Ballybunion Golf Club
Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland
Before I even set foot
on Ballybunion Golf Club, the
historic links on the southwest
coast of Ireland, I had played it
in my mind with the aid of photographs
and an old course guide lent to me by
an English friend. So when Dick Spring,
the deputy prime minister of Ireland,
asked me to join him for a game during
my official visit to Ireland in late 1995,
I was elated.
I immediately accepted and scheduled
the match, but fate intervened. On the
day we were supposed to play, U.S. troops
were scheduled to fly from Germany to
Bosnia to do their part to enforce the peace
accords. I had to go to Germany to see
them off. Several folks from Ballybunion
were very understanding, traveling to
see me in Dublin with banners wishing
me well in the upcoming election and a beautiful crystal memory of the game that wasn’t. I vowed to make
it up to them soon.
In September of 1998, I returned to Ireland to support and
celebrate the Northern Ireland Peace Accords — and at last to
play Ballybunion. It was an overcast and windy day as I joined
Dick, Irish finance minister Charlie McCreevy, club captain
Brian McCarthy, and the great Christy O’Connor on the links.
My caddie asked me how many Irish courses I’d played.
“Only two,” I said.
“Then the bet’s good,” he replied.
“What bet?” I asked.
“Twenty to one you can’t break 100.”
I stood on the first tee in front of more than 10,000 people,
without having taken a single practice shot, looking at one of the
most intimidating opening shots in golf. A cemetery borders the
fairway for 200 yards down the right side, and on that day, a strong
wind was blowing from left to right. I aimed the driver well left but
the wind curved it over and beyond the cemetery anyway. I was so
keyed up I missed the next two shots and made a triple-bogey 7.
A few holes later, on a short par-4, I couldn’t stop the ball on the
small green atop a fast, bald five-foot rise. I hit it back and forth
until it finally stopped and I putted in — for a 12! On the back nine
I made a quadruple-bogey 7 on a simple par-3. I was 15 over for
three holes! Still, it was a great day. I played the other 15 holes in 10
over and managed to break 100, beating the caddie’s odds.
I’ve played Ballybunion twice more, again not very well, but
I love it. It’s perfectly Irish: beautiful, rough, and a lot like life —
you get breaks you don’t deserve, both ways. You just have to
keep swinging and know it will all even out.
After the first match, I went to Ballybunion’s town center to
see the statue of me in a driving stance that the townspeople
had erected. They told me the hand had fallen off the night
before and they had to repair it. Despite all it had been through,
the statue was still standing, and after 9/11, Irish citizens put
flowers at the base in solidarity with America.
I love golf, even on the bad days. I just wish more political
opponents would play together. They’d learn that there are no
final victories or defeats; playing the game with respect for your
opponent is reward enough.