The dream trip continues, this time onto Tralee Golf Links, again along the Atlantic Ocean, and again one of the top golf courses in all of Ireland. Rated by Golf Digest Ireland as the 7th best course on the island, it’s a short drive down some crazy back country roads from it’s big brother Ballybunion, setting you up perfectly for a double dip. We started our day with the first tee time at Ballybunion, and we were off at Tralee at 2:40 PM for a day of golf that would be hard to top anywhere on the planet.
“Created by God, Designed by Arnold Palmer”
That’s the motto that graces the cover of the scorecard, and it rings true. About 30 years ago, Tralee Golf Club moved its location from a nine hole course in Tralee, to its new location alongside the ocean in West Barrow. As advertised, the course was designed by the King himself, and a statue of him sits prominently near the practice green.
My dad and I, playing as guests on one of the last tee times of the day, must have stuck out like sore thumbs on the practice green among the members. After enjoying some lunch inside with an stunning view of nearly the entire layout, we stretched back out and tried to adjust from the slow greens at Ballybunion in the morning to the speedy (especially for a links course) greens at Tralee. As we hit some putts, we were both greeted by several members, who gladly approached us with a firm handshake, and welcomed us to their club. The pride they took in their club was evident, and their openness to share this with the general public was something that we both took note of.
The entire atmosphere around this club (and other clubs I’ve experienced in Ireland) is so different from what I’m used to in the United States, where the country club experience tends to be characterized by the semblance of exclusivity. Most clubs are private, and guests are only allowed to play if they are invited by, and play with a member. While there certainly are true private clubs in Ireland, almost all of their top courses are at least somewhat open to the public. There are tee times reserved for members, competitions, etc., but if you want to play a course, you can call them up yourself, and book a tee time. And once you’re there, not only are you treated like an actual member yourself, both the staff and surrounding members seem to go out of their way to make sure you have the best experience possible. Far from home in a foreign country, it’s hard to fully explain how much value that adds to the experience, as it is something you have to encounter on your own.
The conversations with the starter before your round are also an integral part of the experience. You can typically comprehend about 80% of what is said, and you’re left to figure out the rest based on context. But it’s all helpful, cheerful, and their enthusiasm for your day out on the course feels genuine and authentic. With sunset coming in around 6:40, and a few fourballs heading out in front of us, the starter at Tralee explored the idea of sending us off the back nine first.
“The back nine is the side you need to see. I’d hate for you to not get all 18 in.”
In the U.S., this timing would have been a serious issue. But the pace of play on this side of the pond (even with almost no one in front of us using a cart) is completely different than what we are used to, and we made it around comfortably in 3 hours, 54 minutes, while hardly waiting on a shot.
I’ve waxed on about the Tralee Golf Club experience for about 700 words so far, and haven’t even talked about the golf course yet. As we made the turn from number nine to ten, we could see exactly what the starter was referring to. This is not to say that the front nine should be breezed over, but the stark difference between the two nines is very noteworthy and significant, and almost feels like two different golf courses.
Tralee Golf Links
The front nine is very open, with little to no dunes protecting the holes and your ball flight from the wind. On many occasions, I was reminded of Crail (Balcomie Links) in Scotland. Despite the course being relatively new, the front nine has a very old school feel to it, with pre-existing rock formations (typically designed as fences, and property barriers in previous eras) intertwined with the weaving of the holes throughout the grounds. If you didn’t know that the course was built in the last thirty-ish years, you wouldn’t know it, and that is meant as a compliment.
The par three third is an absolute stunner. A short one, but treacherously placed on a far point, completely exposed to the wind. A medieval lookout tower remains behind the green, and serves as an excellent target for your short iron (depending on the wind direction). Seriously, you use castle towers as your target lines. Ireland is just the best.
You can even take a peek inside the castle tower, and walk up a small flight of stairs within it.
On this day, we had mostly overcast skies, but the sun popped its head out from time to time. I feel like I’ve spent the majority of these posts talking about how the pictures don’t do it justice, but for Tralee it’s even more so. There wasn’t enough sunshine to give the photos the proper respect they deserve (especially on an iPhone), but I’ve included some anyway.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) October 12, 2016
As you make the turn to the back nine, you feel like you’re entering a different golf course. The dunes come to life immediately on the 10th hole, a long, fantastic downhill par four. The green sits perched photogenically in between the aforementioned dunes, and it’s one of the many holes from the back nine that is etched in my memory.
For all the benefit the downhill slope gives you on the 10th, you have to earn it right back on the 11th. Standing tall at 557 yards from the white tees, into a stiff breeze, and up a significant slope, it takes all you’ve got to get home in three shots. I consider myself a fairly long hitter, and it took me Driver/3-iron/3-iron, and I still didn’t get there.
The 12th comes back the other way, and the green sits perched on top of one of the most impressively large dunes you’ll ever see in your life. Until you reach the next hole.
The 13th is one of the coolest holes we encountered on the entire trip. Usually I’m not a fan of uphill blind shots, especially on par threes, but this is one is an exception. A forced carry in every sense of the phrase, any shot that lands short might roll down the slope of the dune another fifty yards. The slope is so steep, that realistically, you can’t even climb down it to fetch your ball.
Though it was only playing 140 yards, the breeze was back in our face. You can’t see the surface of the green, and you’re staring at the wall of a dune that it looks like you can’t even walk down without falling to the bottom. I took no chances, reached for the 6-iron, and absolutely pured one right over the flag. It bounced off the slope of the hill behind the green, and came back to about ten feet, where I rolled it in for the most memorable birdie of the trip.
This video from the Tralee website is worth checking out, as the photo above (taken from behind the green) doesn’t come close to capturing the size of the dune, and the intimidation factor of this shot.
The 15th is a driveable par four, but a true risk reward hole, as there is nowhere to miss if you don’t hit the green. Again surrounded by dunes, if you’re not on target, you’re in the long stuff and searching for your ball, along with your soul. Of course, there is no laying up, so I reached for the driver and just missed right, and was lucky to find my ball in the weeds about pin high (but was unable to convert the up and down).
Seriously, these drone footage videos are awesome, and if you’re playing Tralee, I suggest you peruse through all of them.
The 16th is another fantastic par three in the dunes, and the 17th was where we saw the sun for the first time for the back nine. While it’s impossible for us to complain even for a second about the weather we got on this trip, we stood in awe of what we were looking back at, and wondered what it would have been like to have played all day in this striking sun. It didn’t feel like real life. It didn’t even feel like we were looking at a photo from their website. It felt like we had walked into a painting, and our scores felt completely inconsequential at this point.
Standing on that 18th tee, a beautiful par five heading back to the clubhouse, was a culminating moment for me. The dream trip was going better than we could have even imagined it, and at minimum, this was a top three day of golf for me ever (Ballybunion/Tralee ranks right up there with Pacific Dunes/Bandon Dunes, Old Course/Kingsbarns). Part of me wished that we had spent a day dedicated to Tralee alone so we could have perhaps comprehended what we were experiencing a little bit better. It was like having a delicious rib eye, and chasing it with a T-bone before you’re even hungry again. Due to our timelines and other tee times, this was unfortunately not an option, but Tralee really is that special.