The Old Head - nature's Irish masterpiece
The Old Head of Kinsale

The Old Head of Kinsale

Imagine going to work every day in a place of such stunning, natural beauty that you are may only be distracted from the incredible views, the scampering hares and the swooping sea birds by the sight of a pod of humpback whales frolicking in the Celtic Sea that crashes against massive sandstone cliffs.

Fate has smiled kindly on Jim O’Brien, the estimable General Manager of Old Head of Kinsale Golf Links, which is regarded by many of the game’s greatest figures as one of the most spectacular golfing locations on earth - a must play venue that stands comparison with the best of the best.

Having witnessed the birth of the course in 1997 - the brainchild of Patrick O’Connor and his late brother John - Jim does not have to be reminded how lucky he is to have one of the greatest jobs in golf.

Situated on an isthmus that protrudes two miles into the heaving Atlantic Ocean, the Old Head of Kinsale is as close as you can get to working on an island paradise- a geological miracle formed 100 million years ago and shifted over time from 22° south of the Equator to its current location, 55° north.

A who’s who of golf has walked the springy turf and stood open-mouthed in awe in the face of views that simply defy belief.  

"The second is a favourite hole of mine," Jim explains.  "But the signature hole is the 12th, know as ‘Courcean Stage’ because of the rock geology that you can see from the tees.

"The world’s No 1 golfer, Tiger Woods, could not believe his eyes when he first set eyes on it and when the caddie told him the name of the hole, he said: ‘You should just call it ‘Holy S**t’."

Woods was equally taken by the breathtaking view from the 15th tee when he played a round alongside Payne Stewart, Mark O'Meara, David Duval and Stuart Appleby as they stopped off in Kinsale en route to the British Open.

"Well worth the wait," he said.  "This has to be one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen in golf."

O’Meara concurred, calling the Old Head "a must." 

"Anyone who has a love of golf and scenic beauty should make a point of playing here, it’s as simple as that," he said.

Even before these golfing greats teed it up, the Old Head, twenty miles south of Cork city, had been given the stamp of approval by the great amateur, Joe Carr.

Admittedly Joe, a three-time British Amateur champion, had been a design consultant for the course along with the legendary Eddie Hackett, Ron Kirby and Paddy Merrigan, so one would expect him to be lavish in his praise.

But he would never say anything which might rebound on him or on his reputation as a straight shooter.

"The Old Head of Kinsale as a golf links, will, in my estimation rate with the great courses in the world," the great JB insisted.  "Its location, scenic reality and spectacular terrain remind me of Cypress Point and Pebble Beach, two of America's most famous courses.  To be associated with the design of this course is to me, the thrill of a lifetime."

"I see the Old Head as a golfer's paradise with the potential of being the eighth wonder of the world in golfing terms." 

Situated just seven miles from the harbour town of Kinsale, now considered the gourmet capital of Ireland, gives these splendid links extra bonus points.

The headland is a national monument and an old Roman site, fortified by a castle at the narrowest part of the headland and complete with a lighthouse built in 1853 and a series of small stone circles, thought to be the remains of Iron Age dwellings.

It might all seem too good to be true but everyone who has played there has come away enthralled both by the beauty and the quality of the place, a location and course to rival the celebrated courses on the Monterey Peninsula.

There is probably nobody in Ireland with a greater knowledge of or a greater appreciation for a great golf layout than Christy O'Connor Senior, who played the course and said of its most spectacular stretch: "I have just seen the finest six holes in all of golf." 

The cliff top holes have grabbed most of the headlines since the course was opened in June 1997.  And that’s hardly surprising when you consider that the second hugs the cliff-top and features a green that looks ready to topple into the Atlantic, two hundred feet below.

The third is a 180 yard par-three with the green again overlooking the ocean while the fourth - named The Razor’s Edge - is a longer and perhaps more spectacular version of the second.

The course, which closes from November until April, has undergone many enhancements over the years as players of the calibre of Nick Faldo and Luke Donald return time and again to test their mettle.

But the Old Head does not publicise their visits or use their comments in advertising, relying instead on word of mouth to spread their golfing gospel.

"‘Pebble Beach on steroids’ is frequent comment," Jim says of the well-worn visitors’ book.  “And while there is a conception that we are set up for the American market, around 60 percent of our business comes from Ireland and Europe because we can be very proud of what we have here.

"I could name 10 courses in Ireland that are as good as anything you will find on the planet and while everyone aspires to play Augusta National, only a privileged few will get to play there.  I played Pebble Beach with the general manager and he said: ‘Isn’t this the greatest course you have ever seen?’

"And I smiled and said, ‘Not really.  We have one in Ireland that would beat it hands down.’ Well, when he came to visit us here and played the Old Head, he agreed with me.  That’s very satisfying."

Part of the challenge of the Old Head is the battle with the elements but it is not a traditional out and back links slog by any means.

"The wind is our friend here.  Our only protection.  We have six tees on every hole and Eddie Hackett once said we had fairways wide enough to land a jumbo jet but not a golf ball.  That’s the challenge of seaside golf.  It can be a pussycat on a calm summer’s day and a monster when the wind blows.  But the great thing is that the course was designed to change direction constantly, so that you are always dealing with the wind from different quarters.  

"What’s special about the Old Head is that it is the sum of many parts.  I can’t describe it any better than that.  It has long since matured but nature adds to it every year.  Nature has been a fantastic catalyst."

Talk to any top class Irish golfer and he or she will tell you that the putting surfaces are some of the best in the country but it’s not just the conditioning of the course that makes it such a wonderful place to come and play golf.  

With a sea aspect on every hole and 10 of them are perched on the edge of the cliffs, its a once in a lifetime experience.  

The American astronaut Dan Tani is a frequent visitor and he was so taken by the course that he even photographed it from space.  His only regret was that he could not see the full beauty of the flora and fauna from his extra-terrestrial perch.

No-one who has played the Old Head in recent years can come away and not remarked on the incredible planting regime that has been carried out, adding over half a million sea plants and shrubs to an environment that is buffeted by the wild winter weather, when the course closes

"It is a cacophony of colour in summer when the bracken, the heather, the ferns and the gorse all meld together in perfect harmony,” Jim says.

"The golf course is awash with flora and fauna - pheasant and hare, pygmy shrews, bank voles, kestrels and foxes.  They have all made their home here.  In fact, it is the only mixed seabird colony of its kind in this part of Europe that you can walk to because all other comparable colonies are on islands.

"We have a full-time ecologist working with us now and through his regular audits he tells us that the flora and fauna has quadrupled since the golf course came into being.  

"The lighthouse is two miles from the mainland, connected to the mainland by a natural land bridge.  I looked out yesterday and there were five humpback whales just off the coast here.  There was a man here from Trinity College the other day doing a case study and he said we were privileged to work here."

There’s more to the Old Head of Kinsale than golf and after a sumptuous meal in the de Courcey Dining Room - a five star a la carte restaurant offering magnificent views of the ocean and the Old Head Lighthouse - you can retire to one of 15 luxurious "Members' Suites" or pamper yourself in the Old Head Spa.

Why travel to the Monterey Peninsular when you can head south to the Old Head of Kinsale? It’s an oasis of tranquility that men who work in outer space appreciate for its myriad charms.