Popular businessman John O’Connor etched his own immortality on the town of Kinsale as the creator of the Old Head Golf Course.
A native of Kerry who spent many years involved in business around the world, he dedicated the final twenty years of his life to making the Old Head the kind of place where people like President Bill Clinton, superstar Tiger Woods and golfers from all over the world would combine to make it one of the sporting world’s ‘must do’ lists.
In a historic setting where medieval castle ruins and a 17th century lighthouse dominate the skyline, O’Connor transformed this ancient sandstone outcrop into what one enthusiastic reviewer termed “a course where golfing angels will congregate and legends will be born.”
When he bought the land in 1989, the notion of moulding this inhospitable landscape into a miracle union of science and nature for the noble pursuit of golf was the last thing on his mind.
“Creating a world class golf course simply wasn’t on my radar,” he recalled of that fateful first sighting. “I came over to see i t one beautiful day in 1989 and was immediately taken by the stunning location of the place — I felt right away that it might have been an interesting place for somebody to live.”
At the urging of many people, including the late golf designers Eddie Hackett and Joe Carr, O’Connor found himself thrust into the unaccustomed role of golf visionary.
“When we talked about costs, I remember that the final figure came in somewhere just shy of a million pounds,” he said.
“I remember thinking then that it sounded a very reasonable cost.”
In a ten- year struggle against the elements, Mother Nature, and a prolonged planning wrangle, the bottom- line reality eventually spiralled well above €20 million.
“We ended up importing everything. The only thing we were long on here was rock — plenty of rock,” he recalled.
“I’d like to think we’ve helped promote Ireland as a location for a strand of tourism that’s never really come here before — extremely wealthy people whose primary interest is golf but who get to see this country as a result of that. Some come in Lear jets, some in private 707s, but the end result is the Old Head acting as a gateway to the rest of Ireland for people who often go on to Ballybunion, Waterville, Mount Juliet and Lahinch as part of their stay. This kind of trade had not come to Ireland before the Old Head came into being.”
Formally opened in 1997, the “impossible dream” of moulding the Old Head into one of the top courses in the world became a reality as it found itself routinely mentioned in the same hushed breath as sacred golfing places like St Andrew’s and Pebble Beach.
“They say it takes a world class course fifty years to mature, but I don’t have that kind of time,” said O’Connor, who died in 2013. “A course like this requires a constant pursuit of excellence, therefore you can never really be pleased to be anywhere near the end of the project.
This is not like an office building or a hotel where you reach a finite point and are finished with it. The deeper one goes into the Old Head the more one tends to notice every blade of grass that’s out of place. Fortunately, I suppose, the people who come to play here don’t see it like that, they just see a snapshot of the place on the day they play.”
John O’Connor, who died in 2013, at the Old Head Golf Course in Kinsale, Co Cork, in 2008. Picture: Denis Scannell