Even allowing for the rich hyperbole found in the shiny pages of golf travel magazines, the recent reviews for Ireland's Old Head Golf Links have scaled unusual heights.
Links magazine, while bowing reverently to Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, called the 2 1/2-year-old Irish prodigy "the world's most spectacular course." Awed by Old Head's cliffside holes rising 250 feet above the rocky Atlantic shore, Senior Golfer declared "there is no finer setting for a golf course anywhere." And in September, Golf magazine named Old Head among the world's Top 100 courses, a stunning feat for a course so young.
Having heard all this, the world's golf connoisseurs are drawn to the place like chiggers to ankles. More than 150 well-heeled duffers from as far as Thailand have already paid a modest $25,000 each to become members, while other wealthy hackers who hardly notice Old Head's $200 greens fees now routinely fly in to Cork Airport for the day.
"Let me show you something," says Old Head's co-owner, Patrick O'Connor, as we walk through his stylish clubhouse, where one can indulge in $250 golf sweaters and Chihuahua-size lobster. O'Connor, a Michael Caine-like bon vivant and London-based land merchant, pries open a bulky leather guest book at the front desk and points to an illegible scrawl.
"That's Michael Jordan's signature," he says sotto voce. "He played here in May. Tipped his caddie $400. He told me he's not actually supposed to sign anything for free."
Two months after Jordan's visit, in preparation for the British Open last July in Carnoustie, Scotland, a helicopter delivered upon Old Head's flaxen hills a six-pack of PGA Tour stars, among them Americans Tiger Woods, David Duval and Mark O'Meara. "We never saw anything for 13 holes," Woods told me later at Carnoustie. "Really dense fog. But when it cleared--wow. What a neat place."
Long before golf arrived on the 220-acre promontory known formally as the Old Head of Kinsale, Shakespeare said, "It is a place whose high and bending head looks fearfully on the confined deep." He must have been there on a mean winter day like the one in December 1997 when the Old Head, which juts three miles into the Atlantic, was blasted by 125 mph winds that destroyed three golf holes.
Had the Bard been there in summer, he might have caught one of those gentle clear days kissed by the warm Gulf Stream winds, days when the whales are leaping (23 species have been sighted offshore), peregrine falcons are training their young in midair, and, frankly, golf seems a bit frivolous. Such days have made it a gathering place of families, sightseers and lovers for centuries. "I'm sure half of Kinsale was conceived on the Head," laughs O'Connor.
But far more than a scenic playground, the Old Head is an Irish national monument and ancient royal site that archaeologists say was inhabited since the later Iron Age beginning around 200 B.C. A massive slab of granite worn down by several ice ages, this dense slate-gray soil has seen more lusty history than Walter Cronkite. The original Eireann Celtic tribe walked here, as did 13th-century Anglo-Norman marauders, De Courcy chiefs and valiant British forces who fought off Spanish armadas in the 1600s. In1915, a few miles offshore, 1,195 passengers died when the Lusitania was sunk by German torpedoes, thus changing the course of history.
On the course itself golfers walk amid ancient ruins, including a cottage lighthouse--built in 1665 and believed to be Ireland's first--that used a blacksmith's fire on the roof as its beacon, and a large limestone monument with a perfectly worn hole at the top (now the Old Head logo) that the Celts called a "stone of accord." Celts would seal their business deals by standing on either side of the hole and touching hands. These artifacts don't actually come into play during your round, but it is a bit like playing golf at Stonehenge.
How exactly did O'Connor and his brother, John--both of whom are from surrounding County Cork--acquire such a historic piece of property?
Amazingly, it was still in the hands of a local farmer, though townspeople historically just climbed his wall and treated the Old Head as communal land. "I still can't believe this place was actually on the market for five years at about $650,000," offers O'Connor, who after buying it spent about $20 million (and most of his patience) building the course.
"A lot of people who know golf better than I," he says, "told my brother and I we were mad, that no one could build a golf course here. You could never have written a contract for this. Every day was uncertain."
For starters, the Old Head has only a thin veneer of native topsoil, so hundreds of thousands of tons of rich dirt from local farms had to be trucked onto the site. The resulting parade of machinery careening down County Cork's narrow roads didn't win the O'Connors many friends. (One truck plummeted 300 feet to the ocean just as the driver leaped to safety.) Even with the added soil, however, Old Head doesn't feel like a true seaside links course, where each step is cushioned by eons of sand.
Then came lengthy contentious battles over environmental and archaeological permits. To battle environmentalists--he calls them "humbugs of darkness"--O'Connor hired ecologist Tom O'Byrne, a former consultant to the United Nations.
O'Byrne, a tall, lean fellow who resembles folk singer Pete Seeger, told critics that by planting more than half a million shrubs, plants and bushes, including longer, more diverse grasses in the rough, he would be creating an infinitely better environment than the preexisting farm's monoculture of row crops. More flowers and grasses, O'Byrne says, means more bugs, which means more small birds, pygmy shrews and bank voles, which then, alas, become snacks for the area's larger birds of prey, such as gannets, kestrels, peregrines and cormorants.
(Aside from golf, the Old Head provides world-class bird-watching. Underneath the narrow isthmus connecting the Old Head to the mainland are a row of five east-to-west caves about 300 yards long and 60 to 80 feet tall that serve as fly-through shortcuts for thousands of birds a day, mostly white choughs and kittiwakes.)
What the locals objected to most was simply that the Old Head would not be as accessible to the public. "We got relentless bad press," says O'Connor, "but now the Old Head will be open to thousands more . . ." He smiles and pauses a beat. "At a price, of course."
Perhaps the biggest challenge was simply designing the layout. Five golf course architects toyed with some 43 proposed routings of the holes. Eventually Patrick O'Connor relied most heavily on the expertise of one of Jack Nicklaus's architects, Ron Kirby, who designed (with Nicklaus's signature) the impressive Mount Juliet parkland course in County Kilkenny, Ireland.
Kirby removed several blind tee shots, highlighted a lovely stone wall that was previously obscured and sprinkled in some 90 bunkers. ("I'm taking out 30 of them," O'Connor grouses.) The result is that masterful combination of challenge and comfort for all levels of golfers. Nothing is unfair about it, and the usually stout wind makes the shortish back tees (6,650 yards) play much longer.
Now, typically, this is where the writer waxes on at some length about the majestic par-threes and the charming "signature" hole, but trust me, if you ever get there you'll never remember what was said here about the 626-yard 17th or the 514-yard 10th that Tiger Woods reached with driver, nine-iron. You'll be lucky to remember your ATM number. Most of the course has that numbing Grand Canyon scenic quality. My best advice is to arrive a few hours before your round to take photographs and simply adjust to the sensory overload.
Still, there is the thornier issue of whether the Old Head Golf Links, with its golf carts, beverage cart girls, inflated greens fees, five-star restaurant and designer souvenirs, is good for the humble image of Irish golf or even is Irish golf. O'Connor concedes his creation "is not an Irish golf experience" and that he called in American consultants to achieve that country club ambiance he grew to love during stays in places like Texas and Florida.
The irony is, of course, that legions of golfers come to Ireland and Scotland each year precisely to avoid such American excesses and to revel in the simplicity and sincerity one easily finds at Irish gems like Ballybunion, Donegal and Royal Portrush. There you're likely to be paired not with millionaires descended from helicopters but plumbers and priests and ruddy-faced schoolboys sneaking in nine holes before dark.
Such experiences are not easily bought, at any price.
Austin-based writer Bruce Selcraig, a former investigative reporter with Sports Illustrated, wishes he could afford to play golf at the Old Head.
DETAILS: Old Head Golf Links
GETTING THERE: Unless you'll already be in Ireland (in which case buses, trains and cars are preferable), the route to the Old Head Golf Links begins at Cork Airport, which has daily flights to about a dozen European cities, including several to London Heathrow and Gatwick; round-trip fares start at about $150.
If you're renting a car--I got an Avis mid-size automatic for about $77 a day--and haven't driven on the left side before, don't panic, but do plan on arriving in daylight. Road signs are often small and unlighted. Even major roads are often two-lane and narrow. The drive from Cork Airport to Kinsale (go south on R600) is about 15 miles, simple and well-marked. Once you're in Kinsale, the Old Head lies five miles south over the Bandon River bridge. Ask at any hotel for directions.
GOLF: The Old Head Golf Links (telephone 011-353-21-778444, www.oldheadgolflinks.com), whose 2000 season runs April 14 through early December, is not cheap: Greens fees are $200, and caddies run about $30 to $40. Tee times are a must, as more than 10,000 bookings have already been placed for the upcoming season. Other Kinsale courses are Farrangalway (011-353-21-774722; green fees, $25, length 6609 yards), an 18-hole parkland track, and Ringenane, a nine-hole course (011-353-21-772197; $13 greens fees) on the road to Cork. Ask for early-bird and member rates.
WHERE TO STAY: Kinsale, a seaside tourist village of 2,000, features dozens of excellent mid-size hotels, small inns and B&Bs, at prices ranging from about $25 to more than $130 per night. The largest, Acton's (011-353-21-772135), has 75 rooms, an indoor pool and nice harbor views. The Trident Hotel (011-353-21-772301) has 58 en-suite bedrooms and a marina. Perhaps the most luxurious stay is at the 17-room Old Bank House, next to the post office in the heart of downtown (011-353-21-774075). Voted one of Ireland's best 100 inns, it especially caters to golfers.
I prefer smaller B&Bs, such as O'Farrell's (011-353-21-774169; e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org), where Betty and Pat O'Farrell's good breakfasts, conversation and devoted golden retrievers made leaving tough. At 15 Main St., O'Farrell's is close to everything, but it's on a narrow street with limited parking. Several great countryside B&Bs are also available. Check the Cork Guide on the Web (see below).
WHERE TO EAT: Kinsale bills itself as the Gourmet Capital of Ireland. You'll have no problem finding excellent steaks, seafood, Italian, Asian and French cuisine, among others. Prices $20 to $40 for one.
ATTRACTIONS: Kinsale has several fabulous old forts and castles that merit exploration, among them the Charles Fort, James Fort and Desmond Castle, all built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Check for gourmet and comedy festival dates. Sailing, windsurfing and horseback riding are available. Most adults come here for romantic weekends, fine dining and shopping for linen, pottery and clothing.
INFORMATION: Everyone in Kinsale seems wired. Check the indispensable Cork Guide (www.cork-guide.ie) for hotels, food, travel, recreation, newspapers, even politics. Many inns and B&Bs do e-mail reservations. Tourist information offices for Kinsale (011-353-21-772234) and Cork (011-353-21-273251) are helpful. For general information, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 1-800-223-6470 or 212-418-0800, www.irelandvacations.com.