I had heard reports about the Old Head Golf Links in County Cork ever since it opened in the summer of 1997, and they all were more or less the same. Spectacular locale. Not-so-special design.
So I expected to be underwhelmed when I finally made my way to that spot outside the seaside town of Kinsale in southwest Ireland. But what I got instead was a pleasant surprise.
Old Head is a very good golf course.
Yes, the setting is extraordinary. The layout is situated on a windswept promontory that juts some two miles from the mainland into the Atlantic Ocean and boasts bluffs 300 feet high. It is hard for a golfer as a result not to feel that he is playing on top of the world as he trods that turf, and a Turnberry-esque lighthouse looming at the southernmost tip of the property only enhances the sense of being somewhere special. So do the stretches of water that are almost always in view, and the sights of seabirds soaring below you as you get ready to drive from tees on the edges of cliffs.
As for the golf, well, many of the par-4s felt like the eighth at Pebble Beach, with its rocky crags, roiling waters and heaving fairway, while most of the par-3s reminded me of the 12th on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, the greens fairly hanging on precipices.
To be sure, there were a couple of ho-hum holes. Nos. 8 and 14 come immediately to mind. But the vast majority elicited plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” from my foursome, the other members of which also had heard uneven reviews of the track. We had to hit draws and fades off of tees that offered good looks and enticing angles of approach to the fairways, and we needed to use most of the clubs in our bags. The greens rolled true and reasonably fast, too.
Sitting in the clubhouse bar afterwards, the Guinesses we all had ordered just taking effect, we agreed this was a very strong track. Much stronger than we had been led to believe. And it was one to which we all would happily return.