Old Head – Hole by Hole in Golfing Heaven
What happens when you combine one of the most beautiful pieces of property in all Ireland steeped in over 3,000 years of history with eighteen holes of golf? You get what, for the avid golfer, is nothing short of heaven on earth. There are not enough superlatives to describe the Old Head Golf Links located on the Old Head of Kinsale peninsula on the south coast of Ireland only miles away from where the Lusitania was sunk in 1915. I believe it is one of the top ten courses in the world and certainly the equal of similar courses like Pebble Beach, Cabot Cliffs and Kingsbarns that are all known for their outstanding scenery. In this post I’ll tell you, hole by hole, why.
History of Old Head
The ‘Old’ in Old Head is well earned. There is evidence of the first settlers in Ireland, the Celts, on Old Head up to 6,000 years ago. The very name Ireland or Eire comes from the clan Eirinn who occupied this place in 1,000 B.C. and built the first of many lighthouses and forts. The headland that juts out into the Atlantic creates not only a natural landmark for mariners, but also a treacherous set of cliffs and shoals that has claimed many a life over recorded history. Old Head was well known in ancient times and appears on Ptolemy’s map of the world in 100 A.D. After thousands of years of Celtic domination, the Vikings arrived in the 800’s and used it as a base for pillaging the country for the next one hundred and fifty years.
Most people are aware of William the Conqueror’s Norman conquest of England in 1066, but few know that the Normans also conquered southern Ireland a century later. The de Courcey family built their castle on Old Head at the narrow isthmus that connects the headland to the mainland and today the ruins make for a pretty stunning entrance to the golf course. That narrow lane is the only way on and off of Old Head.
The logo on the club’s flag is the Stone of Accord which is on the property and was used to seal business deals and marriages from pre-Christians up to the 1600’s. The couples would join hands through the hole in the stone and make their vows.
The most striking man made building on Old Head is the lighthouse which can be seen from at least half the holes on the course. It is the last of a series of lighthouses and navigational fires that date back to the Eirinn’s in 1000 B.C. This one was built in 1853 to replace one built in 1814 which in turn replaced one built in 1667. You can still see the ruins of these older lighthouses near holes No. 6 & 7.
By the 18th century Old Head was basically abandoned and used for sheep and cattle raising, only making the news when a major shipping disaster like the wreck of the SS Chicago in 1892 occurred or the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. In 1989 Old Head was acquired by brothers John and Patrick O’Connor who had made their fortunes in the North American real estate market and purchased the property with the sole intent of building one of the greatest golf courses in the world.
Construction of the course took eight years and involved a design team of six, which you might think would lead to disagreements, but instead their collaboration resulted in one of the most interesting courses in the world.
I first visited Old Head in 2010 as a tourist and not a golfer. I had heard of Old Head and wanted to see it first hand for consideration on a future Irish golf trip. The day Alison and I visited the wind was blowing at least 50 m.p.h. and the flags were literally bent so far over that the flags were touching the ground. We saw golfers aiming their tee shots directly out over the cliffs hoping the wind would blow their balls back onto the fairways. Few succeeded. It did not look like fun, but I got an inkling of how wonderful it would be to play if the weather was clement.
Fortunately on the day we did play Old Head in September, 2019 the weather was perfect for golf. It was mostly sunny and the wind was probably as gentle as it ever gets here.
The clubhouse at Old Head is pretty well in the middle of the headland and you approach it on a lane that is lined with hydrangea and rugosa roses, something I recalled from the first visit. John O’Connor loved flowers and that is apparent throughout the course where you also might be surprised to find palm trees. Or at least trees that look like palms. They are cabbage palms originally from New Zealand that have thrived in southern Ireland since their introduction in the 1800’s. However, they are not true palms or cabbages, but who cares? They look like palms and that’s good enough for me.
After getting parked you will want to get your picture taken at the welcoming stone – fáilte is welcome in Gaelic.
The clubhouse is unlike any I have ever seen before and in fact you don’t even know its there from the backside as it just looks like a grassy hill until you get to the entrance. It’s been built right into the hillside and only when you cross to the side facing the lighthouse do you get a realization of this.
This is the view of the clubhouse from 18 green which is flanked by two rams staring at each other over the heads of the golfers.
As you would expect, the practice facilities at Old Head are on a par with everything else at this facility. That’s the pro golfer in our group, François Duguay, warming up.
Near the putting green there is a stone cairn with pictures of the various birds you might encounter on the course. This was the first of many such cairns that explain historical and natural features around the course and make for a more interesting round.
OK, enough with the warm up, let’s play some golf.
Each group engaged two caddies who each carried two bags around while we walked – Old Head does not permit carts or buggies as they are called in Ireland. That’s our caddie Eion (pronounced Owen) McAuliffe who did a masterful job and was in good cheer the whole way. I couldn’t carry one bag around let alone two.
The course can play as long as 7,137 yards from the tips, but we elected to play the whites at 6,532, but cheating on a couple of the longer par 4’s by hitting from the yellow or senior tees. We let Eion pick the holes to do this on and probably played about 6,250 yards in total which was more than enough.
The starter’s hut at Old Head is in the shape of one of the old beehive buildings called clocháns are found throughout southwest Ireland and are associated with the monastic traditions of the area. Inside we loaded up on tees, ball repair tools and markers as well as scorecards.
Old Head No. 1 – Slí Na Firinne
I’ve borrowed the overhead shots from the Old Head website in order to get a better view of each hole where they are available.
Then I’ve added my photos from the tee to give an idea of what the golfer is facing on the ground. In this case a 390 yard par 4 which is probably the most normal looking hole on the course. There’s no ocean views and not much trouble so you could get lulled into a false sense of security. The name Slí Na Firinne means the ‘path of truth’ and is used to describe someone who has died and set out on a new journey. If it was as windy as the first day I was here that path would be straight to hell, but on this glorious morning it’s headed the other way.
This is the approach to No. 1 green and the first look at one of those Irish palm trees. As you can see the greens are in great shape and the day we played not too fast to be deemed ‘ridiculous’. This might be the most forgiving hole on the course.
No. 2 – The Gun Hole
This hole gets its name from cannons that can be seen at low tide from the wreck of the HMS Stillorgan in 1778. How do I know that? Because this cairn told me.
There’s a long walk between No. 1 green and No. 2 tee that takes you past the ruins of the older lighthouses and down a narrow grass pathway with a sheer drop off of about a hundred feet to the water below. If you are afraid of heights this will not be a pleasant walk, otherwise it’s quite beautiful.
This is a 360 yard par 4 with a huge dogleg left. If you are a lefty that slices like me then the ball flight will follow the line of the hole. If you are a righty like Don in our group this is a hole you need to start the ball out over the ocean and have it slice back. Unfortunately in Don’s case the ball didn’t make it and went screaming to its death on the rocks below.
This is the first of many holes where the lighthouse is in view. In this case it’s a perfect target for Peter’s drive.
The Gun Hole is the first of many, many memorable holes at Old Head.
Old Head No. 3 – Bream Rock
No aerial available on this first of a great group of par threes. As you can see there is no room for error on the left side which usually means everybody goes too far right. You can also see that the sea is quite calm. There were a number of fishing boats plying the waters off Old Head this day.
No. 4 – Razor’s Edge
This is quite simply one of the nicest golf holes you will ever play. This is a long par 4 at 388 from the senior’s tee and a lot harder than No. 2 which has a similar look.
This is a hole where you will almost certainly want to get a group photo.
The target is well to the right of the bunker in the middle of the fairway and the second shot is damn near impossible. I can’t imagine playing this hole in a high wind. However, the overall look of the hole makes you less concerned about your score and happy just to be here.
Old Head No. 5 – Hake Head
No. 5 is another long par 4 at 385 and all uphill. On the tee box you come across the wall that lines both sides of the narrow road that leads to the lighthouse. Why they felt it was necessary to enclose this road seems like a lot of work for very little reward. However, it is a very interesting feature that creates out of bounds all down the left side. Just when you get a hole with no water on the left they throw this hazard at you.
Looking in the other direction you can see how well the clubhouse fits into the overall landscape.
This is the view of No. 5 from the green looking back.
No. 6 – All Points
This is the first par 5 at Old Head and it’s all uphill to the remnants of the old lighthouses that we first saw at No. 2.
This is an aerial shot of the green which shows the lighthouse just behind it. You can also see the beautiful view you get from this green which is close to the highest point on Old Head.
Old Head No. 7 – Legal Eagle
This aerial gives you an idea of just how bowled the fairway is on the second par three on the front nine.
This is the view from the tee box. This time all the trouble is to the right for a change.
No. 8 – God’s Acre
The second par five on the front is intimidating because there are so many sand traps. However, unlike most Irish links courses these traps are no overly punitive and of the eight courses we played on this trip Old Head’s bunkers where the easiest to get out of. Considering all the other trouble there is on this course that’s quite fair of the designers.
I found this hole a real pleasure to play.
Old Head No. 9 – The Dolmen
No. 9 is the second hardest hole on the course according to the stroke index and at 410 yards from the senior’s tees it’s no wonder. However, it’s another lighthouse view hole and you can’t get enough of those. By now you can see that it had begun to cloud over and was not as blue as when we started. BTW a dolmen is a megalith tomb with two vertical columns with a caprock on top. You can just see it in this photo above the two traps on the left. Whether it’s real or a reconstruction, I can’t say. If you go back to the photo of Eion, he is walking right past it.
Like many courses in Ireland there is no return to the clubhouse at the turn.
No. 10 – Dun Cearmna
This third par five in five holes with a very long par four in between is where Old Head starts to grind you down. This one’s a dogleg right after firing down this chute.
Dun Cearmna is the name of the small fort that once stood near the 10th green, but Eion referred to it as “The Mess” as this photo aptly demonstrates. From in front of the wall it looks quite benign, but lurking behind it is this briar patch from which you would not recover. It also demonstrates why caddies are worth every cent you pay them. Without Eion I almost certainly would be in a mess.
On the walk between No. 10 green and No. 11 tee you come across this somber cairn marking the sinking of the Lusitania. The cairn ascribes it as the event that triggered the United States to join in WWI and that is a widespread belief. However, the U.S. did not enter WWI for almost a full two years later so it could hardly have been a fast acting catalyst.
Old Head No. 11 – Galley Head
Starting with the dogleg at No. 10 the course is now playing down the north side of Old Head and once again there’s water on the right although you can’t really tell from this photo. This par three played way longer than its yardage of 170.
No. 12 – Courcean Stage
This is the signature hole at Old Head and I have to say there is nothing like it I have ever seen. It looks more like one of those fantasy golf holes you find on golf parody calendars. You can see that it occupies almost the entirety of the narrow isthmus leading onto the headland. It starts off narrow and just gets worse as you approach the green. Oh, and it’s another bloody par five to boot – all 537 yards of it.
This is the view from the tee box and it’s not a joke – this is really what you see. You have to pound a blind drive somewhere along the line of the path on the right side of the picture and pray. If you do make it – only one of us did, then two more shots with the ocean in play are required.
As we neared the green Eion pointed out what looked like a paradox. See if you can notice it from this photo.
The flags on top are blowing from left to right while the flag on the green is blowing in the opposite direction. How about picking the right club in that situation?
You can only shake your head after playing No. 12 and laugh. It’s quite an experience.
Old Head No. 13 – The Sovereigns
Things don’t get any easier at No. 13 which at 168 from the back tees should be a snap. That’s what Phil Mickelson thought until on a windy day his caddie told him to use a driver. He replied that he would never use a driver on a par three. Thirteen shots later he was in the hole.
This is the view from only 121 yards and it’s still a very intimidating hole, but if you chose the right club it can be an easy birdie.
No. 14 – Raven’s Run
No. 14 is another long par four with the addition of having a completely blind tee shot. If not for Eion we would not have a clue where to aim. On top of that it’s the number one stroke hole although how it is not No. 12 is beyond me. Oh well, just take a double and get on with it.
Old Head No. 15 – Haulie’s Leap
The four finishing holes at Old Head are about as strong as you can get. They are ultra scenic, fun to play and take away any thoughts of tiredness that usually creep in at the end of walking 18 holes.
As pretty as this hole looks from the aerial shot it is just as nice from the tee box and the good news is that it’s only 284 yards.
If you’re feeling beat up by 12 and 14 this hole will restore your ego. By far the easiest hole on the course and at the perfect placing on the route.
No. 16 – Coosgorm
How’s this for a par three? Last one on the course and for righties probably the toughest.
This is what it looks like from the white tee box. It’s pretty well hit the green or forget it. Once again the lighthouse plays a big part in the picture.
This is the view looking back – a beautiful swath of green amidst the browns, greys and blues.
Old Head No. 17 – Lighthouse
This is the last par five and by far my favourite one of the group. This is the tee shot which goes over a crest and rolls forever.
This is the second shot as demonstrated by Peter. Not much room on the right and at this spot you can really hear the roar of the waves below.
Finally you arrive at the green and have this view.
This is the hole looking back from the way up to 18 tee box. I loved No. 17 and could play it 18 times in a round and still want more. The blue sky is back and all’s well on Old Head.
No. 18 – The Sanctuary
Chances are if you’ve played the course in a high wind you are ready for a sanctuary, but playing it on a day like today I never wanted this round to end. Once again the wall is in play and with tall rough all down the left, this is not an easy finishing hole.
But alas, our round at Old Head did come to an end, but there was solace waiting for us at the Lusitania Bar.
With ales in hand we sat outside on the terrace and enjoyed one last great view of Old Head.
We paid €250 to play Old Head, some €100 less than the posted green fees, because we were on a golf package. However, even at full price I would have felt I got more than my money’s worth at this top 100 in the world course.