Waterville has the reputation as being an American experience. It was created by an American, and from the time you roll into the parking lot (in our case after about a half-hour drive from Glenbeigh we found the place without a car in site), you get a sense that this isn’t your typical links. There’s an American flag on the mast, there’s a fine practice facility, and the pro shop is small, but immaculately maintained and stocked. It is all very tidy when, in my experience, links courses are often a bit ramshackle – even the really good ones.
Turns out Waterville is one of those really good ones, even if it takes some time to convince you of that. In fact, I’d argue that Waterville deserves its place as one of the great links in the world, if for the back nine alone.
Of course that’s not where you begin. The opener, a straight-forward par-4 that plays alongside some boggy land, reminded me a little of a less intimidating version of Portmarnock’s opener. In other words, a fine place to get you started, but not really enough to get the blood pumping.
The second hole caught my attention. One of the snarky architects in my group called it “eye candy,” and though I’d agree the strategies are a little light (Why bunker the right where the stream runs down?) the approach to a green set in front of an estuary was smartly receptive to a shot from the left side of the fairway.
From there Waterville runs through a series of solid holes. In fact, until we approached the eighth hole – a fine par-4 with a green set amongst low-lying dunes – I wondered how it received its ranking in the Top 100 courses in the world.
From that point the course turned into something else – right up until the 18th. The 9th was a beastly par-4 played to a green with a nasty false front, and while the 10th was long and straight, it also featured an interesting green. The 11th was the first hole on the course that I felt could stand with any in the world. A par-5 with a fairway that ran between two large dunes, the hole plunges down a hill only to emerge at the green set above the short grass below. It is simply magnificent – one of the best three-shot holes I’ve seen – ever.
The following par-3, known as “Mass” for its historic heritage, is short but never too cute, and though the par-5 13th perhaps has a tee shot that too closely resembles the fifth hole, it was salvaged by an intriguing green site. The run of holes is exceptional right through to the closer. I get that the finishing hole – a long par-5 playing alongside the beach – is stunningly beautiful, but whereas many of the other holes had plenty of width, this one narrows to a bit of an extreme. It isn’t a bad hole – just a rather ordinary one despite the setting.
In the appeal of Waterville is clear – Tom Fazio’s bunker work is rarely intrusive like some links, and the fairways are not nearly as rumpled as other seaside courses. Some might see this as lacking in character, but that wasn’t how I saw it. To me Waterville is a delightful Irish experience in the same way Kingsbarns is a great modern Scottish links.
Postscript: After leaving Waterville we made the two-hour drive to Ballybunion, arriving just before 5. With the wind strong to the north, we went out for a round on the Old Course at Ballybunion, finishing in a freshening breeze just before dusk. We then retreated to the charming Teach de Broc hotel, right outside the gates of the club, for dinner – which was delightful.
Tomorrow: Ballybunion’s beauty and the beast – the Old Course and the Cashen Course.