Coming of age for golf's most spectacular venue
The Old Head Links had a difficult birth, but is now blossoming as it enters its twenties
Late in the afternoon, the Old Head Links presented a dazzling picture in light and shade as brilliant sunshine was bidding a reluctant farewell to a glorious September day. This, surely, was the sight the owners imagined when memorably difficult birth pangs led to an official opening, 20 years ago.
Even at that stage, its very existence remained under legal threat. And there were potentially disastrous consequences in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when cash refunds of £800,000 were made on cancelled American green-fees.
Now, four weeks before their winter break, they can savour a best-ever season, with 18,000 rounds in seven months. That has prompted a green-fee increase from its present €260 to €275 for next season, starting in April.
"One objective is to reduce traffic by 10 per cent," explained general manager, Jim O'Brien, who constantly refers to the course as a "golfing experience", adding: "Nobody has ever, ever complained about the price."
And with a strong dollar, they're not about to start now. Indeed, bookings are very heavy right up to next September. "Come the first of April next year, we could have no more than three or four slots remaining," said O'Brien. "And that's been the trend for the last few years."
Growing competition at the top end of the Irish market will see other established quality venues such as The K Club and Mount Juliet being joined next season by a stunningly refurbished Adare Manor and the impressive Hog's Head in Waterville.
Yet O'Brien welcomes the challenge. "I accept that our product is expensive, but quality costs money and our reputation now is such that price is not an issue," he claimed. "We have a very profitable business simply because of the hard work we've put into it."
Typical of good husbandry was the reaction of original joint-owner, John O'Connor, to the loss of American customers in the wake of 9/11. He embarked on a six-month world marketing tour, covering 60,000 miles and three continents. And the pay-off? The target for 2003 was exceeded by 1,000 rounds at €250 per round.
When I first visited there at the time of its launch, every environmental crank seemed to have made it a target for ill-informed comment. Accusations piled up remorselessly of the public being suddenly denied free access to this national treasure.
And why was it that those who appreciated the environmental value of the site weren't allowed to take it over, instead of golfing vandals hell-bent on destroying a wonderful wild-life preserve for the sake of a stupid old game? And if they were to be allowed build their wretched course, how could they be permitted to ban Irish people from playing there?
I remember O'Connor's wry smile when I put those points to him. "The notion has been put about that the Old Head is the Phoenix Park of Cork," he said. "A national treasure it is: a national park it most certainly is not." That was when I discovered that the 220-acre promontory had been on the market as private property for five years before the O'Connor brothers, John and Patrick, bought it for £300,000 in 1989.
No planning permission was necessary for the construction of the course, given that the main work was largely done before the law was changed in 1994. It is thought, incidentally, that the Old Head was responsible for that change, which later affected Doonbeg, The Heritage and Carton House, among others.
Meanwhile, Cork County Council insisted that there were public rights of way on the property and a lengthy process of legal wrangling eventually ended with an appeal by An Bord Pleanála to the Supreme Court. Its ruling, announced in May 2003, was to dismiss the appeal in its entirety, so affirming a High Court decision that no public right of access existed on the promontory.
In a published 54-page judgment, the Supreme Court further 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. And that Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála had acted in a "manifestly unreasonable" manner in attempting to impose such conditions.
All of which cost the taxpayer an estimated €1m while, for the first time since its launch in June 1997, Old Head Links was finally free of the threat of closure. And unlike similar developments up and down the country, they never received, nor applied for, grant-aid from the Government.
As a golf writer, I couldn't claim to be entirely impartial on these matters, but there is no doubting the quality of what has been delivered on this amazing site, not to mention the boost it has been to the local economy in terms of employment and tourism spending in Kinsale and its environs.
On this latest visit, there was the opportunity of seeing the splendid development of the long sixth hole, where a new green has been located to the side of an old beacon lighthouse. Here, the removal of several feet of earth piled up over the years, fully reveals a remarkable structure dating back to the early 19th century. And beside it is the remains of an earlier, cottage lighthouse, dating back to 1667.
The 42-foot beacon lighthouse surrounded by circular, keeper's lodgings, had 27 oil lamps each with its own, parabolic reflector. Built in 1814, it rose 294 feet above the high-water mark with a visibility of 23 miles in clear weather. Its susceptibility to low cloud and fog, however, caused it to be replaced in 1853 by the present lighthouse, at the southern-most point on the promontory.
As with all of the golf-course construction, work on the sixth was supervised by veteran architect Ron Kirby, and done entirely by greens superintendent Neil Deasy and his staff of 20. While the elevated green makes it a genuine 585-yard three-shotter, especially impressive is the uniform texture of the putting surface which had been running at close to 12 on the Stimpmeter earlier in the day.
The dominant grass here is Seaside2, a salt-tolerant bent sourced in Ohio State and the result of lengthy experimentation with as many as 54 varieties before the right one was found. Meanwhile, repair work is facilitated by a 4.5 acre nursery incorporating grasses for greens, tees, fairways and pathways.
Other recent developments include an opening to the back left of the marvellous 12th, to facilitate a clearer view of cormorants, guillemots and peregrine falcons, swooping along the cliff-face before disappearing into a cave 300 feet below, only to reappear on the opposite side of the Head.
Now into its 21st season, this is something of a coming of age for a remarkable venture. Having played host in July 1999 to the iconic six-ball of Tiger Woods, Payne Stewart, David Duval, Mark O'Meara, Lee Janzen and Stuart Appleby, it has more recently been graced by Arnold Palmer, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Nick Faldo and Luke Donald.
All of whom enjoyed a course that while never claiming to be among the best in the world, is unquestionably the most spectacular. And now that the new sixth is completed, you can imagine plans being hatched for the next treat for its growing list of admirers.
Sunday Indo Sport