With time to kill, I stroll over to Ballybunion's new course, the Cashen, designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1982 on what he called "the finest piece of linksland" he'd ever seen. Golf writer Peter Dobereiner has hailed it as "the greatest links course in the world, and by a clear margin," but the locals aren't sure. A friend of mine who summers here feels the new course is undeniably beautiful but that some of the tightness between its huge dunes smells manufactured. This could be sentimentalism, a knee-jerk preference for a time when laying out a golf course meant finding it in the land. My friend likes Fenway Park, too.
Progress. Who knows?Besides -- what're you going to do?You're going to pay your fare, shake hands with your young caddie, Padraig, and take your stance as the starter cries, "Hit when ready." I smile at something familiar. Ah, yes, the cemetery. A slice on number one at Ballybunion takes you into a three-hundred-year-old country graveyard thick with Celtic crosses. A lot of balls have gone in there in the last 106 years; Nicklaus rattled the bones, I've heard, and this provides a measure of solace as I watch my drive sail high and right to a gruesome lie. "Reload," cries the starter.
Once the clubhouse is behind me, everything seems the same, particularly the weather, which is ferocious. Christy O'Connor Sr. once said of Ballybunion, "Anyone who breaks par here is playing better than he is able." I would extend the sentiment on a day like this: anyone who breaks par on a given hole.
Ballybunion, like Lahinch, does not open fearsomely (graveyard excepted). It teases. If the hole is long, like the 220-yard par-three third or the back-to-back par fives that follow, the green is welcoming. If the hole is short, like the 364-yard par-four sixth, then the green slopes on all sides, impossible to hold.
At the seventh, Padraig announces, "Course starts here." It does, with even more vengeance than Lahinch's opening salvo. The wind and rain are howling off the Atlantic, which is right here, below. Your job is to stay left, for all of Ireland is left, and as Henry Longhurst once observed, a slice with good carry will land on Long Island. But to go left is to go into the straw, which is wet and heavy.
I'm flailing, soggy and sagging, by the time I reach the postcard fourteenth, a 131-yard par-three inland respite from the Sturm und Drang out by theshore. So, of course, I seek the only trap available -- front left -- and enjoy one of those special Irish pot bunker experiences. I'm out, finally, and Padraig offers kindly, "That's truly bad form in the sand." He pauses, considering, and adds without rancor, "Real shitty." It's ever a fine line between wry and wise guy with an Irish caddie, but speaking personally, I like a boy who's not sycophantic as he angles for his tip.
Fifteen, sixteen and seventeen all bring the cliffs back into play and, with the tempest howling, they almost finish me off. I am standing at the seventeenth tee, spitting into the wind. I gaze through the storm, and there it is, just as the local seanachies -- the tale tellers, the legend mongers, the yarn spinners -- had said it would be: the Vision of Killasheen. She (the Vision, the ghost) is walking the eternal bridge that leads from Ballybunion out across the ocean. Uh-oh. "Seein' the Vision means you'll be dead in seven years' time," said the seanachie. I come limping in on eighteen, a short par four that adds little luster to one of the world's finest courses. Ballybunion deserves a more spectacular finish than eighteen, but that's a quibble.