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Golf in Ireland Part 3 - Waterville & Tralee

By: Jeff Shelley


The next stops in this travelogue are a couple of spectacular links layouts on the west coast of Ireland. Located east of Kenmare and south of Cahersiveen, Waterville Golf Links features a recently remodeled course and one of European golf's true characters. A bit farther north is Tralee which, to my unprejudiced eyes, boasts one of the most spectacular sets of holes - its back nine - anywhere on Earth.

Beautiful Waterville

Liam Higgins may not be as famous as Tom Fazio, but both have had a powerful influence over the fate of Waterville Golf Links (www.watervillegolflinks.ie ). Higgins is Waterville's "touring pro," a designation related to his status on the Senior European Tour and his former position as the club's head professional. Called "one of the Senior Tour's most jovial characters" on the European circuit, Higgins is that, and more. If you're lucky, you too might run across Liam at Waterville.

A storyteller in the best Irish tradition, Liam was working on his short game on the practice green outside Waterville's pro shop when he was pointed out by the manager. When I asked if he knew Steve Stull, an acquaintance of mine and erstwhile member of the Senior European Tour, Higgins said excitedly, "Sure. He played one of the best overall tournaments of golf I've ever seen." Liam related Stull's sole success on the tour (once chronicled in Cybergolf by Steve's brother and caddie, my friend, Ron Stull). After winning the 2001 Seniors Tour Qualifying School by a whopping 10 shots, Steve - in only his second event - won the Tobago Plantations Seniors Classic by a wide margin.

Higgins, a native of Waterville, won once on the regular European Tour, the 1977 Kerrygold International on his home course, and three times on the senior tour. Now 63, Liam was a mere lad when he was hitting balls on the driving range one day at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club. A couple of Americans approached after watching the slight player pound balls into the ether. Obviously impressed, they asked Liam, known as one of Ireland's longest hitters despite his diminutive size: "Would you come to Westchester Country Club and take on the World Long-Drive champion?"

Higgins was offered a free trip to New York if he accepted the challenge. Though he had never been to America, Liam agreed. At LaGuardia Airport, he was picked up by two large black men - the first Afro-Americans he'd ever seen in his life. One was Joe Louis, the famous boxer. Turns out that one of the men who saw Liam launching balls at Killarney was Ray Jacobs, the promoter for the Brown Bomber.

The long-drive hole chosen for the contest was Westchester's first, a 380-yard par-4. A good-sized crowd gathered to watch the event. Without much warm-up, Liam tagged his first drive over the green, where his ball plugged. Upon seeing this prodigious demonstration, the (unnamed) "long-drive champion" immediately forfeited, much to the delight of the members who had grown tired of his boasting.

Soon after, a Westchester member asked Liam if he would play nine holes the next day with some guests. Higgins said sure. Only when he showed up did he learn that his playing partners were Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ben Hogan and Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion. On one of the holes during their nine-hole "match," Higgins struck a 1-iron off a downhill lie to within 6 feet of the pin. Later, Hogan told Liam it was the best shot he'd ever seen and asked about the yardage. Liam replied, "I don't know. We don't play by yardage in Ireland. We just look at the target and hit the ball. Besides, I've never played here before."

Liam established other long-driving feats. He once held the all-time long-drive record. With a Tony Lema persimmon driver, he nuked a ball 680 yards on an airport runway. By the way, Liam's son, David Higgins, is also a pro golfer, having played on both the European and Challenge tours.

The Course

Waterville's links originated in 1889 with nine holes. Then called the Waterville Athletic Club, the course was operated by the Commercial Cable Company. Over the next 50 years, the membership fluctuated with the demand for cable communication. When the company folded in the 1950s, so too did the club. The links lay dormant until an Irish-born American, John A. Mulcahy, purchased the property in 1968 and set about resurrecting the course. Mulcahy hired Ireland's foremost links architect, Eddie Hackett. Hackett was later joined in the endeavor by Mulcahy himself and none other than Mulcahy's close friend, Claude Harmon, by then the head professional at Winged Foot Golf Club.

In 1987, Mulcahy sold the course to a group of Irish Americans. Shortly after, Waterville gained acceptance as one of Ireland's best links courses, most notably, by touring pros. Among these were U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and friends like Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods. O' Meara, Stewart and Woods - along with Stuart Appleby, David Duval and Lee Janzen - all became members of Waterville.

Up until his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1999, Stewart was a frequent visitor to Waterville. He enjoyed the golf, the club's relaxed vibe and friendly people, as well as the outstanding fishing nearby. The club never forgot Payne's spirit. That allegiance is now enshrined for eternity. In his memory, Waterville members erected a statue of Stewart on a spot near the first tee. Americans preparing to drive hit their initial shot at Waterville will recognize a familiar figure.

Updating a Classic

In 2004, the illustrious American architect, Tom Fazio, completed a two-year, $6-million remodel of Waterville's links. Though an associate was on hand throughout the renovation, Fazio made six trips to the job site, a considerable number of visits for an architect with high-end projects around the world. "[Waterville] is truly mystical and a wonderful place to be," Fazio said. "The feeling that evolves is just so special."

Fazio's efforts were special too, resulting in what is arguably Ireland's finest overall golf links. Located on a spit of land that juts into Ballinskelligs Bay, Waterville is blessed with naturally-endowed topography. Dune-shrouded tees and wavy greens tucked into various nooks and crannies characterize these 18 holes. Vying for wayward shots are shell-like bunkers, dense gorse and deep grasses. Among those pleased with Fazio's handiwork is Higgins, who's played Waterville his entire life and was ecstatic about the changes when I talked with him.

Among the most interesting junctures at Waterville is the 12th hole, a 200-yard par-3. What would have been the original site of the 12th green was a hollow where - up until the early 1800s - Catholics held secret masses and other services outlawed by their British occupiers. When workers were brought in to build the putting surface, they refused: replacing the holy site with a golf green would be a sacrilege.

Another notable anecdote is attached to Waterville's 16th hole, now a 384-yard par-4. Before Fazio's remodel, Liam Higgins aced the 16th, then 20 yards shorter. His tee shot carried all the way to the green and found the cup.

Though he wasn't commenting about Higgins' heroics, Fazio summed up this magical place appropriately. "Everything at Waterville is spectacular - the setting is one of the best that I have ever seen anywhere in golf."

Tralee Golf Club

Located on the west side of its namesake town, the current Arnold Palmer-designed layout is actually the fourth version of Tralee Golf Club (www.traleegolfclub.com). Founded in 1896, the original Tralee course was a nine-holer believed to be where the town's sports field is now located. A year later, in 1897, the club opened a nine-hole course in Fenit - on the southwestern side of Barrow Harbour.

In the 1920s, a Captain Lionel Hewson was hired to design the third course, in Oakpark. He was suspicious of the men who watched as he measured and made notes. Hewson later wrote that "bullets used to fly in those days on little provocation." He had good reason to cast a wary eye - a Major McKinnon in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary was shot dead on the course in March 1921 while playing golf.

Just as interesting as the genesis of this golf course is that of Tralee itself. The city itself dates back to the 12th century. It was a "Geraldine" town, named after the family that owned this part of southwest Munster. Even earlier, over 7,000 years ago, Alltraighe-Cuille - the ancient name for the area extending from Tralee westward as far as Dingle and to Ardfert and Ballyheigue in the north - was inhabited by Mesolithic hunters and fishermen. Later settlers included Celts and early Christians who lived in hill forts, oratories and beehive huts.

The current layout debuted in 1984. The club decided to build a new course as the others were plagued by poor drainage, not good in these rainy climes and in this golf-loving country. So they selected this thoroughly sandy and porous site.

The property itself also has an interesting history. The beach running along the second hole was used in the Oscar-winning movie "Ryan's Daughter" in 1968. On the beach across the narrow neck of water beside the 15th tee is where Sir Roger Casement landed in a German submarine on Good Friday, 1916. He was arrested and hanged. The Spanish Armada landed offshore around 1600; a 16th century Spanish gun turret stands as testament to this history behind the third green.

Tralee Golf Club was Palmer's first European design (his second was the K Club, site of the 2006 Ryder Cup Matches). I toured the layout with Eugene O'Callaghan, the club's supervisor (the American equivalent to a golf course superintendent), who was on the job when the new course was constructed. Because of his popularity in Ireland, Palmer was selected as the designer over Jack Nicklaus, according to O'Callaghan.

Tralee enjoys a temperate climate abetted by the Atlantic Gulf Stream. The 200 acres utilized by the golf course were previously owned by two wealthy men. But, when one died, the other sold it to the members. At one time, a beach was in play on the 2nd hole, a long dogleg-right par-5 around the ocean, but no longer. Besides the Atlantic, vistas take in Dingle Peninsula and the Slievemish (blue in Gaelic) Mountains to the south. The prevailing wind is out of the south, but occasionally a scarravine (cold) wind whips across these links.

O'Callaghan related that the club has 260 overseas' and 1,200 Tralee-ites. The annual round counts are split 50-50 between out-of-towners and Tralee citizens. Among the club's top golfers is Jimmy Field, now a junior at Wake Forest. Another member, Pat Mulcaire, was on the England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales Walker Cup Team. Gerard O'Sullivan is a fine amateur who still holds the course record of 65.

As we toured the course, Eugene palavered a comical banter with golfers. After motoring around portions of the front nine, a rolling set of holes similar to Bandon Dunes' original layout - with similar outstanding views, we ventured to the back, perhaps the most spectacular set of holes in all of Ireland. As Palmer commented, "I designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine."

Crossing some severe up-and-down terrain, holes 10-18 cross high ridges and deep depressions, all the while offering vistas of Fenit Island, the Atlantic and Dingle Peninsula. As the summer wears on, ankle-high grasses grow up to a golfer's knees, requiring those on Tralee's back nine to tread lightly on the tee.

Particularly memorable holes - and there's a full ennead here - include the 11th, a 583-yard par-5 called "Palmer's Peak" as it involves the course's tallest land. The fairway dives 250 yards straight downhill off the tee before rising steeply and narrowly between tall mounds to a humped green. The 12th ("Bracken") is a 458-yard par-4 rated Tralee's toughest test, owing mainly to its second-shot tightness and treachery.

At the 13th, a 159-yard par-3 with a ravine separating the tee and green, we stopped as a member teed off and found the green with his shot. The man had only one arm, but his 3-wood was well-judged. The pretty 14th ("Crosty") is a par-4 that descends along a route dotted with pot bunkers. Randy Rock, a big mesa in the distance behind the green, once helped guide ships into port, and Smuggler's Cove is off to the left.

The 16th is a wonderful 199-yard one-shotter, and the 17th, Eugene's favorite, curls uphill near the Atlantic. Finding the towering 17th green in regulation isn't easy. The 18th, a right-curling par-5, has five pot bunkers in the landing area and then reaches out to a green near the bar in Tralee's clubhouse.

Waterville and Tralee concluded the third of the four legs of my Irish golf adventure.

Next up: Doonbeg, Lahinch and our "Gang of Seven."