(Last of an 11-part series)
It has been a challenge in this two-dimensional space to provide a full appreciation of the spectacular Irish golf links. One needs to experience them in the third dimension, walk the grounds, face those challenging shots, breathe the air, and get drenched by a sudden squall. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you can do annually.
As a wrap-up for this series, it seems logical to rank all the courses we played, best-to-worst. For me, that would be unfair to those at the bottom. That would give the impression that they aren’t worth playing. In reality, there is not that much of a gap from top and bottom.
What I think is better to rate is the top 10 holes that we played. Most of them are par-3s and par-5s because those holes always seem to have more features and drama. And drama holes, more than courses, more than clubhouses and more than a bubbly Guinness (above), are what you take home. The great holes are what you remember.
In contemplating the list, there are actually so many wonderfully memorable holes that I had trouble eliminating. All of them have been mentioned during this series. After some pensive time reliving our 10-day visit – and a Guinness or two – here is my Top Ten with plenty of honorable mentions – in reverse order.
(Also, it’s one final chance to see the extraordinary talent as a golf-course photographer Rob Perry, who was part of our Irish foursome):
Ten: Waterville No. 17, Par-3, 194 yards. ‘Mulcahy’s Peak,’ long with formidable abyss in front; tough to settle on.
Nine: Tralee No. 13, Par 3, 152 yards. Gigantic foreboding canyon between tee and a thin, shallow green.
Eight: Waterville No. 12, Par 3, 211 yards, the “Mass Hole.’ A large crater (actually two) is situated between the tee and the green. The ‘Hole’ is where early Christians secretly celebrated mass.
Seven: Tralee No. 12, Par 4, 460 yards. Impossibly difficult, against wind with narrow plateau on the approach to the green.
Six: Adare Manor, No. 16, 115 yards. Extremely short but perilous. A quite shallow but long green (barely visible) that sits between a pond and a hill. Might remind golfers of Augusta No. 12.
Five: Tralee No. 2, Par-5, 584 yards. Perhaps Ireland’s hardest (view from green complex. Tee far left). Dogleg right; wind-affected every shot; ocean tight right.
Four: Lahinch No. 11. Par-3, 178 yards. A narrow beauty with deadly fescue left, bunkers all around and Cliffs of Moher in distance.
Three: Doonbeg No. 1, Par-5, 561 yards. Opening the course on a elevated tee with beautiful, symmetrical dunes behind the hole.
Two: Ballybunion No. 11, Par-4, 467 yards. Tom Watson’s favorite; windy ocean on right; three tiers down to uphill approach.
One: Tralee’s No. 16, Par-3, 199 yards. Long shot across a valley with strong winds off Atlantic to a smallish protected green. Beautiful.
Taken as a group, these carry enough drama, beauty and memories to last a lifetime.
Waterville House of Golf
You can search the world over and might not find a guest house more steeped into golf tradition – particularly honoring those who designed the greatest courses on the planet – than the Waterville House.
The Georgian-style House sits on 50 acres off the Atlantic, just as you drive into the small Village of Waterville, on the north end of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a stately and elegant white two-story, just 12-room hotel, alongside the salmon-spawning Currane River, which spills into Ballinskelligs Bay.
A huge practice area just south of the house was designed by noted golf architect Tom Fazio. A practice area! Fazio and 11 other famous golf designers are honored in the House with a name plates outside each door. You could sleep in Old Tom Morris’ room, if you so choose.
Many of those designers, plenty of PGA Tour players and influential figures in the sport have stayed at the House, known for its cozy bedrooms, great meals and spacious, comfortable lounging areas. Prior to the 1998 Open Championship, Payne Stewart, Mark O’Meara and Tiger Woods hung out at the House. O’Meara went on to win the Claret Jug while Stewart holds such a special place in the hearts of folks here they gave him the Captaincy of Waterville honor and erected a large statue of Stewart at the golf course.
J. P. McManus, the Irish entrepreneur behind the spectacular Adare Manor Golf Club, is a regular at the House, often sitting in the same chair in the guest lounge facing Ballinskelligs Bay.
But the world-renown Waterville Golf Links is not near the property. That’s another three miles down the road.
There is a course adjacent to the House, but not connected. It’s a new Robert Trent Jones, Sr. layout called Hogs Head. A classy clubhouse has been built, with a helipad, and a hotel is planned across the street. The course, built by a pair of Chicago money men, currently is going through a soft opening.
A group headed by American Jay Connolly and other members of Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. purchased the golf course and the House in 1987 from Irish-American Jack Mulcahy. Both have been restored to be among the best there is.
What is particularly interesting about the Waterville House complex is that there’s another smaller house across the practice area that a squatter has taken over. Apparently, Irish laws allow a person to remain in a house – not their own – indefinitely if not removed within a designated period. I know, crazy.
This person still lives there and the owners don’t have the leverage to remove the squatter.
Rakes: In or out?
There is a raging debate in golf circles, well, maybe not raging, but an issue over whether a rake should remain in the bunker after usage or whether it should be placed outside the trap.
My feeling is it should be out. The reason is when the rake’s in the trap the ball could rest against it in an unusual position, such as a downhill lie or tight against the bank. Instead of the ball rolling naturally to the bottom, you are faced with an unfair rake-affected shot.
Proponents of rake inside say that when it’s out it can prevent the ball from naturally entering the trap. That, they believe, is unfair.
Tralee Golf Club may have found the answer (below). Asked if the rake should be in or out and Tralee’s response would be: Yes. The bent pole on the shaft allows most of the rake to rise above the surface, limiting contact by the ball. The rake itself takes up a much smaller space on the sand surface. Brilliant.
Also below is Ballybunion’s bunker instrument, a broom. It may be a little better in creating a smooth sand surface but it takes a little more work pushing the heavy, wet sand around.
(Below the broom is the kind bunker shots you face in Ireland’s pot bunkers)
A monasticism monument
One of the most visited spots in southwest Ireland is a group of sea crags off the Ring of Kerry, Skellig Michael. It’s World Heritage Site, selected by USESCO in 1996, and preserved as a site in which severe Christian principles were practiced (in the distance, middle).
The site dates back to somewhere around the sixth century. A handful of ascetic monks basically withdrew from civilization and lived a meager and arduous existence on the rocky crags.
Generations of monks rotated through the monastery for about five centuries before the entire religious order moved back to the mainland. The place remained a holy place for pilgrimages.
George Bernard Shaw visited the site in 1910 and described it as “this incredible, impossible, mad place’’ as ‘part of our dream world.”
Irish hurling. Many out of one
The timing of our early September trip corresponded with the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final at Dublin’s Croke Park. It matched Galway against Waterford and 80,000 people filled the stadium along with intense interest from millions watching throughout the country.
Only amateurs play the sport but it feels professional. Both teams were seeking the Liam MacCarthy trophy, the Liam, as opposed to a big payday. Galway won the title for the first time in 29 years while Waterford was denied, not having won the Liam since 1959. There were actually two scores given at the final – Galway scored a 0-26 total while Waterford was 2-17.
Everywhere we went the locals stressed that we should watch the finals. We did and were impressed by the speed of the game as well as how it shared aspects of so many other sports.
Hurling may be the oldest sport in the world, begun perhaps 2,000 years ago, before Ireland, before even Christianity. It’s played with a flat stick, rounded at the end, with what looks like stitched baseball and played on a football/soccer fields with football-like goal posts at each end.
It has been described as hockey on grass, and it does have the element of rough play and even fights breaking out. It’s like soccer, it’s like lacrosse, it’s like American football and it’s like Austrian Rules Football. It’s also like golf, in that players can swing their stick to hit the ball off the ground, Happy Gilmore fashion. It’s also like baseball in that players swing their sticks to hit a belt-high ball, again on the run, toward a teammate or through the goal posts.
Hurling not only may be the world’s oldest but also could be the genesis of virtually every game that followed. It’s worth a side visit to any stadium holding a game.
Animal mascots rule
Many of the Irish courses have adopted animal mascots to promote their image. They also help push logo merchandise out the door.
Lahinch is associated with a goat. It goes back to the 1950s when a caddy used to bring his goats over to the course at night for feeding. They became popular among the locals and the course took notice. Just last June, the course erected a bronze goat next to the first tee and now everyone wants a picture with it.
Dooks has a natural mascot, the Natterjack Toad, which is protected and breeds in the various ponds around the course. The cute little critter is on much of the pro shop’s merchandise.
Waterville has a colorful cartoonish hare as its mascot. It’s the first thing you see as you enter the parking lot.
Trump Doonbeg hasn’t adopted a mascot but perhaps one day it also could be a Hair.