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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - DERMOT GILLEECE

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.

The splen­did de­vel­op­ment of the long sixth at Old Head Links, where a new green has been lo­cated to the side of an old bea­con light­house

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