John Keating Jr. +16

1992 John Keating Sr. -7

1991 Michael Keating +3

1990 John Jr. & Michael Keating +7

1989 John Keating Sr. +8

1988 John Keating Sr. +55

1987 John Keating Sr. +32

Templeton +26

Keating +30

Michael Keating +17

Michael Keating +23

John Keating Sr. +17


Keating Sr. +11

Michael Keating +28

Keating +69

Keating Jr. +45

Year Player Net Low Gross Runnerup Total Round 2023 Larry Den +21 86 Michael Keating +25 2022 Michael Keating +10 72 John Keating Jr. +23 2021 Michael Keating -6 72 John Keating Jr. +7 2020* Richard Ellender +8 75 Michael Keating +12 Played at Ridge at Back Brook, Ringoes, N.J. 2019 Michael Keating +2 73 Al Peterson +4 2018 Larry Den -3 81 Scott Templeton +5 2017 Al Peterson +6 91 John Keating Jr. +8 2016 Michael Keating -1 77 Jeff Thoreson +5 2015 Larry Den -1 78 Michael Keating +10 2014 John Keating Jr. +1 77 Bill Jones +7 2013 John Keating Sr. +4 91 Bob Buesinger +5 2012 Richard Ellender +1 85 John Keating Jr. +3 2011 John Keating Sr. -3 82 David Fuchsman -1 2010 Michael Keating +3 75 Bob Thomas, JK Jr., even 2009 John Keating Jr. -1 81 David Fuchsman +7 2008 John Keating Jr. -3 81 Larry Den +6 2007 Frank Standifer +14 88 Michael Keating +21 2006 Bob Buesinger +1 81 John Keating Jr. +2 Year Player Net Low Gross Runnerup Total Round 2005 Steve Dunn -5 80 Bob Buesinger, MK -2 2004 Richard Ellender -1 84 Richard Lion +3 2002 Michael Keating +24 74 Bob Buesinger +36 2001 Bob Buesinger +23 84 Michael Keating
Bob Buesinger +9
Michael Keating +12
74 John
Keating +1
Keating Jr. +3
+4 81 John
Keating Sr.
Keating Jr. +8
76 John
John Keating Jr. -9
Keating Sr. +6
88 Scott
Allen Templeton -2
92 J.
+13 82 Michael
Templeton -2
Keating, MK +10 1994 John Keating Sr.
Keating, 9
Keating Sr., 8
John Keating Jr., 6 Richard Ellender, 3 Bob Buesinger, 3 Larry Den, 3

When the scores are high, so is the angry sea at Ballybunion’s magnificent cliff

irst, to every participant who has played and helped sustain the tradition of the Keating Championship. It probably would not have survived nearly three decades without your participation and embrace of Irish golf. Yes, the tournament is a glorified golf trip, but how many events in life happen every year with the same anticipation or, in some cases, dread, that don’t come with resigned obligation? Second, to the photographers, known and unknown. Pictures in this book range from professionally

No. 10 Old Course

The most photographed hole at Ballybunion.

taken with state-of-the-art cameras to hung-over and blearily taken with unsteady iPhones, the latter accumulated over the years without attribution. The quality of those pictures is dubious but they have invaluably helped document the event. Thanks to non-participants Larry Babilya (with “assistant” Courtney) and Shannon Sykes for the photography, pre-press production and website design that does meet 21st-century publishing standards. Third, to John Keating Sr., who is the reason for the Keating Championship.

– John Jr. and Michael Keating


Farewell, Ballybunion

For Dad, Family and Friends

With love, Michael and John Jr.


Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.