Kinsale, County Cork & Old Head Golf Links
by Dick Sayer
This past summer, I had an opportunity to visit Ireland for nine days, starting in Shannon and working our way along the entire southern coast, playing golf every day at a different venue. After an eleventh and final round at Portmarnock, we flew home from Dublin with our memories and luckily our bodies still reasonably intact. This article is about our stay at Kinsale in County Cork, and our round of golf at the Old Head Golf Links.Ireland is a wonderful country to visit, because it’s so very different from the life style we experience here in the United States. Everything moves at a more measured pace, and the Irish people go out of their way to be friendly to visitors from around the world. As you drive through the countryside of southern Ireland, you think you’ve stepped back in time, because there are no six lane inter-state highways and no strip malls. Just narrow winding country roads, quaint little villages and emerald green hills and valleys.
Kinsale is a charming little fishing port on the southern coast of Ireland, just below the city of Cork, and with its narrow streets and buildings that date back hundreds of years, it’s a walker’s paradise. There’s no shortage of pubs, restaurants and bed & breakfast establishments to choose from, and Kinsale is often referred to as ‘the culinary capital of Ireland’.
The place we chose for dinner was called the ‘Crackpot,’ which was appropriate for our group, and the food in this little owner-operated restaurant was simply outstanding. After dinner, we visited a couple of nearby pubs that featured live Irish folk music, and when our entourage entered one of the more popular establishments we raised the average age of the assembled multitude by at least 10 years. So after nursing one pint each and listening to a lot of local musicians, we headed back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.
The following day dawned sunny with unusually light winds, and after a fine breakfast at the Bank House Inn, which is a B&B right in the middle of town, we climbed aboard our bus for the short drive out to the Old Head peninsula and our scheduled 10:00 tee time on the 6,760-yard par 72 Old Head Golf Links.
As we crossed the narrow land bridge that linked the mainland with the Old Head peninsula, we saw the ruins of ancient forts and stone watchtowers perched some 200 feet above the sea. This place was something very special, and at the far end of the point stands a 150 year old lighthouse, which serves as a dominant reference point from virtually every location on the golf course. It’s said that the lighthouse keeper at Old Head was the last person to see the liner Titanic, as it sailed west toward its historic collision with an iceberg on its maiden Atlantic crossing.
There is no hiding from the salty winds that sweep across this exposed point of land, and we were told that rainsqualls blow in from the sea with great regularity, however on this August day, the winds were calm and the sky was clear to the horizon. The Old Head Golf Links was completed in 1998, and with a maturity that belies its young age and with its modern clubhouse facilities, it has quickly become a ‘must play’ course for golfers visiting this part of Ireland.
The starting hole is a 420-yard gentle dogleg right, which runs uphill from the clubhouse to the ruins of an old stone fort that once controlled the high ground on the peninsula. A well hit tee shot to the left of the bunkers that control the corner of the dog leg leaves you with a second shot of about 180 yards to a slightly elevated green. The first green is well bunkered, however, four is a very makeable number depending on the wind conditions.
Things change dramatically when you reach the second hole. From a tee box perched at the top of a cliff, you look out over a severely sloped fairway that makes a hard left turn to a small green overhanging the sea. The entire left side of this magnificent 390-yard par 4 is guarded by a 200-foot drop to the waves below, and the prevailing winds usually blow from right to left. The tee shot has to be aimed at the upper right edge of the fairway to avoid the danger on the left, and if you accomplish that, you’re looking at a 160 yard shot to the putting surface. There’s no room for error to the left or beyond the green, and this hole could be classified as an ‘easy four – difficult eight’.
From there on, the front nine doubles back on itself several times with some long par 4’s that somehow always seem to be uphill, and a couple of good par 5’s that are each about 500 yards in length. The two par 3’s on the front side are manageable, although the third hole is a windswept 163-yard adventure with the ocean cliffs extending along the entire left side and around behind the green as well. It’s a mini version of the par 4 second hole.
We finished the front nine with some pretty good numbers, due in large part to the absence of the usual windy conditions, however, as we got to the back side, the wind picked up considerably and the playing conditions were more akin to those we’d heard about.
The 11th hole, aptly named ‘Galley Head,’ is a narrow 182-yard par 3 with the ocean to the right and mounds of fescue to the left. There’s little margin for error, and playing into a 40 mph wind, you either hit a 3 wood and hope the wind doesn’t get it, or you can try to run a 3 iron along the ground under the swirling air currents. Landing in either of the two shallow bunkers just short of and to the right of the green isn’t bad, because they keep your ball from ending up in the ocean 150 feet below, and they’re not the steep sod faced bunkers you find on so many of the links courses.
Next come two holes that traverse the land bridge between the mainland and the peninsula. Number 12 is 526-yard par 5 with the ocean to the left, and you can’t believe the extreme right line your caddie gives you for your tee shot until you get up on top of the bluff and see how the hole lays out. From there you have another 300 yards downhill to a tiny green that’s set in a bowl with cliffs and the ocean on one side and mounds of fescue everywhere else. This is a hole where it pays to be patient and play three shots to the green, because the alternatives can be disastrous.
The 13th hole is a 228-yard par 3 that takes you back out to the peninsula, and the wind was at your back on number 12, you’re hitting dead into it at 13. With the wind in your face, a well hit driver and a favorable bounce might get you in a position to make three, and 4 is considered a moral victory on this hole. From there, you move on to number 14, which traverses the entire width of the Old Head peninsula, and while this is their number 1 handicap hole, that rating seems to be based more on the length of the hole than on its features.
The 15th, 16th and 17th holes have the ocean to their right, and they consist of a short downhill par 4, where you can drive the green with four iron if the wind is behind you; a tricky 186 yard par 3 with the green in another bowl; and a 600 yard par 5 that winds its way from an elevated tee to a well protected green that’s at least 100 feet below the tee. These are three of the most scenic golf holes you’ll ever see, and they remind you of several holes on the front nine at Pebble Beach.
You finally turn for home with a 460-yard par 4 that starts at the base of the lighthouse and bends around to the left to the clubhouse high on the hill. To reach the 18th tee, you have to climb up a total of 97 steps, which you then have to walk down after you’ve hit your drive, and if your legs aren’t aching by the time you finish the 17th hole, they will be when you get to the tee box on 18. A good tee shot leaves you with about 220 yards uphill to a well bunkered green that’s tucked into the side of the hill on which the clubhouse is situated. The back nine at Old Head is definitely more difficult than the front side, regardless of the wind conditions and, it’s also more scenic. I suggest that you tuck your camera in your golf bag for the numerous photo opportunities that you’ll find on the final nine holes of this golf course.
For those of us who are accustomed to playing the parkland type courses here at home, the two factors that seem to have the biggest impact on our ability to play the links courses in Ireland and Scotland are (1) the constant and continually shifting winds that buffet these exposed seaside locations; and (2) the lack of a visual background which makes judging distances extremely difficult. The best way to mitigate these conditions is to have a good caddy and to pay attention to what your caddy says, even though you may not believe him from time to time. A word to the wise – believe him !
Kinsale is a marvelous little vacation town on the southern coast of Ireland, and Old Head, which is only 15 minutes away, is a links course that should be on every golfer’s Ireland itinerary.