Inside: The Road to Ballybunion
William Jefferson Clinton recognized a good omen when the afternoon sun finally broke through the slate gray skies as his motorcade neared Ballybunion Golf Club.
It was September 5, 1998. Back home, the impeachment drama was reaching a crescendo: The president was just three weeks removed from admitting his affair on television to a rapt and revolted nation; only two days earlier he had been denounced as "immoral" on the floor of the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Yet the sexual shenanigans holding his fellow Americans in thrall were proving to be of little consequence in rural Ireland.
Sweeping along the freshly resurfaced laneways of County Kerry, the president saw hedgerows lined with colorful billboards declaring Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton. In the town itself, the Stars and Stripes seemed to hang from every window, with twelve in particular conspicuously fluttering atop a rundown nightclub. "That was such a special day for me," Clinton would later remember. "Every little Irish village I went through on my way to Ballybunion had people in the streets, and all their stores had been repainted. It was just so beautiful and so unbelievable."
Even the name proving so inescapable at home was discreetly excised from the celebrations, as Monica's Hair Salon became, for one day, the President's Shop, hawking coffee mugs and T-shirts. "Beautiful," sighed Maria Finucane, the local who has organized the Ballybunion International Bachelor Festival for twenty years. "The village will never look so good again."
To an embattled American president fighting for his political life, the little Irish village was indeed a blessedly benign sight. Of course, he was oblivious to the forces that even at that moment were hard at work to use the presidential visit for their own purposes. In particular, he had yet to meet the wily Irish huckster who, though Clinton didn't know it, was attempting to turn the First Golfer into Ballybunion's own Local Hero.
The village of Ballybunion, population about 1,500, sits atop the rugged coastline where the River Shannon meets the Atlantic Ocean, about as close to America as you can get and still be in Ireland. In summer, Main Street--really the only street--lures a few golfers seeking shelter from the usually harsh elements in bars like Shortis and Tony's 19th. In winter, it is so desolate you can almost hear dogs barking in the Bronx.
Indeed, as the booming "Celtic Tiger" economy turns Ireland into one of the world's leading software producers, rural communities on the west coast have largely been left to trade on the Ireland of picture postcards: the red-haired colleen dancing a jig with fiddlers playing by a turf fire. County Kerry is Ireland's top destination, but most visitors go south of Ballybunion to the stunning Dingle Peninsula, where the movies Ryan's Daughter and Far and Away were filmed. The one thing the community has going for it is a golf course that is the envy of the world.
Ballybunion Golf Club is more than one hundred years old but was essentially discovered for the rest of the world by five-time British Open champion Tom Watson in 1981, when he played a practice round there that drew a gallery estimated at two thousand. "Tom really put Ballybunion on the map," says Brian McCarthy, a former club captain. Now it's a bona fide links mecca, and club officials estimate that more than half of all visiting players are American. (Not all of them leave: A California man is buried in the ancient cemetery adjacent to the first fairway.)
Somewhere along the line, an enthusiastic American golfer named Bill Clinton developed an interest in the course. Although he had never been there, he apparently owned a course guide and as president often wore a cap that read Ballybunion Golf Club, Established 1893. (Once, the story goes, the hat was lost, and staffers had to scramble to locate a replacement.) By all accounts, Clinton's interest coalesced into concrete desire on Martha's Vineyard in 1994, when Dick Spring, Ireland's then deputy prime minister, took advantage of a break in the negotiations for a cease-fire in Northern Ireland to invite the president to play the legendary links.