Tralee's signature 12th hole
From my base at the upscale Aghadoe Heights Hotel overlooking the lower lake in Killarney, I next paid calls to two links-style courses directly on the Atlantic and the Killarney Golf & Fishing Club located only minutes from my hotel smack on the lake. The hotel is a modern glass and steel structure that was finished in the summer of 2000. It features a modest number of rooms, excellent cuisine and a health and fitness area with indoor pool, saunas and a weight room.
I was particularly looking forward to playing Tralee. I had heard much about it and Tralee was Arnold Palmer's first architectural venture in the British Isles. I also was intrigued that it has some unusual ruins on the course. The drive from the hotel was a bit over an hour only because next to Dublin the town of Tralee was easily the busiest I had encountered in Ireland. The course is not directly in the town but out on Barrow Point, some 8 miles west of Tralee.
Palmer's design is the fourth incarnation of Tralee Golf Club, which was founded in 1896. The three ancestral layouts were in the town proper. As the story in the course's Strokesaver explains, Tralee was plagued by heavy rainfall, making the courses unplayable in winter. Though it is close to Tralee, Barrow has a remote feel to it, and the sandy porous soil allowed Palmer the chance to build a links-style course that could be enjoyed year round.
Barrow Point, the strip of land in Barrow on which the course was laid out, is a mixed geographical bag. It has some very high dunes, wide white beaches, inlets and some of the most eye-popping scenery of mountains and ocean you will see in all of Ireland. Scenes from the Oscar-winning Ryan's Daughter were shot on the beach alongside the 2nd hole.
At the same time, portions of the site are more suitable for sheep grazing than golf and the result is the course has an uneven character. When Palmer said in 1980 at the time the course was built, "I have never come across a piece of land so ideally suited for the building of a golf course", I'm sure he was prompted by public relations considerations.
To be sure, a couple of holes on the back 9 are marvelous with their elevation changes and riveting views of the dunes, but the front side is spectacularly undistinguished, despite the presence of a Norman tower in back of the 3rd green and a view of a castle ruins across an ocean inlet. Palmer hit the bull's eye when he also said, "I designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine." If the entire site had the back 9 features, Palmer would have had a course of distinction. As it is, Tralee gets a qualified endorsement.
With four sets of tees stretching from 5,550 to 7,187 yards, Tralee plays to a par of 72. After a very long and straight par 4 opener, players encounter the beach-hugging dogleg right 2nd of 594 yards to a green right beside where Robert Mitchum makes his score on the beach with Sarah Miles. If Cecil B. DeMille ever had designed a golf hole, this is it. Majestic and sweeping, views from this hole seem to take in the entire southwest coast and the coastal mountains. On the left perimeter of the fairway at the landing area is a 3-foot stone wall and all along the right from the tee box out for several hundred yards is gnarly seagrass on terrain that pitches and rolls on waves of sand. A successful tee shot leaves a long second that must thread a narrow passageway toward the green. A routine pitch for a third is the reward of the accurate player.
The regular 3rd hole of 194 yards (in May 2000, the hole was closed and we played a temporary hole) hugs the same beach and from what I could tell a splendid hole. The rest of the 9 lacked character and had an artificial feel, though I don't fault Palmer because this part of the course didn't offer great creative opportunities.
The downhill 452-yard slight dogleg left 10th starts a string of holes marking the best part of the course. On the 533-yard 11th a precise drive to the base of a sharp rise leaves a blind second that must avoid a low stone wall that juts diagonally in toward the fairway from the right. Here you are at the crest of the hill where you have a short pitch to subtly slopping green. It is here also where the full range of views are apparent. To the left is Dingle Peninsula and the towering peak of Mt. Brandon.
The hardest hole is the signature 457-yard 12th that goes back the other way. The tee shot is downhill to a narrow landing area flanked by bracken on both sides. A steep fall-away swallows shots too far left. Next to the tee shot, the long second over a valley to an elevated plateaued green with a nasty back to front slope is the hardest shot on the course. If there is a signature hole, it is the 161-yard 13th from an elevated tee to a wide but very narrow plateaued green backed by a steep hill with thick bracken. The tee shot must carry Brock's Hollow, a steep hollow whose floor must be four stories below the green.
One of the best short par 4's anywhere is the dogleg left 363-yard 14th, requiring an iron or 4-wood off the tee to a left bending level fairway. From there, a short iron must thread a narrow chute through dunes to the elevated green surrounded by heather and bracken and more dunes. It is a terrific hole.
Tralee is a clear favorite of Stateside golfers who swarmed the place on the day of my visit. In fact, I scarcely saw any other nationalities. The greens at first glance appear benign but the slopes are subtle and severe in spots. It is not a super difficult course and on many holes it is possible to spray the ball and still score well. Some holes are punitive but the tonic for a high number is the scenery.
An Irish Golf Adventure