Golfing County Kerry
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Golfing County Kerry

It's among the most remote of the great Irish links, but Tom Fazio's creative renovation has made it all the more essential

You've doubtless heard that old saw, which is
always delivered with an appropriate Scottish burr: "Aye,
laddie, if there's nae wind, there's nae golf." Less
frequently voiced, however, is the measured impact of wind on
the golf ball. According to studies performed by Titleist,
the carry of a ball struck by a driver will be reduced by 1.3
yards for every mile per hour of headwind, but increased only
by .95 yards for every m.p.h. of tailwind. So that 10 m.p.h.
breeze will cost thirteen yards on a shot hit straight into
it, but we don't regain the equivalent distance when we
change direction. Just another of golf's mysteries, I
suppose, a curio with a hint of cruelty about it. . . .

In my experience, wind is at its most bedeviling on the seaside
courses of Ireland, specifically at Portmarnock (check the
anemometer on your way to the first tee), Ballybunion (I've
seen blasts threaten to uproot the flagpole from its setting
in concrete) and Waterville, far out on the Inveragh
Peninsula in County Kerry.

Not everyone makes it a point to
get down to Waterville Golf Links, possibly because it's a
ninety-minute drive southwest of Killarney, but we've been
doing this run on the scenic Ring of Kerry from time to time
for nearly thirty years. (My wife is a long-suffering golf
widow who has never struck a ball.) Our destination is well
worth the journey—the beguiling land's-end remoteness,
the liveliness of a holiday village by the sea (even one that
is not especially picturesque) and the sublime links itself.
In addition, the golf club's general manager, Noel Cronin,
extends a heartfelt welcome to all visitors to this rewarding
course, which is made particularly so today thanks in
considerable measure to the efforts of a leading American
golf architect.

The game was played on a makeshift nine here
beginning in the 1880s, but the Waterville holes we enjoy
today are not old. John A. Mulcahy, a successful New York
businessman who had emigrated from Ireland to America in 1924
at the age of eighteen, returned to his native land in the
1960s to acquire the sandhills-dotted tract bound by
Ballinskelligs Bay and the River Inny. He hired Eddie Hackett
(Enniscrone, Carne, Connemara, Murvagh) to collaborate with
him in laying out the course. Almost 7,200 yards long from
the championship tees, this rugged and exacting links could
challenge the game's best players, and it promptly took its
place among Ireland's half-dozen finest courses.

In 2002, with
Mulcahy having passed away, the New York syndicate that had
bought the course decided to add more contouring to the
relatively flat first nine. Tom Fazio, who apprenticed in the
1960s under the stern eye of his uncle, George Fazio, and
subsequently rose to the top of his profession, was chosen to
handle the job. He is especially admired for the sheer beauty
of his courses (one thinks instinctively of Black Diamond
Ranch, Wade Hampton and Shadow Creek). In fact, it is this
aspect of his work that raised eyebrows when he accepted the
assignment. Fazio's golf holes are often little short of
luscious. Some observers worried that he would beautify
Waterville, and that the raw, natural charm of this
classic links would give way to an artificial prettiness. The
concern turned out to be unwarranted. Fazio's alterations are
sensitive, tasteful, wonderfully right. He created two
entirely new holes and radically revamped thirteen others.
Today there is not a weak or prosaic moment on the course.
Said the architect when he was finished: "The overriding
objective was to enhance all the areas of the golf course
that were not visually strong or dramatic in order to blend
them into the natural dune settings. Now emotions will run
high, and you'll get that rush you expect from a great links
on every hole."

Fazio's handiwork is evident from the outset.
The once dull first and second holes, a pair of long par
fours, now sparkle. The burn and the boundary are now in play
on the first; on the second a series of low dunes has
materialized to line the left side, and the green has been
recontoured and shifted to the right to bring the Inny
Estuary into play.

As for the two new holes, they too are
superb. The sixth is a downhill 194-yarder through the
sandhills, a burn menacing on the right; and the seventh, 424
yards long, bends smoothly right as it rises, perfectly
framed by dunes left and, once again, a burn on the right.
Both holes fit seamlessly into the layout.

Waterville's second
nine has no fewer than six indisputably great holes—two
one-shotters, two par fours and two par
fives—culminating with the majestic seventeenth and
eighteenth.


The seventeenth, 196 yards long, is pure theater.
It is called "Mulcahy's Peak." An urn containing the
founder's ashes is buried in the teeing ground. From the
pinnacle tee here, the flattened summit of the highest dune
on the course, we drink in one of golf's transcendent
panoramas: the woolly and rumpled links, Lough Currane, the
Inny Estuary as it skirts the third hole, Ballinskelligs Bay
blurring into the Atlantic Ocean and, in the far northern
reaches, the mountains of Macgillycuddy's Reeks. The eye
is ravished. Now, having gauged the wind—the towering
tee here bears the full brunt of it—we swing. Between
us and the green, which lies well below and looks smaller
than it actually is, lurks a jungle of dense vegetation. The
thrill of gaining this putting surface can last a
lifetime.

The oceanside eighteenth is as visually enthralling
as the eighteenth at Pebble Beach, and rather more difficult.
Fazio has strengthened this hole by judiciously siting five
bunkers en route (there had been none) and constructing an
angled green with a ridge running boldly through the heart of
it. From the high tee—often swept by heavy
winds—we must trust our swing implicitly if we are to
have any chance of evading the dunes and the snarly rough on
the left, not to mention the beach on the right. The drive is
the critical stroke here. And keep in mind that this hole,
measuring just under six hundred yards, can play seven
hundred into the wind. It is a compelling and exhilarating
business, and in a very real sense a summation of all the
splendid golf that has preceded it.

I should also mention
that there is a cosseting B&B here that measures up to
the golf. Called Waterville House, it was for years John
Mulcahy's home. An intimate eighteenth-century manor set on
forty acres beside the sea, it boasts, literally at the front
door, Butler's Pool, widely regarded as Ireland's single best
spot for catching salmon and sea trout. Each of the twelve
guest rooms—many overlooking the ocean—is named
after an outstanding golf course architect, including Alister
MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and Robert Trent
Jones. On our most recent visit, my wife and I occupied the
George Fazio accommodation. Is it possible that one of these
days this room will undergo a name change (well, at least the
first name anyway)?

In both 1998 and 1999, Tiger Woods, Mark
O'Meara and Payne Stewart stayed here the week before the
Open Championship, polishing their links shot-making skills
(O'Meara went on to win at Royal Birkdale in 1998) and
enjoying a spot of fishing. Stewart fell in love not just
with the course and Waterville House but with the simple
village and, above all, the people. His warm, outgoing nature
triggered a powerful response. Wherever he went he was
greeted affectionately, almost adoringly. And when it came to
merrymaking, he even showed the locals a thing or two,
playing the harmonica and singing in the pubs till the wee
hours of the morning and, at the High Bar in the Butler Arms
Hotel, personally pulling pints of Guinness and serving them.
The golf club named him its honorary captain for 2000.
Stewart never got to take office. On October 25, 1999, he was
killed in the crash of his chartered plane.

On the lawn at the
links today, a bronze statue of the champion commemorates the
deep affection in which Stewart is held at this special place
with its very real ties to America. It is difficult not to be
moved by it.

Waterville Golf Links, Waterville, County
Kerry, Ireland; 011-353/66-947-4102, watervillegolfclub.ie

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