Last month, the genial host at Waterville Golf Links, Noel Cronin, sat down with Examiner Sport to discuss great links, great folk, and retirement with. He passed away unexpectedly at 75 over the weekend in Orlando for the PGA Show, doing what he did best - promoting Waterville Golf.
There are many Irish people who stand out in the world of Irish golf tourism. One such man retired a fortnight ago, at the age of 75.
He is most commonly associated with the mighty Waterville Links but to limit his influence to a single golf course is to do him a disservice. Noel Cronin may have been the general manager at Waterville for 30 years, but his impact has benefitted not just Waterville and Kerry tourism but Irish tourism, too. He has been a roving ambassador for Irish golf.
Noel has lived in Waterville all of his life but his reach has been global. He is a true Irishman and a gentleman always willing to extend the hand of friendship… and thousands of travelling golfers from around the world will attest to that.
Two years ago, Noel received the Jerry Donworth Award for Outstanding Contribution to Golf in Ireland from the IGTOA (Irish Golf Tour Operators Association) and the golf tourism industry. Previous winners of this prestigious award include Pádraig Harrington, Pat Ruddy, Christy O’Connor Snr, Christy O’Connor Jnr, and Mary McKenna.
Now he has decided it is time to retire and after over 30 years of service, it seemed only appropriate that the Irish Examiner caught up with him.
Irish Examiner (IE): You were born and raised in Waterville. What makes Waterville such a special place?
“The beauty and tranquillity, with views of lakes and rivers and mountains on one side of the village, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. There’s excellent fishing, too. And all the staff at Waterville House & Golf Links make Waterville.”
Noel started down the tourism and hospitality route very early, working in the kitchens at the Butler Arms as a schoolboy. Over the following years, he continued in tourism working in different roles.
He has a wealth of knowledge in the hotel business, which includes five years of running the Sand Hotel (now the Sea Lodge) for Mick O’Dwyer — the legendary GAA footballer and Kerry manager — and working at the Waterville Lake Hotel in the mid-1980s performing numerous functions.
IE: How did you end up working for Waterville Golf Club in 1987?
“In 1987, I was the captain of the club when the new Waterville owners took over from the Mulcahy organisation. I was working at the Waterville Lake Hotel at the time and, as captain, I had many dealings with the new owners.
"They knew my background and asked me to come and work for the golf club. My leg was in there already and golf and tourism were my life, so when they asked me to join them as a Starter and Caddymaster, I was more than willing to do that for them.”
IE: As Waterville’s general manager since 1989, what was the biggest change you have seen at the club?
“The redesign of the golf course by Tom Fazio and his crew. From start to finish the work took about four years (starting 2002) but it was done in such a way that we always had nine holes open for the members.”
A more recent large scale project was completed in late 2019, and Noel leaves behind a clubhouse that has been completely overhauled in the past few years. It is a fine legacy… especially as he’ll be standing in front of it for many years to come.
“It is a very relaxing place, very homely and with good food. We have our own chefs and the new general manager, Michael Murphy, is doing a wonderful job looking after it all.”
IE: How did your role change in the last 10 years as the global economy slowed down and golf participation levels waned?
“My role was pretty much the same. The owners and directors of Waterville House were very flexible with me during the economic crash.
“We were able to keep golfers coming to play and stay at Waterville by keeping prices down and staying in touch with all of our international members. Repeat business was vital. The tour operators were also very important and there was Fáilte Ireland, too, who worked hard to bring more people into Ireland.”
IE: What is your proudest achievement?
“My proudest achievement was when I was appointed secretary/manager of the year in 1996. The trophy was presented to me by the late Jerry Donworth, and the minister for tourism, who, that year, was none other than Enda Kenny.”
IE: What was the most enjoyable part of your job?
“Meeting and greeting golfers and non-golfers as they arrive at the clubhouse.”
IE: Was there a lot of travel involved with your role?
“I did the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando every year. We have other people doing work for us, too, but the trade show was like a holiday with work. It’s when we got to meet people we’ve talked to on the phone and you put faces to the voices. It’s a great way to get to know new tour operators, business people, and golfers.”
IE: Of all the professionals, the celebrities, businessmen and women, and politicians you’ve met, who was the most entertaining and why?
“I would have to say JP McManus and his wife, Noreen. If not for JP, we wouldn’t have all the top golfers playing here, not alone Waterville but all the other golf courses that have also benefitted from JP and his friends Dermot Desmond and John Magnier.”
IE: Give our readers a flavour of some of the other big names you have met over the years.
“I first met Payne Stewart in 1995 at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Later, Payne and his wife and family were guests of JP and Noreen McManus, and myself and my late wife, Margaret, had dinner with them.
"We kept up the friendship until that ill-fated flight. I also met Ray Floyd, Sam Snead, and Gary Player, who have all played here. I met Arnold Palmer in Bay Hill and Jack Nicklaus at Shinnecock Hills.
“The president of Jack’s Golden Bear company — Richard Bellinger — was even a member here at Waterville. Tiger Woods played here about four times, practising on his way to the Open Championship.
“Our course superintendent would aim to have the condition of the course, especially the speed of the greens, as close as possible to the Open Championship venue. He stayed at Waterville House on those visits.
“Overall we’ve had four winners who played here and then went on to win the Open. There have been many big names who have played here on several occasions. Ernie Els, for example, as well as Nick Faldo, but he was only a young lad at the time, back in the 70s.
His mother was his caddie. I tried to get him back here over the years but never had any success. Others included Brett Ogle from Australia and Mike Ferguson, who was a brother-in-law of Payne Stewart.
“And then there was Charlie Chaplin and his family who I met here and drove in the 1960s. He didn’t play golf, he was only fishing. He was a great attraction for Waterville and he stayed at the Butler Arms. He was very quiet man, not like the Charlie Chaplin in the films. His daughter Josephine is a neighbour of mine.
“Who else? Hugh Grant played here and loved it. And Michael Jordan came with his own group. He came thanks to Killarney’s Paudie O’Connor, the basketball player, who went to Las Vegas. He was one of the greatest basketball players here in Ireland at the time. He set up as a tour operator in the States and he brought Michael Jordan here.”
IE: What makes golf at Waterville Links so special?
“You have a great golf course, which is fair for everyone. Different tees make the course playable for pros and beginners alike. And you can book a golf lesson with Brian Higgins or enjoy the excellent practice facilities before or after your round. Our new 19th gives golfers the chance to relax after their game.”
IE: What’s your favourite hole and why?
“The par three 17th (Mulcahy’s Peak) has so much history when you get up there, with John Mulcahy and O’Grady’s Beach taking you back to the clubhouse. The history gets me just as much as the golf. It’s beautiful up on the tee and it is such a great hole.
"There are days when the wind forces you to hit out towards the Atlantic Ocean to get the ball to land on the green.”
IE: When you met golfers as they arrived what was the one thing they always asked?
“The majority ask if it’s going to rain today. I’d have a fair idea whether it is or whether it isn’t, and I’ll look out to the Blasket Islands and if there are clear skies I give them a guarantee that it won’t rain!”
IE: What is the worst weather you have ever encountered at Waterville?
“The storm in February 2014 took down a lot of walls along the seafront, even the wall at Waterville House, and along the coast. But we were lucky. We’d had a wonderful job done on a coastal erosion project and it protected the golf course and the sand dunes.”
IE: And now for the future: what plans do you have away from golf?
“I have no real plans but what I would like to do now is have more time with my family. I neglected my own sons and daughter — I’d take them from school out to caddying — and I have grandchildren now so I can spend more time with them. And do some fishing and some golfing too.”
Noel stopped playing about a decade ago due to a knee injury but he was on the course in the evenings and on Sunday mornings before that. He hopes to get back to playing soon.
“I’m not too good in the legs just yet but seven holes or nine holes will do me fine from now on.”
IE: Despite your official retirement on December 2, you haven’t really retired at all, have you?
“I stepped down from the general manager position… but I’ll still be there as the meet-and-greet face of Waterville. It’s nice to get up and go to a job where you love to work. I wish Michael Murphy, the new general manager, and his team the best of luck.
“In my years here I’ve had a great staff at Waterville Golf Links — my daughter Stephanie, Miriam Courtney, Colette Courtney, Mary Sheehan, and Martina Holohan. They were excellent. And I must thank the Higgins family as well, for all their help and for their involvement with the club over many years.
"My greatest memory was winning the Pro & Captain 32 Counties Tournament at Co Louth, with Liam Higgins in 1987. Our prize was a trip to play in the European Finals, in the Bahamas. It was one of the greatest trips of my lifetime and especially with Liam.”