Tom Watson surprised me in a conversation a few years ago when he allowed that it took him a long time to really like links golf. In fact, he explained that it wasn’t until after winning his third Open Championship, in 1980, that he began to feel comfortable on those often quirky tracks – and learned how to “go with the flow” when seemingly perfect shots caromed off of mounds into pot bunkers or rolled off firm and fast fairways into gnarly swathes of gorse.
And Watson said that transformation came when he played a round on the Old Course at Ballybunion with his good friend Sandy Tatum.
That story not only spoke to the remarkable skill of that Hall of Fame golfer, being able to win Open Championships even though he didn’t like playing Open Championship-style golf, but also to the quality of the links at Ballybunion and the many ways it enchants a player with its smart design and spectacular seaside setting. It also made me pine to play the place, and it was with great glee that I finally made plans to tee it there this spring.
Several holes into my round on the Old, which occurred just the other day, I could well understand the acclaim that long has been heaped on Ballybunion – and appreciate why Watson fell so hard for it. Then, I arrived at the par-3 eighth. The wind was blowing 30 knots from left-to-right when I hit an 8-iron, out to the left and with a slight cut.
The ball landed gently on the green, took a few bounces and inexplicably dove into the hole. An ace. The fourth of my life, and on one of the best tracks in the British Isles as well as the place where Tom Watson became a lover of the links.
It could not have happened at a better time or place.