Jack Mulcahy, born in Ireland and self-made in America, returned to his native country in the 1950s intending to pursue a gentleman’s sporting life. His love of fishing brought him to Waterville, an eyebrow of a town on Ballinskelligs Bay renowned for its sea trout and salmon fishing, its bird hunting and its immense beauty. As an afterthought, Waterville also offered golf. The town’s little links was scarcely more than a pasture, a recreational relic of the late 19th century. It would take the arrival of Jack Mulcahy to turn Waterville Golf Links into a proper golf venue.
Mulcahy’s first significant step was the 1963 purchase of Waterville House, a famous fishing and farming estate just south of Waterville Bridge. He bought the property to fulfill a promise to his older brother Dan, an ardent fly fisherman who wanted the fish traps on the estate removed. Five years later Billy Huggard, then owner of Waterville’s Butler Arms Hotel, convinced Mulcahy to buy the nine-hole course and an adjoining tract of duneland.
The original course was laid out (“designed” would be an overstatement) on the flats bordering the dunes of the Inny estuary. It was rudimentary, mowed by sheep, and had fallen into disuse. Mulcahy hired Ireland’s preeminent designer of links, the late Eddie Hackett, who rendered from the land a memorable, moving golf experience, and a course that is among the most difficult of all Irish links.
Waterville has served as digs for Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods and the late Payne Stewart, who used Waterville as a place to warm up for the British Open and as a retreat from conventional American life. Stewart fell in love with the place and quickly became involved with the townspeople, who mourned him deeply after the plane crash that took his life in October 1999. The club owners, who bought it from Mulcahy in 1987, dedicated a statue to honor Stewart.
Waterville plays nearly 7,200 yards, beginning on the flat lands and gradually winding into the dunes. There isn’t a bad hole to be found. The 469-yard 2nd hole plays down to the Inny, and the par-4 3rd shoulders along the riverbank. The 4th is a marvelous par 3 that begins the stretch of dune holes.
After a series of long and strong par 4s, you arrive at the tee of the 11th, known as “Tranquility.” There cannot be a more natural links golf hole than this one, a modest par 5 of 496 yards that nonetheless evokes a sense of grandeur. The hole twists through a dune valley, the tall sand hills partitioning a group of players from the rest of the course, and seemingly from the rest of the world.
Perfectly natural and perfectly wonderful, the 11th is followed by a par 3 that fits that very same description. The 200-yard 12th is known as the “Mass Hole.” With Catholicism banned under British rule, Irish Catholics had to hold services in secret, and those along the coastline often hid themselves within the dunes. Waterville’s Catholics used the deep depression in front of the 12th green for their liturgies.
The 16th is a 350-yard par 4 that sweeps like the blade of a scythe, with the estuary along its entire right side. The dune line on the right is planted with flaggards. Appearing like tropical broadswords rooted at the hilt, these plants are used for erosion control. The 16th is called “Liam’s Ace” after Liam Higgins, Waterville’s longtime club pro, who once enjoyed a hole-in-one there.
Hackett placed the 17th tee on the highest dune on the course. The hole, 196 yards, is called Mulcahy’s Peak, When Mulcahy died in 1994 at the age of 88, the urn containing his ashes was buried on the tee.