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Old Head standing firm against financial storm

Dermot Gilleece


An aerial view of the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale: ‘The thrill of hitting golf shots only a few yards from 300-foot cliffs has proved to be enormously attractive.’ Photo: David Cannon

An aerial view of the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale: ‘The thrill of hitting golf shots only a few yards from 300-foot cliffs has proved to be enormously attractive.’ Photo: David Cannon

An aerial view of the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale: ‘The thrill of hitting golf shots only a few yards from 300-foot cliffs has proved to be enormously attractive.’ Photo: David Cannon

At a time when some prominent Irish golf clubs are battling simply to remain operational, Old Head Links in Kinsale are about to complete a €10m development of their facility. Indeed, plans are in hand for further expansion over the next two years.

Marketing director Brent Dornford has made it clear, however, that the move shouldn't be interpreted as a reckless dismissal of problems created by the coronavirus. "Had we foreseen what was coming down the tracks, we would most likely have postponed the work," he admitted last week.

But he immediately added: "We are not immune to the financial challenges that this virus has laid down. Far from it. At the same time, we are conscious of being custodians of the incredible legacy left to us by John O'Connor [the prime-mover behind the venture]."

As successful developers, the Kerry-born O'Connor brothers, John and Patrick, bought the 216-acre promontory for £212,500 in 1989 after it had been on the market for several years. "At various times from the mid-1980s onwards, I offered the Head to Cork-Kerry Tourism, the Board of Works and the Cork County Council," the previous owner Michael Roche recalled.

"I told Cork-Kerry Tourism that it was a national monument but they showed no interest. And I got the impression that the Board of Works would have been interested if I was prepared to give it to them for nothing. The only people who made an actual bid for it were Cork County Council, but their offer was nowhere near the sort of figure I had in mind."

The current situation is not unlike that which confronted the O'Connors in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in the US. Cash refunds of £800,000 on cancelled green fees meant an overall drop of 20 per cent in income for 2001 and a rather bleak outlook for 2002.

John O'Connor's reaction was to embark on a €120,000 six-month world marketing tour, covering 60,000 miles over three continents. He also initiated a €700,000 clubhouse expansion involving the construction of 15 suites. All of which prompted Paddy O'Looney, chief executive of the south-west marketing company, SWING, to observe: "The Old Head have clearly bucked the national trend."

Now, 19 years on, they seem to be doing it again, as if to emphasise the unique appeal of their facility. "We feel truly fortunate in having such enthusiastic, loyal members and patrons," said Dornford. "Of the thousands of bookings for this year, the number seeking refunds could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The vast majority were only too happy to defer their booking to next year."

In the absence of regular clients from overseas who are pleased to pay a green-fee of €375, Irish customers are currently welcome at seriously discounted rates. No figures were forthcoming, but in a situation that will be reviewed at the end of the month, I understand this is less than half the normal rate with full time-sheets each day.

In many ways, Old Head have operated as a law unto themselves since their launch on June 1, 1997. Faced with what often appeared a perennial battle for survival, their only bonuses seemed to be the stubbornness of John O'Connor until his death in 2013 and the unflagging loyalty of their overseas devotees.

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Ironically, the greatest threat came from An Bord Pleanála, whose appeal to the Supreme Court against a High Court decision affirming that no public right of access existed on the promontory, was dismissed in its entirety. In their unanimous decision of May 2003, the five Supreme Court judges ruled that Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála had acted in a "manifestly unreasonable" manner in attempting to impose such conditions.

Rather than quietly count his blessings, the feisty Kerryman responded: "I am angry that a Government-appointed body could act in such a cavalier fashion with taxpayers' money. They deserved to have their knuckles rapped."

Since then, Old Head Links have grown in strength, not least through an awareness that a good product can always be made better. This has been reflected in the annual close-season improvements to the course under the direction of architect Ron Kirby, who worked under Jack Nicklaus on the design of Mount Juliet.

Having upgraded the long eighth last year, Kirby turned his attention to the par-five 10th (Dún Cearma). Here, he achieved heightened spectacle by moving the slightly raised green 40 yards back from the original, while realigning the stone wall of the Fairy Fort to equally splendid effect.

The main outlay, however, went on refurbishing the existing 15 clubhouse suites and adding five new ones which will be opened officially at the end of this month, increasing the accommodation to 20 suites in all. These include the new O'Connor Presidential, which occupies the east wing of the clubhouse and offers the optimum in luxury.

When the club closes for its winter break at the end of October, work is expected to begin on a major extension of the restaurant and bar.

Meanwhile, planning permission has been sought for the construction of four members' lodges on land acquired on the sweep down to the entrance to the promontory.

The design work on these developments has been entrusted to Dublin-based architects, Scott Tallon Walker, whose portfolio includes the Aviva Stadium and Apple's Irish headquarters. Another Irish company is doing the construction. There is also an emphasis on Irish craftsmanship and materials, including some highly attractive granite stonework.

Interestingly, golf-course development on this island achieved dramatic growth quite a while before the Celtic Tiger entered our lexicon. For instance, during a period of 25 years starting in 1978, no fewer than 160 new courses came on stream - 75 in Leinster, 36 in Munster, 39 in the nine counties of Ulster (as affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland) and 10 in Connacht.

Indeed, the growth was such that Michael Smurfit, whose company developed The K Club at an estimated cost of €120m, admitted that he would not have gone ahead with the Smurfit Course had he foreseen the dramatic downturn in the world economy in the crash of 2008.

With farmers finding it intolerable to see their land lie fallow in the face of EU quotas, most of the new courses were parkland stretches for which planning wasn't a problem. In fact, it was only in 1994, largely due to protests about the Old Head, that the law was changed.

From a tourist standpoint, however, links courses were generally viewed as holding far greater appeal, particularly for visitors from the US. Which makes the success of Old Head, especially among Americans, all the more remarkable. They know it's not a links in the true sense of the term; it's a headland course, or parkland beside the sea. Spectacle is the key.

The thrill of hitting golf shots only a matter of a few yards from 300-foot cliffs with a sheer drop to Atlantic breakers, has proved to be enormously attractive to golfers with unlimited choice. The only proviso is that it be presented in the best possible condition.

To their great credit, quality has been a byword with Old Head from the outset. Which, with continuing investment, is why they are better equipped than most to ride out the current storm.

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