Old Head of Kinsale
It might have arguably GB&I’s most spectacular site, but as Chris Bertram explains, this Co Cork course splits opinion.
Studying the images in this feature, it might surprise you to discover that Old Head of Kinsale is not universally adored. It might look spectacular on a Pebble Beach scale, but there are those who can’t see past the compromises inevitable on such an extraordinary site. It has long been our contention that an overwhelming majority of club golfers would deem Old Head out of this world. Put them on the tee of the 4th and its breathtaking arena would generate uncommon excitement in the minds of most. The 2nd, the 12th, the 18th and plenty more would induce the same sort of smiling awe, but the 4th is perhaps the one most guaranteed to engender fervour. Tightly cuddling the cliff edge for its duration, it begins on a tee whose elevated location enhances the view of the awesome playing arena and further increases your anticipation. This dog-leg left ends on a green squeezed between rock face and precipice, overlooked by that trademark stamp of spectacular courses, a lighthouse. No-one could reasonably claim it is not visually dazzling. Anyone claiming the scene leaves them stone cold are surely affecting a pretentious, dogmatic tone.
In fact more valid criticism of Old Head lies in an exacting test that verges on unfair in inclement weather. The slender fairways and exposed greens are undeniably very small targets when a strong wind is playfully mis-directing your ball. Such intemperate weather and extreme holes are the payback for such an extraordinary site. To enjoy one and not accept the other is akin to retiring to Orkney for the solitude and complaining about the mobile phone signal once there.
A curate’s egg
Old Head can be a curate’s egg in harsh conditions, and must be accepted as such. It sits on 220 acres of diamond-shaped land that protrudes over two miles into the Atlantic. It is all but an island, the land that links the headland with the mainland being not much wider than the modest access road. Caves run beneath your feet as you play the nine holes along the cliffs. All 18 have a view of the ocean. The course and the extensive practice area occupy 180 acres of this green velvet diamond, illustrating how necessarily neatly the routing fits into its canvas.
For such an awkward job, the owners – brothers John and Patrick O’Connor – selected a team of all talents to design by committee rather than autocracy. It was led by Ron Kirby, Jack Nicklaus’ former associate, and he was aided by four men: Patrick Merrigan, the Australian architect who passed away in January; Seniors Tour player Liam Higgins; the late Eddie Hackett, a prolific designer; and the late Joe Carr, a legendary amateur. Before the quintet could start siting 18 holes on this tight plot, there was another headache to solve, as the course was opposed by bird watchers, ramblers and environmentalists.
The O’Connors were as strident as one would expect of self-made property millionaires, despite the decision to build the course being a whim. John, a keen golfer before he died in 2013, admitted turning the land an hour to the south of Cork – that they bought in 1989 from farmer Michael Roche for £250,000 – into a course was a €19 million “rush of blood to the head”. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled right of access was “manifestly unreasonable” as golf and rambling did not mix (since opening in 1997, access has been granted to anglers and watchers of birds and whales). The wrangle was labelled a “latter-day Battle of Kinsale” but is low key relative to the rest of Old Head’s history, which you notice as you pass ruins of forts and watchtowers as you enter the property. Regarded as a natural monument, it is the only location directly linked to the Eireann tribe from which Ireland gets its name, ‘Eireann’ being Gaelic for Ireland.
The Titanic and Cork Harbour
Old Head’s lighthouse also guided the Titanic in and out of Cork harbour, its keeper the last person to see the liner as it sailed west in 1912. Three years later, Old Head was the closest land to where RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo. This tragic past contrasts with the serenity of nearby Kinsale, a fishing town of narrow streets and handsome buildings housing lively pubs, neat B&Bs and fine restaurants – as befits ‘the culinary capital of Ireland’. It is the ideal base, just 20 minutes away, from which to visit Old Head, whose majesty has lured Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods to Cork. “Old Head is truly one of Ireland’s, the world’s, most incredible golf experiences,” says Kevin Markham, who has played every course in Ireland. “It can be very playable, stunning to look at and is an adventure you never forget.”
Old Head’s numbers – par 72, 7,159 yards, five par 5s, five par 3s and eight par 4s – are essentially superfluous. The conditions, especially the strength and direction of the salty breeze, decide the nominal par for each hole on each day. In strong gusts, as aforementioned the site’s exposed nature means it is at times on the cusp of impossible for most. Played in more gentle weather it is, as Markham suggests, actually perfectly playable off the 6,508-yard White tees. In any weather, a caddie is expedient, and Old Head encourages their use rather than buggies; one in the eye for those who sneer at Old Head’s Americanisation. The site also means Old Head could only ever be a course of acute highlights mixed with more sedate fare and the opening hole falls into the latter category. It is indicative of the relatively prosaic inner holes, which couldn’t possibly enjoy the same excitement of those by the cliff edge. They are often exacting though, and this uphill opener that ends by the ruins of a stone fort is an early example.
The electrifying holes
Old Head doesn’t keep you waiting long for the electrifying holes you’ve come for though. The 2nd mimics the 4th, beginning on a high tee and whose sloping fairway traces the cliff edge as it sweeps hard left towards a small green just about hanging on to the edge of dry land 200ft above the froth of the waves. Some may enjoy it more than the 4th. Between those stellar two-shotters is a par 3 shaped like an old telephone receiver, with tee and green the earpiece and mouthpiece respectively and a slim walkway along the cliff edge connecting them. Anything left or short is dead, yet a bail out right leaves a pitch towards oblivion so is hardly an appealing option.
Shades of Pebble
The previously described 4th is an adrenaline fix in aesthetics and in practice – even when it is calm, to reach the green in regulation you must be brave with your driving line on the dog-leg left to have a short-iron second that must be feathered in between the rock face (right) and a sheer drop (left), with America behind. These three holes of peerless drama are followed by an uphill two-shotter and an angled par 5 that are comparatively hard work as they shepherd you in a straight line from the thrills of the bottom tip of the diamond to its top-right edge. The 7th sees a return to the precipice and a return to the excitement, with a short hole played along the cliffs but this time the right side is the reload. Balls will also be lost in tall mounds of fescue to the left. The fireworks are then tucked away for two inland holes to complete the front nine, although the drive over the road at the 8th has its own anxious feeling as cars pass under the flight path of your ball.The front nine opens up with arguably the most interesting of the inland holes, a sharp dog-leg par 5 on undulating land with a raised green beyond ancient stone walls. The all-world 12th (see left) keeps the pulse high in the next section before a stellar four-hole closing section with shades of Pebble.
It starts with three varied holes, with the ocean on the right the constant theme: a short downhill par 4 drivable with wind assistance; a majestically-located par 3 to a green set into a ledge cut into the bluff; and a par 5 that drops down 100ft as it winds from an elevated tee to a slender green hard to the cliff edge. Finally, 460 yards for the closing hole which sum up Old Head. It begins with a glorious tee shot played from one of the four tees – staggered in height as well as distance – that sit on a little ‘tail’ of land at the foot of the diamond on which the lighthouse stands. There is OB right and rocks left but plenty of fairway; it is a highly-exciting shot without the tension of elsewhere. The hole then bends to the left as it climbs towards the clubhouse and in truth your last long shot is likely to be an unromantic thump with a hybrid.
The view from the green is immense though, the last of as many as 20 times you will have been tempted to get your camera out. It’s that kind of place.
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