I’m not a fan of the top-100 golf course rankings published annually by magazines and give them scant attention. How does one differentiate between the landscapes and characteristics of a seaside links, a heathland, or a parkland golf course? Each style has its merits and individual golfers will have their personal preferences. The qualities and playing characteristics are so different from one course to another that one must ask how can one possibly decide which course deserves a higher numerical ranking than another?
Golf course likes (and dislikes) are too subjective and dependent on emotion to be put in a credible ascending or descending running order. Everybody is entitled to their own (short) list of personal favourites but, rating courses in ‘Michelin Star-like groups’ makes more sense to me.
Everyone has their own way of assessing the enjoyability of a golf course. It’s mostly an emotional response that evades quantitative measurement. My method is as simple as when I have completed my round to ask myself: Would I like to do that again? If so, how much and how soon?
Before the Pandemic-induced, inter-county lockdown ended last summer, I prepared a short hit list of ‘must-play courses’ in Ireland that I hadn’t previously played. On the say so of my friends, I knew that Ballinrobe should be near the top of a short list. So, taking advantage of the brand new M18 motorway, I made tracks (from Limerick) into the heart of Connacht to play a game there on a dry but otherwise salubrious day to discover what revealed itself to be a truly outstanding and enjoyable test of golf.
For almost 100-years, the membership at Ballinrobe GC played on a ‘plain’ 9-holes surrounded by the local horse racing track. Then, in 1992, the revered Eddie Hackett was commissioned to design and supervise the building of an 18 holes routing that opened for play in 1996, which, sadly, was the same year that the much-loved, Eddie, died.
Hackett’s contribution to Irish golf over his long lifetime is extraordinary. I’m not sure if he ever saw his Ballinrobe masterpiece in its finished state but if he could do so now almost thirty years later, he would be extremely proud. One brilliant hole after another that get better as you go around the par-73 routing features, according to none other than Padraig Harrington, ‘the best collection of par-3s in Ireland’.
I wouldn’t dare to argue with a three-time major champion except to say that I would bestow the same accolade on the five par-5s. The best feature of all, however, is the variety and complexities of the exceptional green surfaces and surroundings.
Once deemed the richest farmland in Connacht, the rolling landscape was the property of the wealthy Burke Clan in the 12th century and later still belonged to the 16th century, Pirate Queen, Grace ‘Granuaile’ O’Malley-Flaherty. In the late 1500s it was pillaged and confiscated by the brutal, Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connacht on behalf of Elizabeth I.
Bingham conducted so many reigns of terror in Ireland (including the public hanging of the entire female branch, 13 of them in all of the Burke family because one of them had spurned his unwelcome advances) that he was recalled to London and stripped of his military status. The brave Burke ladies were subsequently buried in what is now a grass monument beside the 18th tee while the ivy-covered ruin beside the entrance road and ninth fairway is said to be haunted by the hangman who carried out the savage deed.
The course is festooned with mature trees that are hundreds of years old, natural ponds and streams that create challenging carries and doglegs to punish missed shots severely, but it is by no means a narrow or excessively difficult course. Birdies are rare, pars are hard to come by; bogies are easily enough obtained. There are no blind shots apart from negotiating the corners of doglegs. Whatever punishments befall loosely played shots are justified.
Most of the difficulty is raw length (how Hackett anticipated the arrival of the Pro V-1 ball in 1992 is a mystery) and heavily slanted, speedy greens which have the mitigating quality of ultra-smooth surfaces. Hand on heart, they were the best greens I putted on anywhere in 2021, but also the most difficult.
While I may be curious to see where Ballinrobe is placed in Irish Golfer Magazine’s top-100 pecking order, it won’t affect how I felt when I completed my first round there last August, or my positioning it at the top of my list of ‘want to play courses again’ in 2022.
*Note – Ballinrobe kept its place at 96 in this year’s standings. Full listing HERE