Appeared in March 1999 LINKS
You’re a serious golfer. You have skirted the clifftops at Pebble Beach, maneuvered around the giant sandhills at Ballybunion, genuflected to the golf gods at St. Andrews. If you haven’t yet been to those meccas, you’ve read and dreamed about them. In your wildest fantasies, however, you couldn’t have imagined a golf course as striking as the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland.
Old Head unfolds atop a rocky 220-acre promontory that juts into the Atlantic. This hallowed spit of land is a national monument and an ancient royal site. The earliest settlers pre-date Christ and were known as the Erainn Celtic tribe. Ruins of their early forts remain today, along with stone walls that were part of the ancient castles.
Today, the most visible symbol of Old Head is its “modern” lighthouse, completed in 1853. Dozens of shipwrecks occurred off the Old Head coast, but the most infamous was hardly the fault of nature. In 1915 a German U-boat sank the Lusitania.
These days, the only violence in these parts is the damage inflicted on the scorecard. Old Head served as farmland until 1978; not long thereafter, the sacred plot cast a spell on John O’Connor and his brother Patrick, a pair of successful real estate developers. They were seduced by the prospect of draping golf holes over the acreage, no matter how exposed the terrain or rocky the soil.
The O’Connor brothers enlisted Ron Kirby, who had worked for and alongside some of the biggest names in the business, including Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jack Nicklaus. He was ably assisted by a quartet of Irish legends, architect Eddie Hackett, pro Liam Higgins of Waterville, agronomist Paddy Merrigan and Joe Carr, a three-time British Amateur champ. After more than 40 attempted routings, the committee got things just right.
No fewer than nine holes play either alongside 300-foot cliffs or over a portion where the rock eats into the fairway. Mostly, though, you confront the elements. In merely normal conditions, putting the ball into play is a challenge. If it’s really windy, the course is nearly unplayable.
Old Head is a terror in wind and rain, but the real danger is the fog. Not long after the course opened in 1997, a foursome got stuck in a dense fogbank that rolled in quickly. Using a cell phone, one player phoned the shop and asked what to do. “Don’t move!” came the reply. “We’ll come get you.” That’s how easy it is at Old Head to walk or drive off a cliff.
Golf-wise, Old Head’s primary drawback is that it isn’t a true links. The rocky playing surface is tougher to walk than good linksland and doesn’t promote a hard, fast, low-running kind of game.
Still, In terms of visual stimulation, drama and heart-pounding excitement, no course anywhere offers more. It is interesting at every turn, challenging on every shot.
You immediately fall in love with the downhill, dogleg-left, 387-yard 2nd hole, your first encounter with the cliffs. Then the 407-yard 4th, with cliff and ocean waiting to swallow a hook and the historic lighthouse backdropping the green, simply overwhelms you.
The course concludes in dazzling fashion, beginning with the 186-yard 16th, which looks like the 7th at Pebble Beach but plays five clubs longer. The 628-yard 17th tumbles all over the place, closing with an off-the-edge-of-world approach. If you can swat any kind of drive, take the long walk back on the 18th tee, where you launch it from practically inside the lighthouse. This uphill, 411-yard par 4 doglegs left, toward a handsome, rock and glass clubhouse.
The ancient harbor town of Kinsale lies seven miles north of Old Head. Ireland’s second largest city, Cork, has the nearest major airport, some 13 miles from Kinsale. My recommendations are these: Tour the lovely town of Kinsale. Cap it off with a pint of Murphy’s or Guinness at the Blue Haven Hotel. Use every last ray of sun to play as many holes as possible at Old Head Golf Links. Prepare to be amazed.