The Waterville area and Ballinskelligs Bay play an important part in the mythology of ancient Ireland. According to the Book of Invasions written about 1000 AD, Cessair, the grand-daughter of Noah, landed in Ballinskelligs Bay after the flood and became Irelands first invader.
Here, too, the last of the mythical invaders, the Milesians, settled in 1700 BC and reportedly left behind many of the archaeological sites found in the area. These rich legends along with the earliest memories of Kerry history combine to form a mystical aura that visitors to Waterville can sense even today.No area captures this feeling more than the sand hills and strands that border Ballinskelligs Bay and forms the present day Waterville Golf Links.
"The Green is considered a sporting one, and the views from it are very fine while the Atlantic breezes that blow across it are invigorating and refreshing. The hazards are such as are usually to be met on the seaside course." An accurate description, you may understandably believe, of the Waterville Golf Links that we know and love so well today. Except that these words were written as long ago as 1897 in the pages of the Sportsman's Holiday Guide and the article credits "the exertions of the Reverend J.G. Fahy" for bringing the, game into this remote vastness.
The early spread of golf in Ireland owed much to the influence of the forces of the British Empire. Wherever there was a garrison, there was also a golf course, it seemed. But golf at Waterville, and no matter what claims may be made on behalf of the gallant Reverend Fahy, was primarily introduced through technology by the men who arrived here to work the first transatlantic cable relaying messages between the United States and Europe. They came first to nearby Valentia Island in the 1860's, then to Ballinskelligs in the 1870's, and finally to Waterville in the 1880's. Hundreds of technicians and workers arrived in these remote areas to build and man the Cable Stations, and it was inevitable that they should turn to sport and recreation. Golf was part of this agenda in the 1880's but perforce it was of the crudest kind and generally played in winter when the grasses died down.
The earliest structured golf at Waterville has been tracked back to 1889 when it came under the umbrella of the extremely active Waterville Athletic Club. It was a formalized part of the life of the village by 1900, when becoming one of the first clubs to be affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland - the oldest Union in the world. A modest nine hole layout occupying for the most part the flat eastern section of the present championship links, it was operated by the Athletic Club for, and on behalf of, the Commercial Cable Company.
Access in those far off days to Waterville wasn't always easy and was by railroad to Cahirsiveen or Kenmare and from there by stage coach which linked the two railheads. Golf's popularity in the village continued unabated for the next thirty years or so. The lush Golfers Guide of 1910 gives a formal institution date of 1902 and also records that it was a nine hole seaside course one mile from Waterville. At that time, the Honorable Secretary was Mr. A. Holt and the President was the Marquis of Landsdowne. The same Guide reported in 1916 that "Waterville is a fine natural links with splendid clubhouse, situated among the sand hills on Ballinskelligs Bay a considerable sum has been spent in improving the fine natural links". It should, of course, be borne in mind that there is little comparison between the modem game and golf played a century ago over ground lacking the refinement and sophistication of present-day courses. The lone player, propelling a ball with a shaped stick over terrain hardly prepared at all by comparison with today, was the flag bearer though he could not be expected to know it at the time.
With the ebb and flow of membership, consequent on the fluctuations of the local Cable Station employees, the golf course experienced vicissitudes of fortune. The nadir approximated 1927 when, with numbers down at the Station through automatic message transfer, the Cable Company asked the Butler Arms Hotel to assist with the running and upkeep of the course. A lease was negotiated with the O'Reilly family and the club was revitalized. It was also this year that negotiations were begun that led to the ultimate sale of the Commercial Cable Company to the giant United States telecommunications and resort conglomerate, International Telephone and Telegraph.
Immediately before and after World War II, Waterville Golf Club had a high profile, winning honours including the prestigious Kerry Shield. The support of the Southern Lake Hotel along with the Huggard family and the Butler Arms Hotel, helped the facility through its final difficult years as more advanced technology replaced the need for cable communication and the club ultimately ceased to exist.
The links lay dormant throughout the latter part of the 1960's awaiting the arrival of the Irish born American, John A. Mulcahy from New York who had a vision to build the most testing golf links in the world. Ireland's foremost links architect, Eddie Hackett, joined Mulcahy in the task and between them they came up with a course that was fit to be ranked among the best. The terrain was ideal, and after exhaustive planning and work, the course and its new clubhouse opened in 1973. The original nine holes were reconfigured and expanded to create today's front nine. Its layout was designed as a contrast to the more rugged and exposed back nine, yet it quickly introduces the player to the complexity and beauty of links golf. The testing begins early at Waterville with the first hole named "Last Easy", and ends with the challenging and scenic "O'Grady's Beach". The course can be stretched to over 7,200 yards but don't be intimidated by that as several tees come into play on every hole so that all standards of golfers can enjoy a game.
During the next 15 years under the leadership of John A. Mulcahy and its famous long driving professional Liam Higgins, Waterville enjoyed great popularity. Numerous professional tournaments were played notably the Kerrygold Classic and over forty of the world’s greatest champions from Snead to Faldo have experienced "Jack's Course". One of the many to be captivated by the beauty and majesty of Waterville is the great American professional and Ryder Cup Captain, Raymond Floyd. In a "Chicago Tribune" article, he selected Waterville as one of his five favourite courses along with Augusta National, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. He wrote.. "This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.. it has some of the finest links holes I have ever played." It's no coincidence then that Waterville is the only links course prominently displayed in the Lodge at Pebble Beach. The par 3 17th, know as Mulcahy's Peak, is probably Waterville's feature hole, but most would agree with Gary Player when he described the 11th as "the most beautiful and satisfying par 5 of them all". It runs for almost 500 yards through majestic dunes. You feel almost in a world of your own as you stroll along the fairway reflecting how well the hole merits the name, "Tranquility".
In 1987 Waterville was sold to yet another group of Irish Americans from Connecticut. They loved the game of golf and set about carrying on the history and traditions of the Links while introducing the latest horticultural techniques. The clubhouse and pro-shop were renovated and golf art and memorabilia were added to create an atmosphere consistent with its long history.
On September 21, 1994 John A. Mulcahy passed away at the age of 88, and as requested, his ashes were buried on the famous Mulcahy's Peak. He leaves behind his greatest legacy to Ireland. Ranked among the Top 25 International Courses by Golf Digest, Waterville is truly a mystical Links in the Kingdom of Kerry. The late Henry Cotton, three times British Open champion, said it best "Waterville has to be one of the greatest golf courses ever built. If it were located in Britain, it would undoubtedly be a venue for the British Open. I have never seen a more consistent succession of really strong and beautiful golf holes than here".
Great champions continued to find their way to Waterville – Els, Furyk, O’Meara, Stewart and Woods to prepare for the 1998 British Open which was then won by Mark O’Meara. Prior to the 1999 Open O’Meara, Stewart and Woods were joined by Appleby, Duval and Jansen, all of which became members of Waterville. Later that year at a ceremony during the now famous Ryder Cup in Brookline Massachusetts, United States team member Payne Stewart accepted the Captaincy of Waterville – the last golf honour he would receive before his tragic death. Today a life sized bronze statue pays tribute to his Captaincy and his special relationship with Waterville.
Waterville Golf Links embarked on a new chapter of its fabled history when noted international golf architect Tom Fazio was commissioned to update the memorable Eddie Hackett masterpiece. Fazio has been involved with many of the worlds leading clubs including Winged Foot, Pine Valley and Augusta National. “Everything about Waterville is truly spectacular, said Fazio.” “The setting is one of the best I have seen for golf.”
The Fazio project in conjunction with a major coastal protection programme was completed in 2006 without interruption of regular season play.
(Updated from an original article written by Charlie Mulqueen for the Examiner)
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