General History

In early 1897 an article in the Irish Times, headed The Golf Links of Kerry, dismissed Ballybunion Course with some contempt as “a rabbit warren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls.” This provoked a tart rejoinder in the same paper in March 1897 from P McCarthy, General Manager, Listowel and Ballybunion Railway. The course, he claimed, was “quite first class and a sporting course, laid out by the professional who had laid out the links at Lahinch and Dollymount.” The Irish golfers guide of 1897 names this course designer as James McKenna, who did this work “at the instance of the Lartigue Railway Company.” It is interesting to note the connection with present day Ballybunion as he was the grandfather of the Ballybunion Golf Club Secretary – Manager until 2008, Jim McKenna.

But despite the best endeavours of these early enthusiasts the Club was not financially equipped to survive, and lapsed in 1898. There then followed an 8 year period of golfing oblivion which lasted right up until the formation of the present Ballybunion Golf Club in 1906. Its founders were Colonel Bartholomew, an ex-Indian Army Officer who had retired to live in the area, Mr B.J. Johnstone of the Bank of Ireland, Patrick McCarthy, Honorary Secretary of the original Club, and John Macauley of Listowel. Under their auspices, Mr Lionel Hewson, for many years the Editor of Irish Golf and one of the great personalities of the game, was commissioned to lay out a new 9 hole track.

As time passed, the growing reputation of the links began to attracted players from all parts of the country, and by 1926 plans had been drawn up to extend the course to a full 18 holes. Work was completed within the following 12 months, but it wasn’t until 1932 that the new links were finally recognized at national level when Ballybunion was chosen as the venue for the Irish Ladies Championship. This was won by a club member from Tralee, Miss Betty Latchford. A repeat of this championship in 1936 was won by Mrs Clarrie Reddaw. Four subsequent runnings of this championship went to Miss Philomena Garvey [1951], Miss Mary McKenna [1969 and 1977] and Miss Claire Hourihane [1991]. The GUI. has run its Irish Amateur Close Championship here on five occasions. The champions of these years were Jimmy Bruen [1937], Cecil Ewing [1958], Ray Kane [1971], Jackie Harrington [1979] and Gary McNeil [1991].

Five years later it became the stage for the Irish Mens Close Amateur Championship. As part of the preparation for this prestigious event, the Committee appointed Tom Simpson, a leading golf architect of the time, to examine the course and make any necessary recommendations. Simpson was so delighted by what he saw that he suggested only three major changes – altering the sites of the 7th and 13th holes – and some minor ones, which included the installation of a mid-fairway bunker on what is now the 1st hole. This bunker became known as “Mrs Simpson”, and though opinions about it may differ widely, it at least has the merit of providing the topic for much animated discussion!

The next significant date in Ballybunion’s history was 1957 when the course was selected as the venue for the Irish Professional Championship. Harry Bradshaw emerged victorious in what was to be the last of his 10 national titles. Further attention from the mass media came in 1970 with the arrival of television cameras to record the match between Ireland’s Christy O’Connor and Bob Goalby from the United States for the World of Golf TV series. In 1967 The Irish Professional Championship returned to Ballybunion won by Jimmy Kinsella; in 1978 Arnold O’Connor won the Carroll’s Irish Matchplay Championship here. 1971 triggered the start of a new era for Ballybunion Golf Club. Land was purchased on which the Cashen Course was to be built. The Club left its clubhouse on the present sixth tee and built a new clubhouse, on the present site of the clubhouse, central to both courses. We took a sudden leap into intemational prominence when world-acclaimed golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind, wrote an article ranking Ballybunion in the world’s Top Ten Courses.

Things were never quite the same again. Hordes of visitors, very many from the U.S.A., thronged to Ballybunion. Among these was Ballybunion’s favourite adopted son Tom Watson, who came first with his friend Sandy Tatum in 1981, and has been a regular since. He has brought with him legendary figures of golf, Byron Nelson and Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Cohn Montgomery, Larry Mize, Steve Jones, Wayne Grady, Ian Woosnam, Bob Murphy, Jerry Pate, Peter Thompson, Peter Alliss, Deane Beman, Ken Venturi, Ben Wright also visited. From the U.S. Ladies Tour we have welcomed Pat Bradley, Val Skinner and Cindy Rarick. The club called on the doyen of Golf Architects, Robert Trent Jones, to design the Cashen course on its newly-acquired property. This course is increasingly finding favour on all fronts despite vying for attention with the agelessly-beautiful old course.

In 1993 Ballybunion Golf Club celebrated that proudest of milestones – its centenary. Fittingly its centenary captain was Sean Walsh, who as Sec/Manager since 1972, had overseen and contributed enormously to the fantastic development of the club in that time. Centenary celebrations befitting the status of the club were organised. Nothing was more adventurous than the decision to raze the 1971 clubhouse and to build the present new clubhouse to usher Ballybunion Golf Club into the 21st century. In 1995 Tom Watson undertook what was for him a labour of love, updating the old course, giving a facelift to the century-old lady so beloved by all. After his deft and loving surgery she now presents to the world a face more beautiful than ever.

Latterly prestigious events to grace our course include The Murphy’s Irish Open in 2000, The Home Internationals in 2003, the Palmer Cup in 2004 and the Seniors Open in 2009.

This is Ballybunion Golf Club, thankful for the priceless gift of dunesland that nature has bestowed on it. Proud of its origins and past. Humble in realising that it must ever advance hand-in-hand with Father Time in outlook and development and ever a cordial host to visitors from near and far.