Old Head reaping rewards of its labour of pain
High quality and lower green fees have enabled Kinsale to flourish, writes Dermot Gilleece
Increasing areas of the spectacular cliff-face were gradually being revealed by an early-morning mist as four South African golfers prepared to drive off the second tee. "Friends told us that if we were ever in Ireland we had to play The Old Head," one of them volunteered. "And here we are."
Without a mention of the R-word, golf enthusiasts from all parts of the world are proving to be a highly productive advertising medium for the 216-acre Kinsale promontory. As a consequence, the facility is having a remarkably successful season with 15,000 rounds delivering projected profits in excess of €1m.
On the day of my recent visit, 160 players paid an average of €150 a head and all of the 15 clubhouse suites were occupied. In the dining room at lunchtime, six of the eight tables were fully occupied, with an average of six people at each table. All of which, including travel and transport, is estimated to deliver up to €2,500 per head into the national exchequer.
"After a decent season (April to October) in 2008, we were prepared to take a real hit last year, probably dropping to about 5,000 rounds," said club president John O'Connor. "Instead, by reducing our prices and opening the course up to the home market, we did 12,000 rounds and showed a small profit.
"Now, our experience is that people are coming to Ireland purely to play The Old Head. In fact with customers being turned away because we're so busy, there's a real sense of urgency about the proposed 25-room extension of our clubhouse accommodation. Pending planning permission, we should complete this work within the next two years at a cost of €8m."
This good news story for Irish golf is set against a perception in Fáilte Ireland not so long ago that The Old Head were destroying tourism here through over-pricing which saw green fees rise to €250 per round in 2003. The owners, who received a relatively modest Government grant of £50,000, also had to contend with protracted legal battles culminating in a Supreme Court appeal by An Bord Pleanála.
During the period leading up to its official opening in June 1997, The Old Head seemed to be a target for a lot of ill-informed comment. How was it that the public had been suddenly denied free access to this national treasure? Why weren't those with an appreciation of the environmental value of the site allowed to take it over?
When planning permission for a clubhouse was sought from Cork County Council, they imposed a condition of public access from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. This was later upheld on appeal by An Bord Pleanála. The matter then became the subject of an extremely complex judicial review which was eventually resolved in the club's favour, in February 2001.
An Bord Pleanála appealed to the Supreme Court with a view to establishing what were effectively rambling rights for the public, all over the golf course. This would clearly have made the playing of the game impossible from a safety standpoint.
Eventually, in a unanimous decision published in 2003, the five Supreme Court judges ruled in the club's favour, stating that Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála had acted in a "manifestly unreasonable" manner in attempting to impose such conditions. In their 54-page judgement, they described the case against The Old Head as the story of an administrative authority over-reaching itself so as to achieve goals foreign to its statutory purpose.
So, what is the key to the venue's success at a time when other leading Irish golf facilities are suffering grievously? Essentially, it has to do with the nature of the development. High-profile establishments which were reliant on real estate to offset significant capital investment had nowhere to turn when the housing market collapsed.
The Old Head, on the other hand, concentrated on delivering a product where the emphasis would be on quality. Though they don't claim to have the country's best course, none is better maintained or presented. For example, the greens were running at 11.5 on the Stimpmeter during my visit. No detail is overlooked, down to the neatly trimmed border of the semi-rough against the lighthouse road wall down the left of the fifth and sixth fairways.
Up to €1m is invested in course improvements every year and recent changes have seen the creation of new walkways between greens and tees, bringing players closer to the cliff-edge and the stunning vista of a 300-foot drop to Atlantic breakers below.
"After what I would describe as a labour of pain, we're now very well established on the world golfing map to the extent that we spend nothing on advertising," said O'Connor. "We find people come here for the totality of the experience, the unique ambience of the place. There are the views, the warmth of our staff and the quality of service.
"Exciting new markets are opening up for us in the Far East, in China, India and Korea. I recently played golf in Beijing and interest in the game there is phenomenal. We're currently negotiating with people in the Chinese leisure business on a member-exchange deal which we're looking to extend to other areas, including the US.
"While a lot of wealthy people have been hit by the recession, there are countless others who seem to have come through it. These elite customers have the resources to travel long distances to play special courses and we seem to be getting a healthy percentage of them at The Old Head."
Responsibility for maintaining the highest customer standards rests with the general manager, Jim O'Brien. We talked in the area of the first tee, where blue agapanthus plants imported from the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific, were in full bloom. "Where would you get such flora to compare with what we have here?" he asked. "Visitors are also captivated by our antiquities, including the 13th century lighthouses. You can sense when people are having a good experience and the reaction we get from our visitors is invariably positive." This was confirmed to me by entries in the visitors' book.
Among the Head's more distinguished, recent visitors were three who arrived there at different times during July. Arnold Palmer and Nick Faldo settled for what proved to be a gentle ramble over the amazing terrain. But Luke Donald, a wild-card pick for the upcoming Ryder Cup, equalled the course record of 68 to become another satisfied customer.