Home » Course Review

Changes in the wind at Waterville Golf Links

By Michael Patrick Shiels,

WATERVILLE, CO. KERRY, IRELAND -- Waterville Golf Links, one of the oldest sites for golf in the Republic of Ireland, is in the midst of one of a renovation that will both preserve the integrity of the course and update the layout to maximize the potential of the site.

In order to complete the second and final phase of the architectural work, Waterville will close from November until April. The renovation was first discussed in April 2002 and commenced in October of that same year. The touch-up marks the first time American golf course designer Tom Fazio has performed his touch-up services outside of North America. Fazio is perhaps best known for conceiving and implementing golf course changes at the Augusta National Golf Club, Winged Foot and Pine Valley.

The early judgment of the changes and alterations from watchful members and well-known visitors, who travel Ireland's wee and winding roads to experience traditional links golf along the Atlantic, is positive. Recent nods of approval have come from Dan Quayle, Rudy Guiliani, and Wayne Huizenga.

According to Waterville officials, golf was first played at the site in the winter of 1889 and what was then a nine-hole course on the east end of the existing property along Ballinskelligs Bay became one of the first courses to affiliate itself with the Golfing Union of Ireland. The local economy caught up with the club by the 1950's, and it was abandoned and left for dormant through the 1960's.

Americans have come to the rescue ever since, beginning with Irish-born American John Mulcahy, who enlisted close friend Claude Harmon, then head professional at Winged Foot and Irish architect Eddie Hackett to reconfigure the original nine holes and the second nine - now Waterville's front-nine, was built.

Mulcahy's Waterville golf course, at 7,300 yards, was the longest in the British Isles, and hosted a number of professional tournaments contested by the likes of San Snead, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Sally Little and longtime Waterville head professional Liam Higgins, still known for his prodigious long driving ability, evidenced by the hole-in-one he made on Waterville's par-4 16th hole.

The next generation in the Waterville tale came in 1987, when a small group of Irish Americans bought the club to serve as caretakers and ensure its place among cherished Irish links such as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. The new breed of touring pros, including Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara, Payne Stewart, Ernie Els, and Jim Furyk visited often, and so embraced the club that it received consideration as host site for the 2006 Ryder Cup Matches - Ireland's first-ever.

Were it not for the modern demand of hotel rooms and facilities that must accompany what has become a spectacle, Waterville's unmistakable rugged Irish links would have been a most suitable venue instead of the Arnold Palmer-designed, manicured, parkland K Club near Dublin.

Waterville's long-cherished Irish Secretary Noel Cronin and the American directors, have cultivated the character of the course, which includes the par-three 12th hole, which is known as the "Mass Hole," because early Christians huddled in the hollow between the tee and green to secretly worship in safety. Shots to Waterville's par-three 17th are played from the windswept highest point on the course, dubbed "Mulcahy's Peak" because he rests there eternally.

In recent years, Tom Doak, another American architect, had tinkered with the placement of some tees and suggested some other subtle tweaks, but when it came time for a significant renovation, Waterville's directors turned to Fazio.

"Everything about Waterville is truly spectacular," said Fazio, who lives in Hendersonville, N.C., and had never been to Waterville before he was hired, but he had been to Ireland. His mother's side of the family - Finan - is Irish. Once Fazio visited Waterville, he was a bewitched. "The setting is one of the best I've seen for golf."

Waterville's setting is heavenly. It lies low on a peninsula, outside of the very small town and off of the beaten path. The tasteful, two story clubhouse lies low and dark, built into the landscape rather than over it. A marine mast in front waves the Irish flag, and the only really odd juxtaposition is when a helicopter or two lands on the lawn to deliver another up-market golfer and his clubs who can't be bothered with roads.

The course, though, is pastoral and peaceful, not overwhelming in the way the landscape towers and falls at Tralee or Ballybunion. You don't fight or climb Waterville. Rather, it welcomes you. A satisfying round feels as if it is all a downhill jaunt. Mountains, sea, dunes, beach, fescue and subtle elevation changes are pleasing as can be, and the course, like so many risk/reward challenges, is all about angles.

"It's a fact of life with links golf that the elements like wind and rain are constantly changing the course," said Waterville director J Connolly, referring to the fact that bunker faces get worn down, walking paths crumble and wear, green shapes change from blowing sand and foot traffic, and the exposed, beachside of the linksland erodes.

In fact, Waterville took a very serious offensive approach to protecting its exposed oceanfront that for part of the day is an expansive beach, and for the other part a wild, thrashing sea. The last three holes of the inward half play along this area, and Waterville's Coastal Protection Program will visibly affect those three holes in a positive fashion.

"Mathematical calculations based on the winds and the tides allowed us to understand the protection we needed to add, which is basically rock armor," said Connolly, who explained that construction crews dug two meters deep along the beach bluff and installed a textile fabric, on top of which came strategically placed boulders, placed individually and turned on their axis. "Ol' Waterville isn't going anyplace for a long time."

Thanks to the coastal protection of rock armor, Fazio was able to lower the tall flager plants that loomed along the right side of the last three holes and enclosed the holes. The plants served as protection against the blowing sand. "Visually, players won't be confined by those plants anymore. They've been shifted down the bank. Players will not have wide open vistas to the seashore," said Connelly.

Fazio brought the ocean more into play on the par-5 home hole by shifting the tee and building dune structures in an area on the left of the hole that used to be bailout area. The landing area is now modestly narrow with those dunes to the left and the ocean to the right. A brand new green dictates a more daring second shot down the right side along the ocean to enjoy the reward of an easier approach. Those who take the easier way to the left will be faced with a shot over large mounding.

"Tom explained to us that the first and the last holes of a golf course are very important. Players will see and feel the most difference on those holes," said Connolly. Waterville's opening hole, a par-4 down the left of the property, had been known by the name of "Last Easy." That moniker may no longer apply. "Tom told us that if a player gets to Waterville and, for whatever reason, can only play one hole, the first hole should give them a feel of the entire course. 'Last Easy' was somewhat featureless. Now, the white fence that ran along the right side is gone and replaced by dunes and mounding was also built along the left side of the hole."

The par-4 sixth, named "Heaven's Highway" to commemorate Charles Lindberg's first crossing of land when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis over Waterville on his famous first trans-Atlantic flight, has been erased and replaced, as has the par-3 seventh, which required a carry over a pond to a green that was backed by a lone hill of gorse that never really fit with the other holes. The sixth is now an uphill, 190-yard par-3, and the seventh is now an uphill 447-yard dogleg right with dune features and the pond coming more naturally into play.

"Before any work was started, Tom came to us with many options. Some were rudimentary and some went further into the renovation. I would say that the action we agreed upon was modestly aggressive. Once you get begin working with linksland, nuances are always creeping in. For the construction crews, it's more like crafting a statue than building a house," said Connolly. He said the work is being done with such care and subtlety that the changes are sometimes not even noticeable.

More than any of Waterville's directors, Connolly has devotes the lion's share of his time to the club, the Irish political environment, and the Irish Tourist Board. He knew that new courses like Doonbeg to his north and Old Head to his east were splashing on the seaside scene, and, in fact, a yet-unnamed new course overlooking Loch Currane on the other side of town in Waterville is under construction. Even Lahinch, Ireland's oldest golf course, had undergone renovations that obliterated two holes from the original routing of Old Tom Morris and the handiwork of Alister MacKenzie, and received positive reviews for the changes.

"There seems to be an acceptance that even the great classical links must be kept current. But they must retain their classical character," said Connolly.

Fast Fact

Life-sized bronze statues of Jack Mulcahy and Payne Stewart keep eternal watch over Waterville's putting green and first tee.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment