My first trip to Ireland was an eye opening experience full of surprises...just how I like it. The Emerald Isle is home to 400 golf courses - quite a lot for a country the size of Indiana. So many choices! Taking this trip with my lady Jen, who doesn’t golf, meant only 3 courses would be on the schedule. I had to choose wisely. And sometimes life gives you opportunities you can’t always plan for and from my experience, it’s best to go with life instead of resisting. But more on that later.
After doing a little research I decided I simply could not miss playing Ballybunion - the history of the course and the praise by so many golfers around the world meant it was a definite must play. It was choosing the next two courses that would prove to be the bigger challenge. I finally settled on The Island, just north of Dublin, due to its isolated feel and rich history, and Waterville Golf Club (the course which shares the namesake of its home town). I juggled with playing the new Hogs Head Course, also located in Waterville, but I kept reading about "Waterville Golf Club" and was more than intrigued. In fact, it had such high praise that some golfers claimed Waterville to be the best golf course in the world. I personally had never heard of Waterville and I soon realized why. The course, although brilliant in design, is in such a remote location and small town that no major tournament has ever been hosted on its links. This lead to its relative obscurity around the world. Waterville has also updated its clubhouse recently as Irish golf travel has blown up over the past few years. In the last decade, Ireland has witnessed the largest amount of golf tourism the country has ever seen. Golf in Ireland is going strong 💪🏻. Instead of playing the modern Hogs Head, I would instead try my luck at Waterville Golf Club, the same course Tiger Woods practiced on before playing The Open at Carnoustie in 1999. I chose wisely.
This trip almost didn’t happen on account of the night before leaving the U.S. I came down with a nasty bug 🤒 and had a fever, chills and was just completely wiped out. (COVID 19? This trip was in September of 2019 so I doubt it) How could I play golf in less than 48 hours at Waterville when I could barely get out of bed?! The next morning my fever had dissipated and that was good enough for me. Despite my beat-down, exhausted, sick as a dog condition, I decided to channel my inner Viking and tough it out. I got on that plane and the next thing I knew we were in Ireland. ( I was social distancing and wearing a mask long before it was the thing to do lol! )
I somehow managed to maneuver the rental car through the "space-for-only-one-car-even-though-it's -a-two-way" road. And remember - the Irish drive on the opposite side of the road from us Americans so that was another doozy I had to deal with. An hour from Dublin airport we got out of the car and stretched our legs at The Rock of Dunamase Castle, an impressive and imposing 9th century fortress. My girlfriend and I were the only ones exploring the ruins, making us feel like we were back in time. Or it could have just been my half-delirious state of jet lag and sickness that I was feeling. Not far from the castle I decided to fill up on gas so we stopped at a service area just off the highway. Up until this point on the trip the only native Irish person I had come in contact with was the Hertz check-in guy, so when I walked into the service station and saw it was packed with what looked like a hoard of dirty gypsies, my senses were a bit surprised. I went back to the car and alerted my girlfriend that the Irish are not what I had imagined. I literally drove away perplexed. Then as I left the station I saw a sign with an arrow on it that read "Electric Circus." Turns out the entire area had been overtaken by this giant rave type festival and all the people I saw had been camping and partying for a solid 3 days! So, no- Ireland is not a country of dirty hippies, just the Electric Circus crowd. And God bless them for it!
Feeling sleepy, hungry and rundown, I just had to stop for some lunch. By chance we came upon the historic town of Bruff on the way to our b&b. You'll recognize this town by the life-size statue of JFK. Turns out John F. Kennedy's great grandfather (Thomas Fitzgerald) emigrated from Bruff to Boston back in 1852. Time for lunch at Clancy's, a cozy neighborhood pub right across the street from the church. This looked like the most happening place in town. And by that I mean it was open (most of the businesses around here only open in high season and this being September, it was slim pickings). During our meal we were treated to a history lesson by Jack Clancy, the proprietor and grandson of George Clancy - who was James Joyce's best friend! Here's a cool fact: the bible that JFK used when he was inaugurated as the US President in January 1961 is from the local Bruff church pictured below. The history lesson was one of many we would be privy to on this trip - the Irish sure do know their history and are proud of it!
Our first B&B, Ash Hill Manor in Kilmallock, was a welcome resting point before the 3 hour journey to Waterville. Plenty of Celtic sites around this area to explore, which my girlfriend had to do on her own since I fell fast asleep into the comfy bed at Ash Hill and remained there for the rest of the day and through the following day, which was supposed to be my Waterville Golf Club visit. Instead, it turned out to be a bed rest nonevent for me. I was still stick and just slept 🛏 for 24 hours.
Our one night in Kilmallock was extended for a second night and the view from my bed at Ash Hill, complete with bright green grass and cows, was the perfect place to recharge my batteries. Fortunately for me, when I called to cancel my time at the course, Waterville was kind enough to allow me out the following day even with their full tee sheet. This small effort was just the beginning of my experiences with how generous and knowledgeable the Irish are. After two days at Ash Hill and finally waking up feeling rested and human again, I was ready for the 3 hour drive to the course.
Thanks to the always reliable GPS (sarcasm intended) we followed the path of the Black Valley, part of the Ring of Kerry. The Black Valley is a site to see, extraordinary with winding roads and views for miles. The land gave a feeling of fairies and leprechauns around every corner. Unfortunately, this magical feeling was only experienced by one. Contrary to my excitement and awe of this unspoilt landscape, my girlfriend was getting extremely carsick from the windy roads - and when I say windy that's an understatement. My only suggestion to others would be to have a supply of Dramamine on hand while traversing this Black Death Valley!
We arrived at the town of Waterville...finally...and both of our spirits lifted as we felt the fresh air and the sea come into view. The wind was up on this day, blowing at a solid 30mph with gusts up to 40mph!
That didn't stop us - we had been through worse in the last week and the sun was now shining. I was going to enjoy this round if it killed me. Lucky for me it brought me back to life. Time for some golf!
Upon entering the clubhouse you come upon the administrative staff who are incredibly efficient and can assist with information about the course as well as booking your tee time. After introducing myself and being most graciously welcomed, it was off to the pro shop to see about a pull cart and any information I may need. The pro shop said I would be paired up with another player and that we could go right now before two foursomes. With a quick "Thanks!" I was out the door, headed to the first tee. No time to waste!
I said a quick hello to my playing partner, Daniel, who serendipitously was also an American hailing from my hometown of NYC. With two practice swings I smashed a ball down the right side about 210 yards! I’m sure my illness didn’t help powering the ball but this wind was no joke.
The first hole was certainly a challenge due to the wind but I could already see why people loved this course. Its dangers were layered perfectly upon the ground, providing a challenging drive and approach. The history of the course is as long as the course which measures over 7,300 yards from the tips. The course originally came into being in the late 1800's when the men working on the trans continental cable designed a little 9 hole track for their entertainment. This rugged little course was completely natural and could really only be played upon in the winter when the grasses were low. Then in the 1960's a wealthy Irish American purchased the land and had legend Eddie Hackett design a full 18 hole course. This course was a huge improvement over the original 9 but it wasn't until 1987 when Tom Fazio came into the picture that the course really found itself. This was Fazio's first design outside the US but this didn't seem to matter. He crafted and shaped the land into one of the toughest and most naturally looking links settings in the game of golf. Complete with massive dunes and pot bunkers galore Fazio, an obvious master of his craft, dissected the earth in such a way that no two holes look the same and the routing is so calculated that the wind is always presented differently than the hole before.
Chirsty O'Connor is at the top of the list when it comes to great Irish golfers. Winner of over 30 tournaments worldwide, O'Connor was invited to the Masters for 20 years and never went! He is also a famed course architect so his ability to recognize great golf design is without question. When O'Connor was asked to pick his favorite 18 holes in Ireland, 2 of his selections were from Waterville, the only course on the list to receive that honor. The second hole shown below was one of the two that he chose. The day I played, the wind was so strong it was hard to focus and take in the beauty of the hole's design. Plus the flag got blown over because of the strong wind, not allowing me to see where to aim for the second shot.
My second shot came up short of the green - way short! I was really weak from the illness so keeping good form in the wind was tough. I made an average pitch onto the green leaving me about 20 feet from the cup. To my surprise I drained the putt allowing me to walk off the green with a par! It was hard to appreciate this wonderful hole as it didnt play as it would with a normal wind but the beauty and challenge was evident.
The third hole is the ultimate in risk reward. A long par 4 only made longer the further away form the water you hit your ball. With the wind blowing sideways away from the water, almost all the shots that day would be in the left rough, as proved to be my fate as well.
I made a smashing shot out of the rough and had a short pitch to the green. Unfortunately for me a hard lesson about spin was learned on that shot. The ball was only hit head high but I had a little draw spin on the shot which became magnified by the wind, resulting in a shot that landed 6 feet from the pin spinning all the way off the green some 40 yards away! Waterville was testing me and I was failing badly.
The 4th hole was my favorite par 3 on the course, which I'm sure is not the general consensus. The grounds up to this point were rather tame in their appearance. Nothing stood out other than the well designed holes and the expansive bay and mountain 🏔 views in the distance. Everything changes with the 4th hole.
This hole epitomizes the logo for the course. It feels like you're hitting into a rabbit's hole. A perfect hiding spot for a green and if you can hit a stinger from 200 yards you're gonna be quite happy. Those 2 bunkers in view are placed strategically in a masterful way. Look how the right bunker is short right. When you flare it right the ball loses speed, meaning most shots hit with a fade won't have enough power and will come up short, right in that bunker! Then the bunker on the left is set back just enough to catch that running draw that you over cooked. This is where a master's touch like Fazio stands out from the rest. Oh and if you're thinking you'll just take enough stick to carry those bunkers, Fazio has placed a bunker long on the right and some tall heather on the left for just such a player.
Sandwiched 🥪 between two big dunes, the hole looks like a horse 🐎saddle. Even from the tee you could see the green was going to be quite challenging to hit. Take a look how small the actual landing area is and how only the proper shape will bring the ball to the center line. This is not a course that's a leisurely day at the park. This is a course that is offering you an exam on your game. Come to Waterville to test yourself and be prepared to fail in the most fun way possible. Remember, a bad day of golf is still better than a good day at work. I landed in the sand trap to the left when the wind once again slapped my ball away from its starting line at the pin. I was able to get up and down but it was so much fun to try and crack the riddle of this wonderful par 3.
The 5th hole is the first par 5 and from the tee you get a wonderful view of the rugged Wateverville course terrain. We finally had a drive with the wind and I took full advantage of it, leaving myself only a 6 iron into the green which I hit short. A poor chip left me a longer than expected birdie putt which I lipped out. Fortunately, Daniel was able to drain his birdie which was great to see!
That's the smile of someone who is just grateful to be out of bed smelling the fresh air and playing one of the greatest courses in the world.
The 6th hole is a another solid par 3 that from the tee looks down on the green from a slight elevation. I hit a smooth shot to about 15 feet.
The 7th is a dogleg right par 4 that would normally call for a driver off the tee but not today, not with this wind. Feeling overly confident that I could thread the needle, I grabbed my driver and let it rip. As you might have guessed, I found the rough down the left side with my overly ambitious swing. I scrambled for a par after my 2nd shot went long of the green, out of the heavy rough.
The Texas wedge is a useful tool here at Waterville. Fazio shows his ability to understand firm and fast conditions. His courses across America are generally designed for an aerial assault. Great designers adapt and create according to the land and its elements, not forcing their ideas on the land but instead working with the land to expose its true potential.
The 8th is a wonderful par 4 dogleg left. The drive should be wary of the numerous bunkers on either sides of the fairways. I missed the green left on my approach and had a tricky chip out of the tall grass.
The 9th is a strong par 4 that turns severely to the right. I tried to cut as much of the corner as possible but over did it (which means I sliced it lol!) and ended up in the right rough. My second shot wasn’t much better as I came up a full club short because of the howling wind. I did make a great up and down to save par so I’ve got that going for me...which is nice.
Payne Stewart was another player who loved Waterville and came here along with Tiger and Mark Omeara before the Open in 1999. Supposedly he played his harmonica deep into the night at a local bar, cementing his place in the history of Waterville. He was made a lifetime member of the course and when he passed away suddenly, the club decided to honor him with this statue. It was great to see this tribute to a man who was not only a great golfer but a pied piper for Ireland as well!
At the turn I grabbed a coffee ☕️ and a little Bailey’s (a staple everywhere in Ireland) to try and warm up. After our snack and drink it was off to the 10th tee to see what the back nine had in store. Because of its remote location the club is set up with a heliport for those who find the drive a little too long. I'll give it a try next time : )
The wind was still at full strength and getting to the 10th green in 3 was going to be a challenge. And it’s only a par 4! I hugged the left side most of the hole and struggled to find my ball after the 3rd shot. Turns out my 3 iron from 180 came up short!
The 11th hole starts a series of holes that can only be described as true links golf. Playing through tall dunes is one of the most surreal experiences in golf. I'm not sure how much of this terrain is natural and how much was moved by Fazio but he seamlessly blended the two. The whole course feels natural and looks like it could have been like this for 5,000 years. This is an art that far too many designers fail to grasp.
The ground has been moved through years of wind and erosion to create a landscape that looks otherworldly. This next pic makes my soul happy. Walking down this gauntlet and seeing my ball in play on the left with a great angle into the pin is what every golfer loves.
It doesn't get much better than this. Seaside links at its finest.
The 12th hole, named The Mass Hole, has a very unique history.
I made a great swing and had about 18 feet for birdie - the angels smiled on me and my birdie dropped right in the center of the cup. My first birdie of the day was definitely heaven sent! 😇.
To say the par 3's here are strong is an understatement.
The 13th hole is a short par 5 and a great opportunity to grab a birdie. I smashed a perfect drive down the left leaving myself a difficult decision about whether to go for it or not.
Here I am pointing out to Daniel the mountain we drove over on our way to the course.
The green is well protected and the bunkers just short don’t allow any running shots to find the green. I was able to navigate this mine field and walked off with a pedestrian par after a less than impressive chip and putt.
The 14th is a beast of a par 4 at over 450 yards. I hit a perfect drive straight down the center stripe leaving about 185 yard shot into the green. I pulled a 7 iron left of the green, setting me up for a delicate side hill chip. After a full afternoon of struggling with the wind my mind started figuring out how to play these wild shots. I chipped the ball to 6 inches and felt like I might have a late round surge.
The 15th is a blind drive but don’t fret - this is one of the few holes not peppered with pot bunkers. I played the hole with a little strategy and hit a low running 3 iron right down the center, leaving me about 140 yards into the green.
I hit what I thought was a perfect approach shot only to watch it land about 10 feet from the pin then spin some 30 yards off the green.
Lucky for me the short game was really working and I threw this little salty dog right next to the stick again for a tap in par.
Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!
The 16th is a really fun short par 4. I had heard a story about a local pro getting a hole in 1 so I pulled driver and gave it a go. I hit the best drive of the day! It didn’t hurt that it was straight down wind as well. The tee shot was blind so I had to guess on the line.
Unfortunately I took the line straight down the middle but the correct line is at the mountain peak on the left.
I missed the green to the right but was about pin high! After a sweet little chip I had a 6 footer for birdie and with the sea glistening in the background I drained it!
The 17th is in much the same vain as the Mass hole but here the green is far more exposed to the elements with the water and beach being just steps away to the right.
The walk from the 17th green to the 18th tee gives you a moment to look out at one of the most beautiful views in golf. I was able to capture just how windy it was with this little video of the sand blowing down the beach. This was a special moment to capture and it made me grateful to be alive and see not only a beautiful course but also be so close to nature in this remote part of the world. It's this marriage of the two that made me fall in love with golf and to me this connection of nature and sport is what makes golf different from every other sport out there.
The 18th is your final chance at redemption if you haven’t played well. Lucky for me, even with the wind practically blowing me over I was still able to grind out a few birdies. The final hole is a tremendous par 5 that hugs the shoreline. Playing downwind I hit a nuclear ☢️ bomb 💣 right down the middle, leaving only a 5 iron into the green.
I hit a sweet little draw that landed a few yards short of the green then chased up near the pin. I was left with a 15 footer for eagle 🦅!! I lipped it out and tapped in my birdie.
As I walked off the green I was met with a feeling of peace even as the wind continued to batter me. My body had been through a lot to get here and now I was feeling recharged and playing this wonderful links course brought me back to life. The memory of Waterville will stay with me for the rest of my life. Isn't that part of what makes a Top 100 course? I sure think so. As for the score, I gave up on that much earlier in the round. I decided not to stress my mind and body with trying to shoot a low score - there was no point with that howling unpredictable wind. I just wanted to study the design and enjoy the company of my playing partner. Daniel and I hit it off and we met up a few days later and played another Irish course on my list, The Island Club, just north of Dublin. Waterville is a place that feels like a dream; one you will never forget nor do you want to.
The club is well appointed with a great locker room and one of the most picturesque dining rooms in the game.
I however would not be staying for dinner. We had a reservation at one of the more acclaimed fish 🐠 restaurants in town, QC's Seafood Restaurant. The food was oh so fresh and delicious 😋.
After a whirlwind day of traveling through some of the most stunning countryside and then teeing it up at an 'under the radar' course that turns out can hold its own against some of the best, I’d say this was a pretty good day. And as the evening sun sets, the close to this adventurous and surprising day isn’t looking too bad either. One day I was sick as a dog and the next I was playing this Irish gem of a golf course. A big thank you to all the staff at Waterville for your kindness and flexibility.
If you enjoyed the story of this latest journey you would be well served to pick up your copy of my book below. (Click on the picture to place an order) My journey into the Unknown is a story that almost seems unreal but I assure you every word of it happened. Open your mind and your heart to some new possibilities and watch your life and game change. Besides, we could all use something good to read during this "stay-at-home" time!