BY TOM MULVOY
WATERVILLE, Ireland – “The wind is coming from the north and east, and that’s pretty unusual for us at this time of year,” said the fellow next to me on the putting green at the Waterville Golf Links at the southwest edge of the Ring of Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. “It usually comes the other way,” he added as we both stood firm against winds steady at about 25 miles an hour with gusts reaching into the 40-mph range.
Whatever direction the wind is blowing from, the 124-year-old links course at Waterville – par 72, 7,200 yards from the back, 6,600 from the middle tees – is a test of a golfer’s mettle. A perennial high-up resident on the listings of the world’s great courses, the links is located about a mile out toward Ballinskelligs Bay from its namesake town of some 600 residents. Its sand dunes, gorse, clutching grasses, cement-hard fairways, bunkers featuring sod faces, and quick, unforgiving greens make a run at par at every hole a sturdy challenge.
And the scenery is the tops: Mulcahy’s Peak, the back teeing ground at the 17th hole marking the highest point on the course, offers a 360-degree panorama of the classic Irish setting: an emerald-colored landscape as far as the eye can see, the mountains of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, the island’s highest range, to the east and north, a river, a bay, and the sea set off against the small, neat, and sturdy homes and businesses of Waterville village sparkling brightly in the near distance.
For this son of Ireland, whose father was born and brought up in the Catholic faith in Co. Galway a full century ago, one hole on the Waterville links carries special meaning, the 200-yard, par-three 12th, known as the Mass Hole. As players walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee, they come across a plaque sitting just off the turn of the pathway. It reads, in full:
“In the 18th century, the celebration of Mass was punishable by death in Ireland, forcing the local population to use the secluded valley in front of this green to hold their services. The original links design called for the green to be placed in this hidden vale. However, the local workmen declared the area to be sacred ground and refused to disturb the site. A compromise was reached with the green being relocated on the hill overlooking – the Mass Hole.”
Sacred ground, to be sure, for those whose ancestors may have made their way to the hidden altar in a Waterville lea.
I was at Waterville the last week of May with a group known as the Society of Seniors, a self-labeled association of hail-fellow-well-met gentlemen who enjoy competitive golf. The SOS comprises some 900 golfers aged 55 plus, including many who compete in the top ranks of senior amateurs across the world.
One of the membership pre-requisites is that an applicant have a USGA index handicap of 3 or less, meaning they are expected to consistently score at no more than three over par in any given round. That is a number far removed from any formal assessment of my game. I was there as a non-competitor playing guest of my brother Mark, who is president of the Society and was the organizer of its international competition that week involving four dozen players.
We were welcomed to the town and the course by Jay Connolly, the managing partner of the syndicate that owns the Waterville House and Golf Links operation, and by Noel Cronin, the secretary and manager at the golf club. Like so many Americans, the convivial Mr. Connolly, a native New Yorker now resident in Hobe Sound, Florida, who shared post-game lunches and dinners with us, has a familial connection to the Ould Sod: A grandfather hailed from Fermanagh, today one of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
We stayed at the first-rate Butler Arms Hotel, which sits on the beach-side edge of the village. The hostelry and the town are named after an estate that was established near the River Currane in the late 18th century by the Butler family. Over the years, the famous, golfing tourists, and just folks alike have found Waterville a fetching place to head to.
For about a decade toward the end of his life, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, Knight of the British Empire, also known as Charlie Chaplin, “The Tramp,” made the Butler Arms his vacation destination. On a wall near the hotel lobby hangs a picture showing Chaplin watching intently as a couple of locals play at pool in a room off the pub.
The pro golfing set, mainly in the person of the late champion Payne Stewart, who, it is said, talked about building a home in the village, took whole-heartedly to the Waterville course and nearby Waterville House, with its 18th century-manor look and its acclaimed sea trout and salmon fishery. In the closing years of the last century, Stewart, Tiger Woods, and a contingent of other PGA professionals en route to the British Open stayed at the House, intent on some practice, and on lots of time aiming for the perfect catch.
The village and golf club virtually adopted Stewart, who, locals recalled to me during a pub conversation, liked to walk around the village and make merry music with the locals over a draught or two of a heady brew. At the course, a full-figure bronze statue depicting Stewart standing sturdy in full golfing array is set behind the ninth green. Many make haste to have their pictures taken there before heading down to the 10th tee and a back nine that shows Waterville, its links, the town, and the region, to fetching effect.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Green, caddie, and cart fee fees: Fees vary: From May through September, it’s 144 euro Monday-Friday, and 163 euro on Saturdays and Sundays. Off season: Nov. 1 to Match 31: 58 euro; April and October: 120 euro (one euro is the equivalent of about $1.30). Caddie minimums are 40 euro for senior toters, either nine or eighteen holes. Carts rent for 50 euro, and trolleys for 5 euro.
Hotels: Best to check rates with the establishments (watervillegolflinks.ie/htmlwatervillehouse.asp; butlerarms.com; and Smuggler’s Inn, which is next to the course: the-smugglers-in.com).
Driving Time and Mileage from Shannon Airport: Two-and-half hours, 115 miles (180 kilometers).