Watson set to rekindle Ballybunion love affair

Tom Watson in 2000, when he was captain of Ballybunion Golf Club. Picture: Don MacMonagle

US golfer Tom Watson will be in Northern Ireland next month for the Open Championship, which he has won on five occasions.

But before heading to Portrush, he will again visit Ballybunion golf club, where he enjoys legendary status. 

He helped turn the Old Course into one of the best-loved golf clubs in the world with his visits there, which began in 1981 and which culminated in his appointment as club captain in 2000.

Watson will be back in Ballybunion on July 16 and 17, to possibly advise the club on how best to redesign the neighbouring Cashen Course.

Watson has long been interested in course design and is eager to run the rule over the links, which were designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1982 and which opened two years later.

Tom Watson Golf Design has created a number of award-winning courses throughout the world, beginning with the The Links, at Spanish Bay, along with Bob Jones Junior, for the Pebble Beach company.

He also collaborated with his great friend, Sandy Tatum, the man who persuaded Watson to make his first visit to Ballybunion.

Tatum was president of the United States Golf Association (USGA) from 1978 to 1980 and was a regular visitor to Europe and Ireland.

He was captivated when he first saw the Ballybunion links and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t heard about it. 

He raved about the Co Kerry jewel to such an extent that Tom felt he had no option but to come and see for himself what all the fuss was about.

The Watson-Tatum group came in the weeks before the 1981 Open, at Royal St George’s, with Watson laying down one stipulation — that the visit be kept a secret, so that they could play the links without anyone looking on.

But the Kerry bush telegraph went into overdrive, despite the best efforts of the famous club secretary, Sean Walsh, and his team, to keep it quiet. 

Several hundred people followed their illustrious American visitors on the kind of beautifully sunny day that showed off the scene to the best possible effect.

Watson made no secret of his love for the links and the people, even stopping for a little libation on the way round.

Members of the media hung on his every word, especially when he told us that he regarded Ballybunion as “the best course in the world”.

That accolade, along with his regular return visits to the club since then, contributed enormously to a dramatic growth in Ballybunion’s green-fee revenue, especially from golfers in the US, where Watson spread the gospel at every opportunity.

Watson set to rekindle Ballybunion love affair

His numerous subsequent return visits proved these were no idle words. He regarded playing Ballybunion as the perfect preparation for his ongoing tilts at the Open Championship.

And when it was suggested that he might like to assume the captaincy in the millennium year, he didn’t hesitate.

He sported the captain’s blazer with honour and, in spite of his busy schedule, came over five or six times. 

His captain’s prize day obviously proved a very special attraction, with the winner none other than Gerard O’Sullivan, a scratch golfer and Munster Interpro from Tralee.

Large sections of the Ballybunion membership are overjoyed that Watson is making his first return to the club since 2006, and he is assured of a very warm welcome.

However, he is by no means a certainty to get the job, and a section of the membership are pleased that two other eminent golf architectural firms are also included in the tendering process and will be pushing their claims.

They are Mackenzie & Ebert Ltd, based in Chicester, West Sussex, and another British designer, Martin Hawtree.

The Mackenzie-Ebert team has been associated with a number of prestigious courses, including Royal Portrush and Turnberry, while Hawtree is best-known in this country for the much-admired alterations he made to Lahinch golf club.

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