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