IRELAND - The afternoon was calm and many of the passengers were on the outside decks enjoying the cool, misty sea air. All seemed well, then in seconds it suddenly changed. It was May 7, 1915, and the mighty ocean liner "Lusitania" was just eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsale (the nearest point of land). The torpedo, sent by a nearby German U-boat, was a direct hit and absolute chaos ensued. She sunk in just half an hour. The bow went down first, hoisting the stern two hundred feet in the air. Terrified passengers clung to anything they could – many never even knew what hit them. Over eleven hundred passengers lost their lives that fateful afternoon off the Irish coast. Today, just before you enter the secluded peninsula called The Old Head, which is home to the spectacular Old Head Golf Links, a stone memorial reminds each visitor of the tragedy.
Thankfully through the passage of time much of the hurt is gone. The Old Head of Kinsale, although a place associated with this great loss, sings a different tune these days. It has become one of the most inspiring and thrilling places to play golf in the entire world. With nine glorious holes that play alongside the towering cliffs of the Old Head (and nine inland holes), it's tough to think of a place more stirring, more exhilarating than Old Head.
The Old Head became a golfer's haven just five years ago. It's just a baby by Irish standards (don't worry, it plays like a brute). Courses such as Ballybunion, Royal County Down, Waterville and Lahinch have been around for decades and are well-established venues when the best of Irish golf is considered. Old Head is in tough when battling "the big boys" of Irish golf, however, it's putting up a great fight.
The fight actually begins in getting to this promontory, which is nearly hidden by the broad, flowing pasture land that you'll drive through to reach the Old Head. From the charming city of Cork you'll head south to the quaint fishing town of Kinsale, then another fifteen minutes to reach the gates of the Old Head. The drive, although slow with numerous twists and turns in the road, makes it all the more sweet when that first glimpse of a golfer's utopia is finally fixed upon your eyes.
The course is really an isolated golfing fortress, protected by waves smashing against cliffs on all sides. A good argument could be made that anyone with the ability to set down a few tee markers and flag poles could have created a spectacular golf experience here. After all, Old Head is the type of place where even Mark Twain's spirit could have been lifted. "Golf is a good walk spoiled?" Not so at Old Head, Mr. Twain.
Interestingly, there are six designers who have taken part in massaging this awesome piece of land into what it is today. It would seem likely that a Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, or Robert Trent Jones would have his name stamped here. On the contrary; of the six names involved in this design, it's unlikely you'll recognize any of them. How do Dr. Joe Carr, Ron Kirby, Eddie Hackett, Paddy Merrigan, Liam Higgins, and "Haulie" O'Shea sound? Ring a bell? Didn't think so.
After holing out on the first, a straightforward par-4, you'll head off the green and exit to the right; you have now begun your short journey to the edge of paradise. The second, a short downhill par-4, swoops around the cliffs and will get your senses dancing. The green clings dangerously to a tiny piece of the Old Head. "Bring it on" might be your words, for the game has now begun.
The problem (if there is such a thing at Old Head) is that some of the holes had to be positioned inland, away from the immediate drama of the cliffs and thundering voice of the ocean. When turning away from the sea and playing the inland holes, there is almost a feeling of disappointment, a setback. Or is it greed? Either way, the allure of being cliff-side is intense, overwhelming.
Thankfully, holes three and four continue on this border where ocean meets rock, where waves assault the fortress down below. The third is a dazzling par-3 with a tee box so close to the edge you might get a little squeamish. Unfortunately, for those afraid of heights at least, the green sits even closer.
The fourth is the type of par-4 you could play forever. The lighthouse beams in the distance, the fairway beckons in the foreground, the sea has you trapped on the left for as far as you can see. Smash it between the bunkers and you'll get to enjoy one of the finer walks in all of golf. Next comes the daring approach that must be squeezed between a rocky shelf to the right and a hundred shipwrecks to the left. The fourth is truly one of the more memorable par-4's in existence.
One walks around the Old Head in awe of what is all around, enveloping you, taunting you. Yes, you may put on a few miles and have sore feet when it's all said and done, but whatever you do, walk the course! You'll miss too much if you ride. For obvious reasons, the cart paths are positioned well away from drop-offs (and that's where all the action is!).
After playing the par-5 sixth, you'll pass through some old ruins (the Lusitania isn't the only history around here) and make your way to another striking par-3 with no margin for error. A steep slope to the right has clear warning signs educating you of the dangers that lie below. A weak slice to the right will find its way to the bottom of the rolling sea, joining hundreds of balls never to be seen by man again.
Once making the turn, the drama doesn't start again until the twelfth. No. 12, a par-5 reminiscent of Turnberry's famed tenth, requires a gutsy blast up and over the aiming rock (every par-4 and par-5 at Old Head has a target rock to hit at). When the wind is in your face, this is the toughest tee shot at Old Head. Anything hit short or left will rattle off the cliff side and end up in the foaming, churning sea a hundred feet below – a token gift offered to the gods of the sea who no doubt have a vested interest in this stronghold.
The closing stretch is also pleasing to the eye, but unless your nerves are made of steel, there likely won't be too many birdies coming home. With the exception of fifteen, it's hang on, clench your teeth, and try to bring it home without too much damage. The seventeenth is a gut-wrenching par-5 that could ruin you in a heartbeat. The tee-shot must be aimed left, to avoid, you guessed it, the big, blue sea. From there, she sweeps down the hill to a small green protected by, hmm..., let me think, yeah, that's it, sand, mounds, cliffs, and the ocean (did I mention there was an ocean nearby?).
The championship tee on the eighteenth is to die for (hopefully no one will). Perched precariously under the lighthouse, you'll need to absolutely bust one to reach the fairway cut, some 240 yards away. If you get it there, your Guinness will be well deserved.
To hear the waves crash against the sheer walls, to see the gulls swooping down against white-foamed surf, and to feel the ocean spray, wet and cool against your face – that is The Old Head. And the sea - deep rolling blue forever and ever, melting into the horizon like it has no start or finish. Where boats are lost in the depths, but golfers' dreams rise above – that is The Old Head. May the luck of the Irish be with you!
Old Head Golf Links
Kinsale, Co. Cork,
Telephone: +353 (0) 21 778444
Green Fees: 190 Irish Pounds
(caddies and carts available)
Fly into the International Airport at Shannon or Dublin and rent a car. Head south to Cork. From Cork, follow signs to the airport and head south to the town of Kinsale. Follow signs to the Old Head from Kinsale. Driving time from Cork to Old Head is 45 minutes. If you prefer, the club can also make arrangements for Heli-golf.
The best way to travel Ireland is by staying at B&B's. There are literally hundreds of them in Cork county and finding a room will not be a problem.
The town of Cobh, (pronounced "Cove") has an outstanding museum about the history of "Queenstown" (Cobh's former name). Queenstown was the Titanic's last stop. There is memorabilia from both the Titanic and Lusitania. Blarney is a great town to see with the Blarney Castle (don't forget to kiss the Blarney stone!), and the Woolen Mills (famous Ireland wool mill and store). Waterford, an hour's drive from Cork, is home to the famous Waterford Crystal. The visitor center features hundreds of fine crystal pieces on display. Tours are available as well. You will not get bored in Ireland!
Southern Ireland is home to some of the world's best golf (so is Northern Ireland, for that matter). Other outstanding courses you may wish to try in the south include: Mt. Julliette, Ballybunion, Druids Glen, Royal Dublin, Portmarnock, The European Club, Waterville, Fota Island, The K-club, Tralee, and Lahinch. You will not go wrong with any of these.
Andrew Penner is a longtime member of the Canadian PGA. Author of "One Flew Over the Caddyshack," he also writes for a number of magazines throughout Canada and the U.S.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Darren Clarke learned to play the game at Dungannon Golf Club, a pretty parkland course right in the middle of Northern Ireland. While the course is pretty enough and the green fee is almost embarrassingly reasonable, the appeal of Dungannon is the opportunity to pay homage to the 2011 British Open champion, Clive Agran writes from County Tyrone.
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