The most spectacular course on earth celebrates a special anniversary
There are bucket list courses. Then there’s the Old Head. More than two decades have passed since I boldly proclaimed the new Old Head Golf Links to be the most spectacular course in the world. Following a fall 1998 visit, I put into words what it meant to be overwhelmed by a setting where golf was played. My account became the cover story for the March 1999 issue of LINKS. Unquestionably, however, what I had written carried less impact than the photos that ran. Anyone with eyes could see the obvious: On the list of the most jaw-dropping courses on the planet, Old Head reigned supreme.
Old Head debuted 16 months before I saw it for the first time. I did recognize that while stunning, it was immature, something that only the passage of time could fix. I returned 10 years later and found an even better golf course, in better condition, along with a lodging component that rivaled the finest anywhere. In the intervening years, I had partaken of dazzling spreads from Hawaii to China, from Oregon to New Zealand. My opinion hadn’t changed. In my mind, Old Head remained the ultimate destination for golfers who craved a golf feast for the senses.
When the sun is shining, Old Head is a fantasy calendar come to life. Holes on each nine drape 300-foot-high cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean and backdrops include a lighthouse, castle ruins, and the spot in the sea where the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, courtesy of a German U-boat, an act that spurred the U.S. to enter World War I.
Conceived by Irish American brothers John and Patrick O’Connor, Old Head unfolds atop a rocky, diamond-shaped promontory that juts out two miles into the sea. The design took root in the early 1990s, with architects and consultants that included Paddy Merrigan, Eddie Hackett, Dr. Joe Carr, and Liam Higgins. It was eventually finished by American Ron Kirby, a former associate with both Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Haulie O’Shea earns the credit for actually building the course. With five par threes, five par fives, and eight par fours, the layout stretches 7,150 yards and plays to a par 72.
Replete with signature holes, Old Head expresses itself most unforgettably at the wild, 564-yard par-five 12th, called “Coursean Stage,” which starts with a drive that skirts a cliff edge and concludes on a dramatic ridge top overlooking the Atlantic. Any pulled tee shot will end in a watery grave, 30 stories down. A front-nine standout is the 427-yard, par-four 4th, known as “Razor’s Edge.” As with the 12th, the entire left side of the cliff-top hole edges the ocean. What differs at the 4th is the backdrop, the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse that dates to 1853. If you want to make a case that any one of a dozen Old Head holes deserves its own paragraph, I won’t argue.
My return trip in 2008 enabled me to sample the clubhouse, with its lodging and dining components, and I dare say that the non-golf side of the equation compared favorably with the golf side. Lodging at the clubhouse was in the form of 14 Seaview Suites and a Presidential Suite, each with workspace, sitting area, private patio, and marble bathrooms. Vistas of the lighthouse, the Atlantic, and the 18th green, plus more square feet than I had in my own house, made the Presidential Suite a royal treat. An appointment at the spa, dining on the freshest seafood at De Courcey restaurant (named for the property owners through the 16th century), complete with ocean panoramas and a beverage at the Lusitania Bar were superb accompaniments.
Another visit was on tap for 2018, but a horse-riding accident in the family derailed my plans. As Old Head had now entered its 25th season, I was understandably curious for some perspective, especially on changes since my last appearance and on what the future held. Brent Dornford, Old Head’s Marketing Director (who is also part of the O’Connor family), had the answers.
“On the course, the most significant change occurred at the 13th hole,” says Dornford. “It was previously an inland hole (of 222 yards). It now lies on the west coast of the course, facing Kinsale, with the green kind of back-to-back with the 7th green. It’s 168 yards and was the last change overseen by John O’Connor. Architect Kirby used O’Connor’s inspiration and built the hole in 2013. It’s called ‘The Sovereigns,’ as it looks out at the Sovereign rocks. It’s another spectacular golf hole on the edge of the course.”
In 2017, the Old Head team relocated the green at the par-five 6th hole, now called “All Points,” placing it adjacent to the original lighthouse structures that graced the property. Moving it up the hill by roughly 70 yards added not only shot value challenge and panoramic beauty, but as Dornford observes, “it also allows you to interface with the history of the headland as well.”
Also altered was the par-five 8th, where the green shifted 50 yards further back and was elevated, to yield a seamless horizon effect from the fairway. “John O’Connor’s ultimate objective was tied to maximizing ocean views,” says Dornford. “That was accomplished at the 8th hole. We did something similar at the par-five 10th.”
Updated, modern grasses have led to more consistently firm and fast conditions, and the bunkering has improved significantly since opening day. This applies to both the quality and consistency of the sand used to fill the bunkers and also in the placement and aesthetics of the bunkers.
Off the course, Old Head has been equally nimble in adapting to the times and effecting positive change. All of the suites have been refurbished, and six more were added, bringing the current total to 21 highly luxurious suites.
By 2024, the number of suites will rise to 24. The massive Presidential Suite will be divided up into four suites, thus losing one, adding four for a net gain of three. The aptly named O’Connor Suite will be elevated to be the showpiece accommodation, a veritable small apartment. Equally exciting is news that Old Head has acquired a farm site off property, a quarter of a mile down the road from the entrance, near the Speckled Door Pub, which will be the site of six lodges. Currently in the planning and approval stages, the Old Head Farmstead Lodges are expected to come online in 2024 or 2025.
Even as member play and membership applications soared during the pandemic, traveling golfers continue to be warmly welcomed at Old Head. However, as with every other marquee course in Ireland (and Scotland), tee times are at a premium. Old Head is 90 percent sold out for 2023, so perhaps plan a visit for 2024.
Dornford notes that a million stars had to align for the O’Connor brothers to bring their Old Head dream to fruition. That’s precisely what drives ownership and management on a daily basis.
“We’re proud and honored to be custodians of the course,” said Dornford. “It would be remiss of us not to keep pushing the boundaries as John would have wanted, not only to keep it the most spectacular course in the world, but to also be the most spectacularly conditioned course in the world. We have a high caliber of golfer here, members who belong to the best clubs in the world. It is satisfying to hear them praise the course, the conditions and the entire experience. It comes down to the people, to the team, to the fact that it’s still under family ownership. You’ve got that passion factor. And I think people can feel the energy from that, as well as from the headland itself.”
Dornford presented a convincing case to explain Old Head’s enduring appeal. He added one more point that truly resonated with me. “It’s a magical place that brings out the best in people,” he said. “Whether you’re there to experience playing golf here, or whether you work here, how can you not be carried away by how wonderful it is?”
As I evaluated that final statement, a single thought occurred to me. I’d be a fool to wait another 10 years to return to Old Head.
Have you played Old Head? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.