Par For The Course in Ballybunion
Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland
The rain came down in buckets, but we were undeterred. So, too, were the golfers. It’s true my husband John and I had sought out the small golfing community of Ballybunion, Ireland, but not for reasons you might expect. Neither of us are golf fans; we’ve never played the sport, save for the miniature variety. Rather, we were there for the amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean and for a certain bronze statue. And, of course, to feel like one of the privileged elite who golf at the world-renowned Ballybunion Golf Club, if only for a few minutes.
Ballybunion is a popular family resort in the most extreme northwest tip of County Kerry, where the Shannon River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of Irish people flood the area every year, mostly to escape the hustle and pollution associated with larger industrial centers. Indeed, Ballybunion has consistently won the European Blue Flag Award, established by the European Union to recognize excellence in maintaining a standard of water that is free of pollution. And whereas most seaside towns and golfing resorts are flat and level, Ballybunion’s coastline is very rugged. It boasts sea caves, craggy cliffs, and coves. Even the two courses at the golf club are perched atop elevated dunes. Seagulls, cormorants, herons and other migratory birds can frequently be seen nesting and foraging for food. And, if you’re real lucky, you can spot other marine animals, like sea otters and seals on the beach, or dolphins in the water as they come up for air.
For overnighters, there is a slew of guesthouses, hotels and B&Bs. Or, if, like us, you’re just passing through, Ballybunion makes a great day trip. It’s a welcome break – and not too far of a drive from larger touristy cities like Killarney and Limerick.
All these reasons make Ballybunion a unique place to visit…on a sunny day. We arrived in the pouring rain, with wind gusts that made futile the use of an umbrella. We had driven the N69 southeast from Limerick, and arrived at Ballybunion via R551. The latter road is rather narrow and dusty, shrouded in foliage, and seems to wind on forever. But it finally opens up as you approach the town, with the wide expanse of the ocean plainly in sight. You must continue through the town to reach the golf club, past quiet seaside guest accommodations, past tiny pubs and restaurants, until you can go east no further. Sure enough, after driving all that way, you’ve nearly reached the end of the line. Then, and only then, have you reached the golf club, and, some say, the greenest fairways in all the land.
View from Ballybunion
Up close, and in spite of the rain, I could certainly see the attraction. Green dunes buttress right up against the beach, and snake their way up the coast, affording astounding views of the ocean, the coastline, and beyond. For nature enthusiasts and the outdoorsy type, it really is a feast for all the senses: the loud crash of the rough Atlantic surf as it pounds the beach; the layered contrast of bright green dunes against the fleshy colored sand overlapped by white foam-tipped azure blue water; the crisp smell of salty sea air. With such a beautiful distraction, it’s amazing that golfers are able play at all.
But oh, they do. From the clubhouse parking lot (the clubhouse sits on top of a hill next to the golf courses) we spied hearty golfers swinging and putting their hearts out, even through the torrential downpour. Stepping inside the lobby, we noticed several golfers filing in behind us, without so much as a sigh or a shake of their soggy overcoats. These were surely some diehard golf nuts. They simply congratulated each other on a game well played, and ducked around a corner to some secret destination that lay beyond the lobby.
I thought sure we’d find a gem or two in the clubhouse. Like awards hanging on the walls, photos showcasing the famous people who’ve visited, or a plaque recognizing Ballybunion as one of the top ten golf courses in the world. And, of course, we were searching for the life-size bronze statue of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He played a round or two here during his presidency in 1998. Ballybunion, Ireland is home to the only Bill Clinton statue in the world, and we were determined to find it. Why, I couldn’t exactly tell you. To us, finding the statue and visiting the golf club was just one of those kitschy things we had to do as travelers. On this, our first trip to Ireland, we had visited overcrowded tourist traps swarming with strangers; now we were looking to get lost among the same scenic paths traversed by a select few well-known and famous people who rank among the world’s most elite. The breathtaking views, which was the icing on the cake, and the sense of self-importance is what really sealed the deal for me. Quite simply, we needed to comply with our hedonistic urges and feed our egos.
It seems, however, that the clientele, and the club itself, keep a low profile. We saw no such awards or plaques on the wall. The club doesn’t advertise (other than a website), the patrons remain nameless, and the area is rather isolated. It’s almost like the place doesn’t exist, like a secret underground society where only the privileged get to play. And, prestigious as it is, patrons must adhere to a strict dress code: no sleeveless or collarless shirts, no garments displaying slogans, no track or leisure suits, and shirts must be tucked in at all times. This certainly ain’t no place for a tourist.
Indeed, we stuck out like sore thumbs in our jeans, sneakers and un-tucked t-shirts. Golfers seemed to look right past us as if we weren’t even there, and the staff glanced at us quizzically as if to suggest we didn’t belong. And, of course, we didn’t. The one thing we did find in abundance at the clubhouse that day was an air of pretension. Par for the course, I guess, given the nature of the establishment. As such, we stuck around long enough to ask the front-desk clerk the location of the Bill Clinton statue, since it was neither outside nor inside the clubhouse, as we had anticipated. The statue, we were told by a middle-aged woman with a high-pitched brogue, was in the center of town, several miles from the clubhouse, outside the Garda (police) station.
Irish police keep watch over Bill Clinton
We did eventually find the Bill Clinton statue, precisely where the woman said it would be. Parking illegally, we rushed across the street in the rain to take a photograph. A few cars zipped past us, hardly noticing the two drenched tourists swathed like swamis. To them, we must have seemed so unimportant, just another face in the crowd. In a town where residents have undoubtedly seen their share of typical tourists and well-known and famous people alike, their nonchalance (just like rain in Ireland) is simply par for the course.
Katie McVay searches for Bill Clinton (or, at least, his likeness) at one of the top golf courses in the world.