Situated along the shores of Ballinskelligs Bay, Waterville Golf Links rose from modest origins as a crude 9-hole layout to become a celebrated links course ranked among Ireland’s best. Its beautiful oceanfront setting, unique collection of memorable holes, and sterling reputation continue to draw top players to this remote corner of the Ring of Kerry.
Over the past century, Waterville has transformed from a modest 9-hole winter course into world-class links through the vision of Jack Mulcahy and the work of eminent architects such as Eddie Hackett and Tom Fazio. Its beautiful setting and sterling reputation continue to attract top players to this remote corner of Ireland.
Tom Watson, the late Payne Stewart, and Tiger Woods have all raved about the course and consider it one of Ireland’s best. Watson stated, “Waterville possesses the best par-3 holes I have ever encountered on the same golf course.” In addition to its famed par-3s, Waterville’s picturesque 11th has been singled out as possibly the best par-5 in all of Ireland.
In this post, we’ll cover the origins, history, and evolution of Waterville Golf Links and learn some obscure facts about the course and its location. We’ll highlight the critical acclaim that the course has received and discuss the 18-hole layout and what makes it so special. Finally, further reading suggestions and videos will help bring the course to life. As always, the adjacent images are simulated, provide context, and set the stage.
Origins and History
The Commercial Cable Company established a transatlantic telegraph cable station in Waterville in 1884 to connect North America and Europe via underwater cables. Looking for recreation, some of the hundreds of cable station workers founded a 9-hole golf course in the sand dunes near Waterville around 1889, marking what would become Waterville Golf Links.
The Waterville Athletic Club operated the early golf course for cable company employees to use on behalf of the Commercial Cable Company. Golf was crude in these early days and generally played in winter when the grasses were low. The cable station declined as technology changed in the 1950s-60s, but the golf links continued on. The underwater cables laid there likely still sit on the seafloor by Waterville today as historical artifacts.
Irish-born American businessman John A. Mulcahy bought the course and envisioned creating the most testing golf links in the world at Waterville. He brought in renowned golf architect Eddie Hackett and friend Claude Harmon (1948 Masters Champion) to design a championship course fit to be ranked among the best. After extensive planning and work, the new 18-hole links course and clubhouse opened in 1973. The original nine holes were reconfigured into the current front nine, while the back nine was newly built over more rugged and exposed terrain.
In 1987, Mulcahy sold the course to a group of Irish-American investors who developed it into a resort. The late US Open Champion, Payne Stewart, “a great friend to Waterville,” fell in love with the course and the area. He was named honorary captain, and his life-size bronze statue now stands behind the 9th green. More recently, acclaimed architect Tom Fazio enhanced the course further by harmonizing the contrasting nines into a more cohesive 18 holes.
Waterville Golf Links is located in the small seaside village of Waterville on the Ring of Kerry in County Kerry, Ireland. Known for its natural beauty, Waterville overlooks Ballinskelligs Bay and is surrounded by mountains and ocean. The quaint village is a popular tourist destination, famed for its excellent salmon and sea trout fishing on nearby Lough Currane – one of Ireland’s premier game-angling lakes.
In addition to its world-famous links golf course, the area offers plenty for visitors to see and do. The route from Waterville to Cahersiveen is considered one of the most scenic stretches along the Ring of Kerry driving route, with panoramic views of islands, beaches, and mountain ranges. The nearby Skellig Ring is also a popular driving route for taking in dramatic coastal scenery. For history buffs, the Skellig Islands, located off the coast, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site with early Christian monastic settlements dating back to the 6th century.
Accolades and Critical Acclaim
Waterville Links is considered one of the premier golf courses in Ireland and is consistently ranked among the top courses in the country and the world. In Golf World’s 2021 ranking of the Top 100 Golf Courses in Ireland, Waterville placed 3rd, making it the highest-ranked course in the Republic of Ireland. The judging panel praised the “tremendous job” done by Tom Fazio in redesigning the course in the 2000s, saying there are “no weak holes and lots of high-class ones.”
Waterville is known for its beautiful oceanfront setting along Ballinskelligs Bay and its memorable collection of unique golf holes, including three outstanding par-3s and three excellent par-5s. The course is considered a must-play for any golfer visiting Ireland and remains perennially ranked among the sport’s elite tests worldwide.
While Waterville has never hosted a professional tournament due to its remote location, it is considered among the top links courses in the world and frequented by touring pros. The club hosts various amateur events yearly, including member tournaments and the prestigious Father & Son Tournament. Tiger Woods (whose coach at the time was Butch Harmon, son of co-designer Claude) chose Waterville as his preferred Open Championship preparation venue because of the course and the incredible local salmon and sea trout fishing.
The course is a par 72 stretching 7,378 yards from the back tees. It features dramatic sand dunes, undulating fairways, and slick greens. The course is surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Ballinskelligs Bay, and the River Inny, providing plenty of scenic views. The firm, sandy links turf and natural sea breezes will require variety and test your shot-making ability. Each hole meanders in a different direction through the dunes or along the boundaries and possesses its own collection of challenges and vistas.
The outward nine wind through flatter terrain before giving way to a more rugged and exposed inward half. It begins with “Last Easy,’ a mid-length par-4 with a green that slopes toward you. The par-4 2nd “Christy’s Choice” was so-named because it was one of Irish legend Christy O’Connor’s favorite holes. It challenges you off the tee with deep fairway bunkers and on the approach with its deceptively long green. The 4th is a one-shot hole that plays to a long green protected by a hidden pot bunker at the back right. The outward nine concludes with “Prodigal,” a long par-4 that plays to an elevated green fronted by pot bunkers.
In “Classic Golf Links,” Donald Steel describes the short par-5 11th, “From a high tee, you aim at a thin channel of dune-lined fairway that later dips down in front of a green which, as a result, appears prominently raised.” Beyond the 12th and 17th, the inward nine is highlighted by the 16th, “Liam’s Ace,” the site of an unthinkable ace by long-hitting local pro Liam Higgins. Legend has it that he took a direct route, carrying the hills and waste area around 330 yards. The round concludes with “Broadway,” one of the longest closing holes in golf, a straightaway 588-yard par-5.
Visit Waterville online at https://www.watervillegolflinks.ie/.
A Course Called Ireland
by Tom Coyne
Summary: By turns hilarious and poetic, A Course Called Ireland is a magnificent tour of a vibrant land and paean to the world’s greatest game in the tradition of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.
In his 30s, married, and staring down impending fatherhood, Tom Coyne was familiar with the last refuge of the adult male: the golfing trip. Intent on designing a golf trip to end all others, Coyne looked to Ireland, the place where his father had taught him to love the game years before. As he studied a map of the island and plotted his itinerary, it dawned on Coyne that Ireland was ringed with golf holes. The country began to look like one giant round of golf, so Coyne packed up his clubs and set off to play all of it-on foot.
Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond
Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.
by John Garrity
Summary: One man’s quest to uncover the roots of his family’s obsession with golf – a journey that takes him to his ancestral home in Ireland, to Scotland, and to the American heartland.
John Garrity is well known in the golf world for his writing for Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, and on Golf.com. In this book, Garrity travels to the remote corner of Ireland from which his great-grandfather left for America, now home to a majestic golf course. There he discovers why local farmers spent seven years carving the course out of unforgiving terrain, using only rakes and spades for their work. From there, he visits Musselburgh, Scotland, where his maternal ancestors played golf before the first 13 rules of the game were written there in 1774, and to Wisconsin’s St. Croix River Valley, where his father learned the Ancient Game.
by Kevin Markham
Summary: Now in its third edition, this concise, detailed book is for golfing tourists looking for great value courses, for golfing clubs that wish to go beyond their local area, and for Irish golfers searching for excellent but unsung courses in Ireland. Written from an amateur’s perspective, reviews focus on the energy and excitement of playing each course, giving a true representation of the golf experience, ranking each course, and providing contact information for booking.
Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel
Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests. With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.
This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.
Sand and Golf
by George Waters
Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.
by Malcolm Campbell & George Peper
Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria. For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.