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Ireland, Day Five: Old Head Golf Links, Simply Spectacular

By Ron Bellamy

Amazing vistas, perfect weather, the course to ourselves: A Best Day Ever

KINSALE, CO. CORK, Ireland – There are a few days in golf that transcend all others, that are magical, for whatever reason. Sometimes it can be how well you played, sure. But it can also be with whom you played, or where you played, or the time of day, or the way the light was, and the weather.

Ron Bellamy

On Sunday afternoon, I had one of those magical golf adventures, at Old Head Golf Links, at the very bottom tip of Ireland.

I’ve never played a course more beautiful, and this in the soft light of a perfect late afternoon.

At Old Head Golf Links.
At Old Head Golf Links.

Understand that the course itself is known to be stunning, beyond words. It is built on a promontory that juts two miles into the Atlantic Ocean, a lighthouse site for centuries, a site of historic (the Lusitania was sunk near here) and archeological significance.

There are nine holes, of the 18, hugging the cliffs on both sides of the promontory. It is a high-end resort course, with greens fees 230 Euros in high season, or $250 per person (though, for the record, Bandon Dunes costs as much as $310 per round at this time of year).

The par 4 fourth hole at Old Head Golf Links is called Razor's Edge.
The par 4 fourth hole at Old Head Golf Links is called Razor’s Edge.

It is a golf course on which virtually every hole has you seeing a photograph, or taking your breath way.

But you’d feel differently, perhaps, if you played it while it was raining sideways, the wind howling, the group in front of you taking five hours to play, the group behind you on your heels.

Sunday afternoon, we were the last foursome, teeing off at 4 p.m. There was no one in front of us. And in what has been a notoriously wet Irish summer, our run of good weather here escalated into the best day yet – sunny, warm, windless, shirt-sleeve weather.

On seemingly every hole, there was something to see – the ocean on one side, or the other; boats in the water; the ruins of an old lighthouse, or the presence of the current one; the Druid graveryard on No. 10. There’s more to see here than at Bandon Dunes, for example, and while those courses might rate better (and are more true links courses), if you make it to Ireland you have to see this one.

Looking back down the fifth fairway at Old Head Golf Links.
Looking back down the fifth fairway at Old Head Golf Links.

Tom Coyne, in his book “A Course Called Ireland” wrote this about Old Head, which was designed by a committee of sorts and opened in 1997:

“The miracle is that Old Head began when a few brothers from Kerry bought what was essentially an island at the end of Kinsale, spent years covering it with soil and fairway, and built a golf course on a piece of property you’d be afraid to traverse as a goat, let alone a golfer. … Looking at an aerial of Old Head, a giant rock draped with fairways and set against an endless blue Atlantic, it almost looked impossible – not to play, just to imagine. …

“I left the place once again convinced that Old Head of Kinsale was simply the most spectacular golf course in the world. Spectacular. Not the most classic, not the most historic, not the most challenging, not the best in Ireland, even … “

The par 3 No. 11 hole at Old Head Golf Links.
The par 3 No. 11 hole at Old Head Golf Links.

Thanks to the courtesy of Tourism Ireland, represented by Bernard McMullan, I played Old Head on Sunday with three Northwest journalists from the Seattle area – Blaine Newnham, the former sports editor and columnist of the Eugene Register-Guard and the longtime columnist for the Seattle Times and author of “America’s St. Andrews” about U.S. Open site Chambers Bay; Tom Cade, senior director of communications for the Pacific Northwest Golf Association and editor of Pacific Northwest Golfer Magazine, who plays to a 2 handicap, and Rob Perry, of Bellevue, Wash., a professional photographer of all things golf, who plays to a 3.6.

No. 12 at Old Head; the fairway is over the rise, and the green is tucked above the edge of the rocky cliff.
No. 12 at Old Head; the fairway is over the rise, and the green is tucked above the edge of the rocky cliff.

So special was the weather, and the late afternoon light, that Perry abandoned his clubs after nine holes to focus on taking photographs, the scenery that spectacular, the day that perfect.

The second hole is a dogleg par 4 out to the cliff overlooking the water. The third hole finishes over the ocean, and the fourth runs along it, and is called Razor’s Edge.

The par-3 13th hole at Old Head Golf Links.
The par-3 13th hole at Old Head Golf Links.

And so it went. No. 12 is an incredible par 5, especially from the blue or white tees (as a 19-handicapper, I played the next set forward, the yellows) – it runs on a narrow spit of land, so you see ocean on both sides, and the hole narrows as it gets to the green. No. 13, which follows, is a par 3 that hugs the cliff coming back; No. 17 is rated one of the top 500 holes of golf, a par 5 with a deceptively small landing area off the tee and a green set in a corner overlooking the rocks and ocean below.

On this perfect day, Cade shot a 10-over 82. Newnham had three pars on the back nine en route to another match play victory and is now up 4-1 for the Guinness in the daily battle of former Register-Guard sports columnists. I lost six golf balls and found none (updated totals, 21 lost, 12 found) but still managed a birdie (on the par 5 No. 6 hole) and a par and a 98.

It was a score that, given the perfect weather, should have been better. But the whole amazing experience is what I’ll remember most, and I felt incredibly, incredibly lucky to have shared it.

Ron Bellamy is the former sports editor and columnist of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore.