Classic Courses: Waterville, Ireland

Courses and Travel

Chris Bertram visits Waterville, the fabled links that enchanted Tiger Woods and boasts some of the finest and most evocative holes in Ireland

The next stop in a westerly direction after the tiny fishing village of Waterville in south-west Ireland is America.

This remote outpost in County Kerry sits on a promontory between Ballinskelligs Bay and the river Inny and from here, after you’ve poked your nose round the edge of the bay, there is only Atlantic Ocean until you arrive in Boston, New York or Orlando.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the United States has played a key role in the history of the village and especially its now-fabled golf course.

Initially, nine holes were carved out of the sand hills here in 1889 to entertain the entrepreneurs who were involved in the first transatlantic cable services.

That initial links fell into disuse in the 1960s when the cable companies became obsolete but was revived the following decade after it was bought by John Mulcahy, an Irish-American seeking to create a lasting legacy on a seaside site in the land of his fathers that he had fallen in love with.

Then, when Waterville was acquired by a group of Irish-American Wall Street high fliers in the 1980s, they invited feted American architect Tom Fazio to renovate it.

The final American strand in Waterville’s history were the very welcome visits made here by Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara – who played here before winning at Birkdale in 1998 – and Payne Stewart in order to prepare for The Open.

Their affection for the links helped put Waterville on the radar of British and American golfers, and the late Stewart was such an enthusiastic and regular guest that he was invited to become the club’s millennium captain before his death in a plane crash in 1999. So revered is he, though, that a statue stands outside the clubhouse in his honour.

Waterville review

But while the links with America are exceptionally strong, when Mulcahy wanted to extend the rudimentary nine-holer he had bought into a proper 18, he appointed an Irishman, Eddie Hackett, to do the work. The prolific Hackett was often given good land in Ireland with which to work, but never anything of this quality. Sitting between the bay and the river are dunes the equal of pretty much anywhere in Britain and Ireland. Only a small number of courses – the likes of Trump International, Royal Birkdale and Ballybunion – have sand hills to rival those at Waterville.

The other advantage of the site was its size. Well over 200 acres, it offered Hackett the chance to route the course as he pleased and ensure it never felt cramped or compromised.

Thus, this feels like a big course in every sense. Spacious and muscular, it has a robustness common to the great Open-hosting links. From early on, and at regular intervals throughout, it feels like Waterville is sitting there saying to you ‘come on then, let’s see if you can handle me’.

Seductive to all levels of player

But as well as this brawny challenge, Waterville also has an engaging character that some of the big modern links lack. So, while the stunning natural setting houses a collection of holes that simply follow the lines dictated by the land, where Mother Nature has not been so considerate to golf, modern techniques have been introduced so that what were once the weaker holes are now entirely worthy in their own right.

The resulting combination is a layout with a versatility that makes it as capable of seducing the first-time visitor as it is of hosting a professional championship.

Hackett can apparently take much of the credit for this because while Fazio overhauled the course over a 10-year period, it remains largely as the former intended in 1973.

Fazio, advisor to Augusta National and whose team has just comprehensively renovated Adare in Limerick, modified the original by adding bunkers and siting tees on top of dunes. His work has introduced a little more difficulty and a deal more drama, but it was by all accounts a sympathetic reworking of the original 18-holer.

The back nine is where most of the largest dunes are located and it will likely be enjoyed by more visitors but the front nine is far from a warm-up, with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th equal to much of that enjoyed in the second half.

The 1st – 430 yards with a flat, wide landing area because it is the further point from the beach and thus where the least amount of sand was blown to – is a gentle introduction to life at Waterville. It’s called ‘Last Easy’, and while there may be an element of tongue-in-cheek to its name, those who have played here already are aware there is also some truth too.

Waterville review

From that relatively modest start, your juices are then awoken dramatically by the scene from the 2nd tee; turning left to right, you can see the green beyond bunkers set into the fold of the land on the dog-leg, with the bay beyond. The epitome of the strong two-shotter, and one of Ireland’s finest.

Some might think the next, another par 4, is even better, even if the 3rd is the only one on the course lacking a links feel to it – there is even a palm tree beside the water that runs down the right of the fairway.

‘Only’ 415 yards this time, and playing over flat land, its fairway curls like a banana hard to the bay and even if you have got your line and length correct off the tee, your approach will be a nervous one with water waiting for anything pushed right. The green was moved tight to the water’s edge at the suggestion of Deane Beman, former PGA Tour commissioner.

Fazio’s remit included a desire for the flatter terrain of the front nine to be developed into something as memorable as the inward half, so the 7th is a hole he created from scratch.

By moving earth and designing a dog-leg lined by a stream, he has done his utmost to divert attention from what is a significant rise in elevation on a hole that tends to play much longer than the yardage suggests.

‘Few holes beat the 12th for romance’

Of the two-shotters on the back nine, the 14th is perhaps the standout par 4, the approach played over bunkers sunken into sand hills short of a long, angled green.

The closing stretch begins with a remodelled par-4 16th, where former club professional Liam Higgins once recorded an outrageous hole-in-one.

But while many of the par 4s are great – it is hard to think of a weak hole here in truth – the short holes are all outstanding.

They are headlined by the 12th, ‘Mass Hole’. It takes its name from the hollow in front of the green that was used as a venue in the 18th Century for Catholic Mass to be held, when it was punishable by death.

The original course was to see the green to sit in the hollow but local workmen refused to disturb the site as they considered it sacred ground.

Now it sits beyond the valley, playing from the flattened top of one dune to the other.

Waterville review

Few holes can beat the 12th for romance, but the 17th can at least match it for beauty and appeal. Played towards the beach, its 195 yards often play like they are 230 and don’t be surprised if you come here and require driver to reach the target. You’ll surely smile at the challenge though.

The par 5s hardly let Waterville down either.

Many believe the 11th, ‘Tranquillity’, to be the best par five in Ireland and it is easy to see why. Played in magnificent isolation down a channel through dunes that feel as if they are the biggest on the course, it is a classic seaside hole.

Elsewhere, the 595-yard 5th is a bona fide three-shot hole by virtue not only of its length but also its twisting journey.

Then there’s the 18th, one of the finest finishing holes in Ireland, with a preposterously dramatic tee location hard to the beach that is sufficiently elevated to offer a truly majestic panoramic view. It is a lasting memory for this golfer, one that alone rightly or wrongly elevates Waterville to a higher echelon. The wind off the bay to your right demands that you flirt with the edge of the beach and let the breeze bump your ball onto short grass. This thrilling closer plays downhill all the way to a green tight to marram and sand beyond.   

Visitors will likely come here, head for the back tees even in a strong breeze and lose ball after ball in the marram. It can be brutal and must be approached with that in mind. But many will not mind that one bit, believing the thrill to be worth the expense and the inconvenience. If they count the cost of their waywardness from the first floor restaurant of the clubhouse, it is even less likely that they will feel they were short-changed by their experience. From this vantage point one enjoys truly magnificent views of the awesome linksland.

It is a setting that has captivated many transatlantic visitors, from the cable pioneers to John Mulcahy and Wall Street wizards to Tiger Woods.

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