Five days of glory, starting and finishing in Dublin, Ireland, with five rounds of bliss at some of the best golf courses along the western coast of Ireland. The first stop on our list was Waterville Golf Links in the southwest corner of the island. It would have been worth the entire trip to play this course alone.
Golf was brought to this corner of Ireland in the late 1800’s, when workers and technicians arrived to begin work on the transatlantic cable between Europe and North America. Waterville Golf Links was built, and officially founded in 1889 to keep the workers busy out in this remote part of the world. In 2002, Tom Fazio vastly redesigned the layout for the modern game, and it now (deservedly) finds itself ranked by Golf Digest Ireland as the 5th best course in Ireland.
After touring Portmarnock on Monday, my dad and I drove the 3.5+ hours to our hotel in Killarney, and packed it in for the night. Up early for our 10:30 Waterville tee time, we took the scenic route (an hour and a half) along the Ring of Kerry, until we reached the ravishing links packed in between an estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. We could barely keep the car doors open as we climbed out of the rental, and immediately began packing on layers to shield us from the blistering Irish wind. I had received plenty of warnings about the western Ireland weather, but I was concerned that I did not properly heed them.
You’re going to see more than enough references to this wind in this post, and it’s for good reason. I look back at the yardage book, and flip through the pictures I took, and the first instinct I have when I see a particular hole is to remember the feeling of exactly what the wind was doing. You may think that I’m exaggerating the point, but it is such a critical part of the links golf experience that I believe it’s worth emphasizing repeatedly, if not ad nauseam.
I’ve played links golf in Scotland and in Ireland, and raved about the experience on every occasion. I’m obsessed with the thinking aspect of this style of play, the different shot shapes required to navigate around the trouble areas, the urge to get the ball on the ground as fast as possible, the unreachable into the wind par fours, the wedges into the downwind par fives…. I can go on and on. It’s such a fun change of place from the style of play I’m used to playing, and because of the conditions we received, and the spectacular design of this course, Waterville felt like the one of, if not the most authentic links experience I’ve ever had.
I’m not going to walk you shot by shot, but here’s some examples of the different ridiculous club choices I had to hit make throughout the day due to the wind conditions: a 170 yard (poorly struck) wedge on the 2nd, a 161 yard knockdown wedge on the 4th, a 126 yard pured 7-iron on the 5th, a 318 yard 3-iron at the 8th, a 155 yard 5-iron at the 9th, 3-iron/7-iron into the par-5 11th, and a 166 yard 4-iron on the 12th. While the guidebook is helpful to you, you lose the familiarity with how far you’re used to hitting you’re own clubs. Bunkers that are 205 yards to clear can legitimately be in play with driver in your hand, and tiny pot bunkers 300 yards away can be reached with a well struck 3-iron that rides the wind and runs out. It’s hauntingly beautiful.
From a design perspective, many holes at Waterville are framed by spectacular dunes that are not overly punishing, nor overly narrow, and provide excellent site lines. The tee boxes are often long and narrow, which makes it feel like youre hitting a ball out of a tunnel, and gives your mind a perfect image of where you need to flight the ball. On the 14 par fours and fives, I hit six 3-irons, three 3-woods, and five drivers, and probably had the most fun letting the 3-irons fly out of all of those. The downwind holes don’t encourage you to hit driver, because when you get inside of 100 yards on a lot of the holes, you end up needing to hit a less than 100% shot to an elevated green, off a very tight lie. A 60 degree wedge does not stop next to the hole, and likely doesn’t run out enough if you play it short. You’re better off playing from further back where you can make a full strike.
The greens receptiveness depended entirely on, yes, the wind. Five irons stopped dead in their tracks into the wind, and 60 degree wedges couldn’t hold downwind. The sand based greens may not have the most appealing visual appearance, but they are typical for a true links terrain, and these rolled as true as any links greens I’ve putted on. The elevated greens encourage you to reach for the putter for any shot inside of 40 yards. At a certain point, it starts being really fun to putt the ball really hard back into a wind, up the fairway slope, and pray that it’s not too hot when it reaches the surface. Once you’re on the green, you’re better off checking which direction the breeze is blowing than you are bending down to read the putt, as we saw balls get blown uphill all day until we actually started playing for it.
After nine beautiful beginning holes, on your walk over to the 10th tee, one glance in the southward direction and you start to realize that you haven’t even seen the best of it yet. This is where you catch your first view of the Atlantic Ocean, and the many wind surfers taking advantage of the conditions. The back nine throws three par fives at you, two really tough par threes, and a solid set of fours as well. The only reachable par five on the whole course was the 11th, and as mentioned above, all it took was a long iron off the tee, and a mid-iron into the green. The rest played directly into the breeze, and you needed three really solid strikes to even get it close.
The final three holes are epic from a visual perspective, and frightening if you’re trying to protect a solid score. The wind was blowing balls out towards the sea, and with it went my chance at breaking 80 (two balls in the hazard on the final two holes for a triple-bogey finish to shoot 80). The amazing part about the views you get on these holes, is that the first 15 holes are so much fun that you don’t even realize you haven’t even seen the sea in a while. It’s like you just finished a four course meal, and didn’t even know that a fifth course was on the way. The views are just an added bonus.
The 17th is the signature hole (probably? this could actually go a lot of ways). The tee and the green both sit up above the dunes, almost like they’re putting themselves on display for the camera (despite this, the picture above does not do it justice). This also means they’re as exposed as possible to the winds blowing out towards the sea, and while the water to the right should not be in play, I can testify to the fact that it most certainly is.
The finishing hole is an absolute gem of a par five, and the only hole to play directly alongside the ocean. If you had the wind down, or off the right, it would be an absolute blast to finish on. But coming in your face and off the left, it almost seems not physically possible to start the ball far enough left to keep it in play.
Whipping winds at Waterville give you the best possible links experience. Incredibly challenging and visually stunning finish. pic.twitter.com/XSpnHuJaYb
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) October 11, 2016
I sent that tweet out shortly after finishing, and was blown away by the number of responses I got from people who have had similar experiences at Waterville. An Ireland golf trip itinerary that does not have Waterville on it is not complete.
Part V: Carne (coming soon)