A magical vision for a magical place
Robert Trent Jones Jnr's redesign of Hogs Head will turn Waterville into a major golf destination
Published 18/09/2016 | 17:00
Over a few drinks on a quiet evening in neighbouring Ballinskelligs six years ago, two businessmen effectively decided the future of Waterville as a major golf destination. That was when the Hogs Head Golf Club began to take shape.
Visitors to the rugged resort in south Kerry would have been familiar with the ambitious Skelligs Bay development on a spectacular site overlooking Waterville House. They might also have learned of how it fell victim to the recession.
Now, under new ownership, it's in the process of being totally transformed to a design of Robert Trent Jones II, imparting his first imprint on Irish terrain. And with the support and co-operation of Waterville Links, the local economy is set for a dramatic boost when the new layout opens for play in 2018.
Apart from a top-quality golf course, an investment believed to be in the region of €50m will include a hotel of appropriate standard. And there are plans to involve other iconic courses in the region.
The new owners are American, Bryan Marsal and his partner Tony Alvarez, who run a global consulting firm based in New York but with 3,000 employees in 45 locations involving 18 countries world-wide, including the UK and Germany. Annual turnover is $1 billion.
With classic understatement, Marsal said last week: "We help people fix their problems." In fact prominent companies and even governments are among their clients, which augurs rather well for Hogs Head.
Getting immediately to the nub of the challenge, Marsal described Waterville as "a charming, charming community", before adding: "The difficulty is that it is remote."
He went on: "But with two world-class golf courses, there is the possibility of doing a combination of things. You have flights into Cork or Shannon from where golfers can be taken down by vans or choppers, depending on what people are prepared to pay.
"When there, I believe the American golfer will stay, playing two rounds at Hogs Head and one to two rounds at Waterville. Then they could go and play Ballybunion, Dooks or Tralee, or maybe the Old Head."
It was his membership of Old Head that originally opened the door to the realisation of a long-held ambition. Given the nature of his business, he was asked during the height of the recession to advise John O'Connor of the Old Head on a particular in-house issue. "It wasn't a bad situation, just something John didn't feel comfortable about," said Marsal.
"You either liked John or you disliked him. And I happened to like him. So I went with him to his house in Ballinskelligs - a spooky place, though the garden was fabulous. Anyway, he fetched two lobsters out of his lobster pot and we had a great meal together. Then he told me of a situation in Waterville where the Bank of Ireland were anxious to transfer this marvellous piece of property.
"When we viewed the property, I contacted the bank and bought it. Then the worst thing happened: John died [in June 2013]."
Waterville has long been the focus of ambitious golfing plans. Fond memories endure of Kerrygold Classics of the 1970s when the owner, John A Mulcahy, endeavoured to show Eddie Hackett's design masterpiece to the world. Indeed 2016 is the 40th anniversary of Tony Jacklin's memorable victory in June 1976, when he learned he had secured top prize of £2,000 while relaxing in a Boeing 747 somewhere over Newfoundland.
Controversially, he had received special permission for an early start to his final round so as to catch a flight to Charlotte for qualifying for the US Open. Which made for a great story.
Three decades later, I was back at Waterville to see the handiwork of American architect Ron Kirby at what was to become Skelligs Bay GC, owned by local man Haulie O'Shea and a London-based partner. If Kirby's creation could have been viewed from the air, it would probably have looked like a giant spider's web, due to the distinctive pattern of walls which dominated the 150-acre site.
In fact every hole seemed to be contained within stone borders, running to an estimated total of 8,000 metres of walls, built from stones collected on the site. All are now gone.
When I returned there once more last week, Trent Jones expressed admiration for Kirby's work, while recalling that he was once in the employ of his own father, Robert Trent Jones Snr. There was a determination, however, that this reincarnation would carry his own stamp, something evident in the movement of 250,000 cubic metres of earth since contractors moved onto the site last March.
"My respect for Ron's routing is reflected in the fact that six holes are where he originally envisaged them," he said. And when the conversation turned to Jacklin, he highlighted the small world that golfing people inhabit, especially with the upcoming Ryder Cup putting Hazeltine back in the news.
"My father designed Hazeltine and I was there when Jacklin won the 1970 US Open," he said. "We later became life-long friends. It was a bit of a controversial course at the time, with a number of the top players coming to grief [Jack Nicklaus opened with an 81]. But Jacklin stayed quiet, accepting what was there, and he proceeded to win by seven shots."
Meanwhile, Trent Jones Jnr was contracted to design a new home for Douglas GC in Cork before their relocation plans were scuppered by the recession. But his father left his mark here through the Cashen Course at Ballybunion and later at Adare Manor, which is currently receiving a major facelift from Tom Fazio.
Incidentally, a charming aside to a visit by the old man to Ballybunion was the reaction from a local as this small, rotund figure descended from a helicopter - "Begob, he do have the look of a Kildimo man about him."
You have to think that the father of modern golf-course architecture would approve of his son's work on the south side of Ballinskelligs Bay. There, the entire site has been plated with 120,000 tonnes of sand which, with fescue fairways and greens, should make this headland course deliver the pace and firmness of a links.
Attention to detail is in evidence everywhere. Like on the short 11th, where tee and green are precisely in line with the distant Hogs Head promontory, from which the course gets its name. Then there's the short 13th, played out to the cliff edge, with its choice of two greens, separated by 30 yards and offering a variety of challenges from extensive teeing ground.
But the crowning glory is the long 18th, a straightaway par-five of 565 yards. From an elevated tee, the drive is played over a fast-running stream with a picturesque stone bridge diagonally across it. Heather and gorse adorn banking on the right, while the stream turns down the left side which is also dominated by trees and shrubs.
With the village beckoning in the background and MacGillicuddy's Reeks in the distance to the east, Jones appropriately calls it 'Coming Home'. Which has a special resonance for Marsal, who observed: "I said to Bobby that when you go play Royal Co Down or you play Winged Foot West or Pebble Beach, it's the great finishing hole that stays in the memory. When people leave Hogs Head, I want them thinking of a great par-five finishing hole 'that I want to come back and play again'."
He continued: "Where some guys invest in horses and others choose exotic cars or artwork, my partner Tony Alvarez and I wanted to build a golf course. And we love coming to Ireland. I'm a member of Winged Foot for 40 years and another member, John Meriwether, happens to be the major partner in the Waterville Links operation.
"In fact he's been kind enough to make Tony and myself members of the club. He believes this move will help Waterville Links, which is all very positive. I imagine we will have 300 to 500 international members from America and all over Europe joining. And they in turn will bring guests for what is going to be a six-month season - May 1 to the end of October.
"We've also decided we don't want the focus to be on commercial activity. Our objective is to do something with friends for friends. And that includes our Irish friends. That's why we're planning a certain amount of public [green-fee] access."
On a visit a few weeks ago, progress was so remarkable as to make a soft opening next autumn a possibility. And Marsal confessed to feeling "a little like the kid coming down on Christmas morning to see what's under the tree."
Local man David Daly is the greens superintendent, having learned his craft at Killeen Castle, and another local, Niall Moran, is the general manager. And construction is being done by Irish company, SOL.
Irish mythology informs us that Oisin departed for Tir na nOg on a white horse galloping over the waters of Ballinskelligs Bay. Such imagery seems to be a perfect fit for the magic being wrought on land.
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