To Infinity and Beyond at Tralee

Kevin Markham
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To Infinity and Beyond at Tralee

Overhead shot of Tralee - By Ian Cronin Photography

A couple of years ago when I heard Tralee’s 8th hole was going to be changed, I felt a chill down my spine. Here was one of the course’s best holes (and frequently under-appreciated, in my view) and also one of my favourites… anywhere. The back nine may attract the plaudits with those towering dunes, often other-worldly holes and two of the most inspiring par threes anywhere, but the 8th held a special place in my heart.

What made it so special? I could say that it’s difficult to explain in the context of the many sensational experiences here… but that would be a lie. I know exactly why I thought it special. It may not be Tralee’s first or last hole of brilliance – many extol the virtues of the par-5 2nd and par-3 3rd that set the round alight, while worship of the back nine will last in perpetuity – but when you stepped off the 7th green and headed for the 8th tee, you sensed something great was coming.

First, Barrow Harbour pours into view, the azure waters placing you in the Mediterranean, not County Kerry. The golden sands curl around the water’s edges and the views are hypnotic. And then there was the hole itself, a dogleg left wrapped around Barrow Harbour, with dunes flanking the right, the green visible, the adrenaline surging as you realised what was expected of you. From a plateau at the elbow the hole swept down to the green with a backdrop stretching to infinity and beyond. If you strayed too far left you found that golden sand or those azure waters. For a golfer with my draw, it was a perfectly shaped hole… for everyone else, not so much.

Before this becomes an article devoted to one hole I will move on. There is so much more to discuss. You know that Tralee was designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, I’ll pretty much bet that you’ve heard about the back nine, the majestic setting and the esteem in which the course is held, but you may not be so familiar with the club’s Masterplan.

The plan kicked off in 2018, when Graeme Webster, the Scottish architect, was brought on board. He focused on areas where improvements could be made, incorporating the links landscape as much as possible and giving the course a more dramatic feel. That certainly explains why holes 7 and 8 (and 2 and 3 for the future) have moved closer to the coastline.
First up, however, were holes 4, 5 and 9.

It is not unfair to say that the 4th and 5th holes were a sedate follow-up to the excitement of those that come before. The holes themselves are mostly the same but the mounding between them gives them far greater definition, particularly as you look down from the clubhouse. And let’s be honest, is there a better clubhouse view in Ireland? There are a few contenders (Portstewart, Scrabo, Old Head, Hog’s Head) but Tralee combines the beauty of Ireland and the joy of golf in one everlasting moment.

The greens on these three holes are unchanged… but the 5th green feels different because the work done just shy and left of the green has enhanced the space that was already there. Before playing the course in July, I sat on the dune to the left and watched three fourballs tackle the hole. There is a hidden hollow short of the green and if you fall into the trap of under-clubbing, or if your approach shot drifts even a touch left,  you will find your ball being diverted across a slippery bank and down into a deeper swale left of the green.

Of those 12 golfers, five ended up finding their way to the bottom of the bank. Then comes the challenge of club selection… and ingenuity… as there are at least three possible shots (putt, bump and run, fly it all the way). The green itself is a beauty, as is the 4th, and the traditional low stone walls that appear on three sides of the 4th give it a charm – and challenge – of a very different hue.

The 9th has proved to be the somewhat awkward uncle struggling to find sure footing amidst the family gathering. I have played two versions of this hole and the current iteration (updated further by Webster, along the right-hand side) was interesting to experience. The uphill par-5 returns to the clubhouse, meandering around 13 bunkers. It requires three smart and well-placed shots to find the green, so much so that it feels like you’re traversing the hillside as you pick your way through the maze of sand.

These upgraded holes opened in early 2020, but it was the work that followed later that year, on holes 6, 7 and 8, that proved more eye-catching. The subtle changes to the 6th focus on the area around the green, with mounding at the rear replacing the previous run-offs. Visually it is more dramatic but it also feels more contained. There is a secondary purpose to the mounding, however, as it now separates the 6th green from the 7th teeing complex. That space enhances the individuality of both holes.

The par-3 7th has always been regarded as bringing up the rear on a stellar set of four par-3s. To be fair, when you have holes like 3, 13 and 16 it is nigh on impossible to compete. Even so, the 7th is now much improved as it sits more on its own, away from the 6th green and closer to the edge of Barrow Harbour.

The new tiered green has been pushed to the left following the removal of the protective dune along the left, and it is now more exposed. The views which have been opened up as a result also make it more visually stunning. These upgrades and the new bunkering change the look and feel of the hole completely.

The purpose of my July visit was to see these upgraded/new holes… but it was the 8th I really came for. Would my heart be broken or would the love affair become still deeper. It was the latter and I do not hesitate to say that.

From my earlier perch, next to the 5th green, I took in the glory of the new 8th hole. It was clear that modern upgrades and a new vision had enhanced both the thrills and challenges of the hole, especially on and around the green. And I wasn’t even looking at it from the proper angles.

The changes to the 8th incorporate increased length – a new green has been pushed back by 20 metres or so as well as being lowered – while the profile of the fairway has also been altered. These two changes now create an even more dramatic approach shot. The green is bigger and shapelier, too, and with its new location closer to the harbour’s edge, it demands a more accurate approach shot if you’re to have a chance at par. This new hole is more challenging and there’s no room for error on any of the shots you take. Remember that when you’re standing on the tee. Four of your very best are required if you’re to make par.

These three holes opened in 2021 and with the difficulties presented by Covid, the changes didn’t create as much of a stir as they should have done.

There is still some distance to go with the Masterplan – new tee boxes and a full bunker revetting programme will extend across the course – but there are plenty of additional changes that golfers can expect to see in the years ahead. In the meantime, the 10th hole is the current project: it is being shortened by some 20 metres.

Tralee is a unique experience – no one who has played here or aspires to play here doubts that – and the club’s goal is to be the best links course that it can possibly become. That is the vision of the Masterplan and explains why a couple of Tralee’s weak holes were targeted at the start. There is no question that the changes are an improvement and with more changes to come – some subtle, some less so – the Masterplan is fulfilling its purpose.

I realise I have made this an ode to only a few of Tralee’s magical holes and I have spent little time discussing the exhilarating, almost devil-may-care bravado of the back nine, but perhaps this article will highlight the forward-looking ambitions and efforts of the club. If God truly designed the back nine, then he will take no umbrage that the club has been working so hard on improving Palmer’s front nine.

Finally, while the Masterplan has focused exclusively on the course, the club has not been shy about making further improvements. In recent years they constructed a new six-hole par-3 course, new golf academy/practice range and short game area (2017), carried out upgrades to locker rooms, Pro Shop and reception (also 2017), while in 2019 the restaurant was also given a facelift. The short game area is currently being increased in size, almost three-fold. These all enhance the experience of visiting this links. There is now so much more to enjoy.

I’ll finish the article with a quote from the writer and author, Tom Coyne, because, well, I wouldn’t want the back nine to feel too left out. Just before the 2021 Masters, I asked him for his favourite stretch of three holes in Ireland. He responded thus:

“An Amen Corner is that stretch of holes where your round either sinks or soars, and when I think of three consecutive holes in Ireland with the potential to ruin or redeem my day, it’s that trio of merciless beauties on Tralee’s backside. 11 is the par-five that never ends; in all my golf, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a relentlessly vertical golf hole. 12 requires an abundance of courage on both your drive and approach, and as beautiful and diminutive as 13 is, come up short and you might as well have splashed it into Rae’s creek back in Georgia.”

What’s your favourite hole at Tralee?

Most times when you ask such a question you will get a range of three or four holes. Think Royal County Down, Mount Juliet, Old Head, or your home course. A few holes pop into your head… but not ten. That’s how many were mentioned when I asked the above question on social media:

The 1st – because at that point you still have the next 17 ahead of you.  @SeanieBohan

The 2nd hole. A spectacular par-5 with stunning views. @tonyfrawley

3rd. Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Don’t go long. Just hit the ball straight. All there is to it. And enjoy the peninsula views.
@JonDeuser

There’s so many great holes, I had to play Tralee on my simulator to figure it out. Decided it’s number 8!  @PaulCantwell1

8th… or 13th maybe. Played it for the first time a few years back on a pet day and a member at the halfway house told me the back 9 was much better… walked to the 10th slack jawed, doubting how you could better the front 9. He was right though.
@JDCawlan

10 or 14 or all of them!! @marklanigan1

12!! I once witnessed a man go Driver, Putter, SW, Putter, Putter for 5 & 3 [points]
@dowdzer

Without doubt the 12th into the wind. Just parred it the once but it felt like an Eagle. Absolute beast. @Lukeyluke77

Always a buzz standing up on the Par-3 13th tee. In theory a simple shot to the shallow green on yonder dune… but only if you can block out that massive chasm between you and the target. @CeannSibealGC

14th. The two fairways help increase the probability of me hitting one. @baldylang

So many great holes, but the 15th along the estuary is just perfect. Superb short par-4 on a quiet part of the course sets up a big finish @Marto_65

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One response to “To Infinity and Beyond at Tralee”

  1. Brendan Mullins avatar

    played Tralee last year in the very congenial company of Dick Spring who had a great story . He saw 4 lads way down in the chasm between tee and green on the 13th Par 3 hole . Being the generous man he is , he said if they were that hard up for a golf ball he would kindly give them a few . They thanked him but said they were actually looking for a CLUB !

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