About 50 minutes outside of Bellmullet, bearing down on Ballina, headed east so that we might eventually tack south to Castlebar, Galway, Limerick and Killarney, it registered with me that we were playing Ballybunion the next day. So I was thinking, “How many links golf courses are rated higher than Ballybunion, I mean, in the whole freakin’ world?” Now, ratings are nothing if not subjective, and, as a member of the GOLF Magazine panel since 1997, I am party to that subjectivity. Nevertheless, if you refer to the GOLF list, only the Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, and Royal County Down, Royal Dornoch, Royal Portrush, Turnberry, and Pacific Dunes are more highly rated. Sand Hills? I just don’t think of that as a links.
This would normally be the fodder for yet another pedantic ratings discussion, and I have played Ballybunion before. But as we made our my way down the N56, it occurred to me that I’d be playing it this time having played 7 stellar links courses in the space of 5 days, including one that I’d have a hard time placing behind any links course we’ve mentioned here, so far.
Much as I enjoyed the two courses at Ballyliffin, the Sandy Hills course at Rosapenna, Narin & Portnoo and Donegal, they are simply not in Ballybunion’s class. But Enniscrone is, and it’s interesting to compare the two, having played them both in the space of 48 hours. Both routings spend considerable time NOT weaving their ways through the deep hollows of giant dunes corridors. This is to their credit. Links that spend all their time in there are too intense, too difficult, too funky. You need a break, and there’s nothing wrong with wrapping holes around the perimeter of a dunes complex, or routing an open fairway to a green that sits in a dunesy amphitheater. Both Enniscrone and Ballybunion serve up this sort of thing, in spades.
So, what does Ballybunion have that Enniscrone doesn’t? Or what is it about Enniscrone that keeps it from these lofty heights? Is it, as my colleague put it, simple inertia on the part of the scum-sucking media? It could be that. But here are some alternate theories.
1) Ballybunion is older and more accessible, meaning that more people have played it over the course of more years. Enniscrone is way out there in County Sligo, hours from Galway and even further from Dublin, Limerick, Belfast or any sort of hub. It’s remote, and unless you’re course was designed by Ben Crenshaw, or developed by Mike Keiser, these types of remote courses don’t get the same sort of attention.
2) Ballybunion is, I would say, 2.5 shots easier per side than Enniscrone. Now, this can depend a lot on conditions the day you play. But we played the two on very similar sun-splashed days in similar 15 mph winds, maximum. Enniscrone kicked my ass and kicked the ass of everyone in our group. Today, at Ballybunion, I shot 85, best score of the trip. Ditto for the others. Bottom line, it’s a feel good course. I don’t want to call it a “resort” course, where the design is intended to please first-time/only time players. It’s far more quirky and too flat out awesome for that. But the landings areas are more broad, the rough not so thick, the twists and turns not so confounding for visitors.
You know, I was going to just list these reasons one after another, as to why Ballybunion is ranked higher than Enniscrone, but I’ve run out of ammo at two. Beyond that, it’s sorta hard to make the argument. So I’ll stop.
Now, Carne is another matter. There are some who feel this is among the world’s great links, and I’ve decided they’ve got a point. It’s more raw than Enniscrone, not in the same sort of condition, and we played it in a dank mist. My feet were soaked by the third hole (too much walking around searching for balls in the heavy, wet rough) and I lost several golf balls. It’s hard to separate these factors from one’s perception, especially re. a one-time golf experience. Carne goes out into the dunes and never really ducks out for a breather, but I’ve just gone through the course again in my mind, on the card, in the par-saver book, in the pictures and videos we’ve gathered. It’s extremely tough, crazy penal in spots, but it’s the equal of Ballybunion, as well.
So there. I’ve said it.