In the spring of 1897, Maudsley and Sharmon Crawford were sailing the Lee Estuary on their way to the Cork City Regatta. At the time (and to this day), men of means in Cork were yachtsmen. Ireland’s second-largest city is a seafaring town, and the Cork Yacht Club, founded in 1720, is the world’s oldest. The Crawfords had sailed these waters south of the city many times, but on this day they saw Little Island from a different perspective.
The Crawfords were newcomers to golf and members of Cork Golf Club, an organization as rudimentary as the Cork Yacht Club was distinguished. Founded in 1888, the golf club had moved itself around to various unsatisfactory patches of ground.
Then they a broad swath of Little Island shoreline—parkland, farm fields and a limestone quarry—that took form in their minds as a wonderful site for a golf course. The course at Little Island is a departure from the links game so prevalent in other coastal regions of Ireland. Cork is a grand walk in the park, ideally sited to take in everything this city is about: shipping, industry, verdant hills, blue-gray waters.
The course is still known as Little Island, or “D’Island” to the locals, though the property was connected to the mainland by landfill several decades ago. The original layout was devised by the club’s first pro. But as the game’s popularity began to grow among Cork’s elite members, the club summoned Alister MacKenzie. The course re-opened in 1927 and today remains mostly the way MacKenzie left it—from parkland to shoreline, across farmland and into the quarry, then back into woodland for the finish,
The 4th hole’s old back tee, which is still used, is first encounter with the course’s endearing quirkiness. The tee shot is played across the back of the 11th tee, which itself plays across the 10th green. And one of the most unusual of all tee shots is required at the par-4 15th hole, which plays across the 14th green and then over the 1st fairway, a double-crossing that would be difficult to duplicate elsewhere and would no doubt give the modern-day architect and liability attorney heart palpitations.
The course’s subtleties can be mistaken for innocence—only the new green at the 8th hole has any immediately apparent contours. But most of the putting surfaces have enough subtle tilt and undulation to require careful consideration and execution of the approach shots.
And you have to stay out of the firze bushes. In Scotland this prickly plant is known as gorse. When firze bushes are in bloom, their yellow flowers give off a heavenly scent that tends to mask their devilish density. While Cork is not overrun by them, they tend to crop up in strategic places, such as on the right side of the 6th hole, where the blind tee shot here must be played farther to the left than you might first imagine.
Ireland’s greatest players have made the journey to Little Island over the decades. Christy O’Connor Sr. and Jr., as well as renowned amateur Joe Carr, were regulars at the big events. And the club has produced a number of its own splendid amateurs, such as George Crosbie, Redmond Simcox and Captain John Fitzgibbon.
Then there was Jimmy Bruen, surely one of the greatest players of which the world has never heard. Bruen, who died just shy of his 52nd birthday in 1972, was a quiet man with an extraordinary swing and a deft putting touch. He won the British Amateur in 1946 but never sought the spotlight. A wrist injury in the late 1940s meant he would never again challenge at the highest levels, but he remained competitive at Little Island and was club president the year he died.
There is an air of familiarity and grace about Cork—its course, its clubhouse and the little shop where Peter Hickey does duty as the professional. The club has more than 700 members from all walks of life. This is a place for golf, one outfitted with all those intangible attributes that combine to make a player feel right at home.