In some ways it is a hybrid of Portmarnock & Lahinch styles, two courses which I also played on the same trip in April 2023. Does this provide the best of both worlds? Hmmm, maybe, but I’m not 100% sure.
Waterville started life as a nine hole golf course in 1889 but did not thrive until Irish-born American John Mulcahy appointed Eddie Hackett and Claude Harmon to re-design the course in the early 1970’s. More recently Tom Fazio has carried out significant changes to the links and the venue is currently reaping the rewards with several notable PGA Tour players, including Tiger Woods, making the trip to play here on a regular basis.
The Par 3s at Waterville are all exceptional and there is a series of really strong par 4s too which provide a proper test of golf albeit with plenty of width, no blind shots or forced carries. What you see is what you get.
The green complexes and their surrounds are all superb and fit with the type and length of hole exceptionally well. It is a very well crafted golf course.
The par fours are all stellar and although the fairways are fairly flat in a Saunton or Birkdale kind of a way you do need to be on the correct side because a lot of the two-shotters have a shallow dogleg to them bending one way or another. Being able to shape your drives at Waterville is advantageous.
The straight away opening hole is the blandest on the course but we are then hit with a couple of mesmeric holes as we are taken down to the Inny Estuary. The second slides right down to the beach where we find a falling, infinity green and it is no surprise this hole was one of Christy O’Connor’s favourites. The third then wraps around the shore; depending upon how brave you are, and where the hole is located, you may need to carry the water with your approach shot.
We say goodbye to the coast for the middle part of the round, where there is some outstanding golf to be had, but are reunited with it for the closing three holes which really does provide a grandstand finish.
As we hit the 16th you can hear the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing to your right, the 17th is a glorious short hole from a tee located at the highest point on the property (at the request of Mulcahy) and the par-five closer is superb along the beach.
In-between we have several highs too. The famous par-three Mass Hole (12th) is perhaps the most iconic (where locals used to hide in the deep hollow and say Mass in secret) but the 9th and 11th are perhaps the two holes I will remember the most. The 9th has an amazing green complex and the 11th is a long hole with a descending fairway if you can drive long enough and a green complex which will sweep anything just an inch too far right away and down a huge steep banking of shortly mowed grass. The caddy master told me that he once told Tiger to aim a little further left then he thought on this hole but apparently he ignored him, went straight for the flag, and found himself at the bottom of the slope.
The Irish Hare is the most noticeable inhabitant of the links, and sits proudly as the course emblem. I spotted at least half a dozen during the course of my round.
As you play Waterville you have the sense that you are playing each hole in isolation, within the heartbeat of nature, as you wander through the sandhills. The condition of the course was excellent too – the fairways are pure sand where divots simply disintegrate in the air.
Waterville has a stunning location which may mask a little of the shortcomings of the course. There is some artificial mounding and sandhills which Fazio created and these are clearly apparent on the westward side of the links. The bunkering scheme is also a little too excessive and lateral (cut into the foot of the dunes rather than in the actual fairway) for my personal taste but these are minor gripes on what is undoubtedly a stunning golf course.
Par is 72 and the course can be stretched to 7,347 yards from the Black tees with a number of options right down to 5,370 from the Reds.
I stayed at the Smugglers Inn which is less than a five minute walk to the first tee and would highly recommend you do the same.