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Countless forests have been consumed devoting paper to the stories of golf, fathers and sons. No matter, the people worried about one more dead tree are probably not those who have ever strode the first fairway of one of the world’s greatest courses with the pride of a father or the sheepish acknowledgment of a son.

In 1986, I showed up at one of the world’s most revered courses in jeans and asked if I could play. I had to go to the bar/pro shop and step over the greenskeeper’s sleeping mutt to get permission. “Sure,” the friendly barkeep/head pro said. “That’ll be 20 pounds.”

So began a tempestuous love affair with a course that rarely returns the affection so many lavish on it. Ireland’s Ballybunion Old Course is a temptress, always sought and rarely solved.

A year later, my father, John Sr., and brother, John, played Ballybunion and the old man was as enamored with the Irish links as he was with the Clancy Brothers. So he joined as an overseas member for what was a bargain even then: $1,500.

For the next 32 years, father and sons returned to Ballybunion, first as a trio then with in-laws and friends, for the Keating Championship, a contrived event, to be sure, but every bit as competitive as the most prestigious event you’ve ever played and, for some irrational yet understandable reason, just as nerve-wracking, at least for me, as the Virginia State Amateur. We are welcomed back by the townspeople more as family than visitors

invitation to join Ballybunion – at 12 times the price Dad paid.

“John, you know this is the worst investment we’ll ever make,” I said. “It’s like writing a big, fat sentimental check.”

“Right,” he said, “So I guess that means you’re joining, too.”

Of course we joined, and we continue to make at least one trip a year to the now modern, thriving enterprise that is Ballybunion Golf Club.

And every year, there are a few moments when the ritual bond of golf, fathers and sons secure its roots and push aside the momentous and mundane of our lives. It ocurrs somewhere just beyond the first tee box and along the centuries-old stone of the iconic graveyard that abuts the day’s first shot. It is then our father tells us how he cherishes another opportunity to walk the fairways of his beloved Ballybunion with his two sons, who usually nod, mumble a lame sentiment, then walk on.

We’ll never hear those grateful words again. In 2019, our father died just 90 days after his last trip to Ballybunion. On the final day, it was clear he was never returning.

Senior as the honorary mayor – and the Old Course remains as cruel and beautiful as ever.

About 20 years ago, after being on a waiting list for five years, John and I finally received the

Now, who knows how many more Keating Championships there will be. Maybe a few, hopefully more, but no matter the number, the two sons will pause for a moment striding down the first fairway, and also upon reaching the No. 6 green, where the patriarch requested he be surrendered to the mercies of the unrelenting Atlantic wind, ensuring his presence forever at Ballybunion.

Reprinted from GolfStyles magazine



Let me be perfectly clear right from the start: I have a love-hate relationship with the Old Course at Ballybunion, and the relationship usually tilts toward hate. But I recognize the old girl is one of the world’s greatest links courses, and it’s not her fault that I, and most others, simply don’t have the requisite game to confidently tackle her mesmerizing charms, her intriguing quirks, and quite frankly, her bitchy unfairness.

Thanks largely to belonging to a group of like-minded links masochists who faithfully pilgrimage to little Ballyb for one week every year to play the old gal for six straight days, I have had the honor of looping her about 30 times and she the honor of kicking my ass twentynine of them. There was a round many years ago on a frightfully calm, ridiculously blue-sky day where she did me the pleasure of allowing me to better my handicap, but beyond that single epiphany, I can’t recall a single good round across her rugged links. And I suspect I’ll

fare about as well in my next 30 go-arounds.

You can learn about life in books and classroom lessons, but experience is the harshest teacher. I have learned my Ballybunion lessons, some of them over and over again, but I still have not mastered the craft. So for you, my friends and fellow aficionado, I offer the following advice, observations and personal guidance for playing Ballybunion. May you use it better than I.

n Always aim down the center of the fairway and to the center of the green. Give yourself a margin of error of ten feet to the right and ten feet to the left. If you miss that target, pray hard.

n Never play Ballybunion by strict rules of golf. If you have to hit provisional shots, go back and replay shots every time your caddie says, “Oh, we’ll find that one,” or you do find the ball but realize it is impossible to hit, count every shot it takes to extricate yourself from the demonic bunkers you wind up in (often


through no fault of your own) and putt everything out, the average 10-handicapper won’t be able to better 100 on a good weather day and probably won’t be able to complete the course when the wind is blowing and the Irish rain is coming down sideways, as it is wont to do quite often in Ballybunion.

n Always go one week earlier than you’ve arranged because when you get there and the wind is blowing, the rain is driving and you’re having a post-round pint of Guinness with the other drowned-rat Americans, Ballybunion members, none of whom have played that day, will buy a round to honor your intrepidity and say, “Oh, you should have been here last week. The weather was grand.”

n When the members tell you the rough is wispier than normal, ask them to define “normal.” It has been my experience that when the rough is wispy at Ballybunion, you have a one-in-ten chance of finding

your ball rather than the typical one-in-twenty chance. But even when the rough is wispy, you still have only a one-in-fifty chance of actually being able to get enough club on the ball to advance it greenward. Try for too much and you’ll have your triple in no time.

n Once the Old Course has kicked your ass, go play the more difficult Cashen Course; or, better yet, do something that is loads more fun than 36 holes at Ballybunion – like licking some of the 220 volt outlets in the clubhouse.

n If Sigmund Freud were to probe the Old Course for sanity, I doubt he would come up with anything more analytical than “bat-shit crazy.” I mean, who in their right mind would create a 220-yard, uphill, into-thewind par three over a cavernous and unplayable links wasteland with a narrow green and not an inkling of a bail-out area? And what’s up with the tiered 11th fairway that, if you’re good enough to hit it, leaves you a field

No. 2 at Ballybunion looks beautiful here, but beware, it is the hardest par 4 in the world.

goal shot between two towering dunes that each block a portion of your view of the green? Or the ninth green, where the false front is so steep it might be better employed as a skateboard half pipe for Ballybunion youth.

n The Bitch of Ballybunion often reveals herself, even though to the player who hasn’t looped her like a member, she is totally invisible. If, during the course of your round, you hit ten decent shots that with just a little luck could bounce your way, nine-and-a-half of them won’t.

n Of the eighteen holes in the world that I hate the most, six are at Ballybunion, even though each of them is a fine, if not great, hole.

n Never believe a caddie, a member, or a playing partner from America who tells you it’s OK to hit driver because there is “more room out there than it looks.” That is never the case at Ballybunion.

n Enjoy the first hole. The tee shot plays downhill with a panoramic view of the course and the town of Ballybunion as the backdrop. You can hit driver if you avoid the two fairway bunkers on the left and the town cemetery on the right because, ok, just this once, “there is more room out there than it looks.” The green is the easiest on the course to hit and one of the easiest to putt. Still, I’ve watched many a good player walk off the first on a bad weather day with a par on his scorecard, a smile on his face and optimism in his

heart, only to trudge up the 18th hoping to break 90.

n If you play the Old Course for six consecutive days, and I have on several occasions, you will look back over your rounds and realize that on two or three holes you have, cumulatively for the week, made a couple of pars, a couple of bogeys and a couple of Xs. You will be dumbfounded when it occurs to you that the quality of the shots you hit on those holes had no relation to the scores you made. Furthermore, there is no rhyme or reason to which holes this will occur on. Each person in your group will realize the same thing, but their occurrences will be on entirely different holes.

n All this said, I still find Ballybunion to be one of the world’s great links, and whenever I leave the wee town, I can’t wait to get back.

Author and 4-handicapper Jeff Thoreson toured Ballybunion in 99 shots this day – not bad considering cold and non-stop rain, 40-mph wind, and 55-mph gusts. No official Keating Championship round – more than 200 –has ever been cancelled or delayed due to weather. No. 12 The hardest par 3 you’ll ever play – until you reach No. 15.

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