Staying the Course

Old Head Golf links in Ireland's County Cork.

In the late summer of 1997 a well-traveled friend called me from Cork, Ireland, to say he'd just had the golfing experience of his life. The object of his adoration was the just-opened Old Head Golf Links in tiny Kinsale, 18 miles south of Cork, and the conversation went something like this:

"I've never seen anything like this course," he said, and then rhapsodized about 300-foot cliffs, crashing surf, wild wind. A golf course built on ancient Celtic ruins. "A golf course even God would play on Sunday morning."

I wondered aloud if he'd had a bit too much Guinness.

"No," he persisted. "It's like Pebble Beach—but with an attitude. The back nine at Ballybunion—only on steroids."

I asked how it compared to Portmarnock and Royal County Down golf clubs, my two favorite courses in Ireland.

"Blows 'em away. They look like chip'n'putts compared to Old Head."

"Cruden Bay?" (One of my favorite Scottish linkslands.)

"A driving range."

He told me he was going back the next day for a second round, and advised me to get there before the stampede of American golfers.

I got to Old Head two months later, and by then the word was out: The British golfing press was praising Old Head as the "finest new course on Earth." I couldn't judge whether that was true or not because I arrived in a torrential wind- and rainstorm. I inched the car along an isthmus until I came to a narrow stone gate—the remains of an old castle entrance—where a bloke in a rain slicker confirmed there was indeed a golf course somewhere ahead in the gloaming. "Be careful as you go," he warned us, "because the drop," as he put it with a grim laugh, "is a fairly permanent one." We eventually found the clubhouse—a ruggedly handsome edifice that's built cleverly into the craggy landscape—and met one of the owners, Irish developer John O'Connor.

O'Connor apologized for the fact that the course was closed but invited us to have a restorative pint and a brief chat, from which I learned that the 220-acre Old Head Links was a 10-year labor of love by him and his brother Patrick, the man at the gate. He intended it to be like no other golf course in Ireland and to that end sought design input from a number of sources, including American course designers Ron Kirby and Tom Doak; Waterville Golf Links pro Liam Higgins; Australian architect Paddy Merrigan; the late Irish golf-course designer Eddie Hackett; and the legendary Irish amateur and three-time British amateur champ, Joe Carr.

Normally, that many hands in a stew is a recipe for confusion, and O'Connor admitted that the design team had gone through more than 40 different routing schemes before construction commenced. "Even then," he added, "there have been changes, additions, and alterations. We're something of a work in progress. But those who have played the course—particularly Americans—seem most pleased." He invited me to come back when the weather was a little more hospitable.

That took almost 10 months. Last September my two best golf buddies, Pat McDaid and Jon Sager, and I decided to hop over to southern Ireland for the Labor Day weekend. We intended to play six courses in four days, beginning at Lahinch Old and ending at Old Head—a three-man medal competition we christened the Blarney Cup.

There was sunshine at Lahinch Golf Club, and the eccentric old links with its delightful crisscrossing fairways never looked better. I took an unexpected two-stroke lead over my pals, and increased it by two in a wild Atlantic windstorm the next afternoon at Ballybunion Golf Club, where Bill Clinton had amused the starter with his slice just the day before. Then it was on to Tralee Golf Club—Arnold Palmer's coastal gem—where I tagged two more onto my lead. A walk around stunning Waterville Golf Links kept the status quo, then the sun bobbed out at the Killeen Course, at the wonderful Killarney Golf and Fishing Club, and I added two more strokes to my lead, all but running away with the Blarney Cup.

Finally, it was time for the finale.

"Compared to your last visit, you've got a pretty fair morning for it, all things considered," noted John O'Connor, who agreed to make the fourth man in our group.

Nonetheless, he cautioned that the winds here had been known to reach gale-force strength in a matter of minutes and the fog, which enshrouds the Head at least once or twice a week, had recently stranded a foursome, who had to resort to a cell phone to call the clubhouse and have a caddy sent out to guide them back. My golf buddies looked deeply intrigued.

Old Head calls itself a "links" but, technically speaking, it's really a headlands golf course in the manner of Pebble Beach. The strict meaning of a "linksland" is "land which joins the mainland to the sea," and Old Head is the antithesis of that. It perches 300 feet above the ocean on a tabletop of rock. Half the course lies on the cliffs, the other half weaves inland across what was once farmland, but every fairway has commanding views of the ocean. What you may fail to notice at first, to your peril, is that there are far more designated out-of-bounds markers than on a conventional linksland but also more areas, marked with a red stake, that permit legal drops in lieu of a penalty shot from the tee. As we walked toward the first tee, I was surprised to learn from O'Connor that the course receives less than 20 percent of the substantial rain that falls in nearby Kinsale, a quirk of weather caused by the winds.

The first hole, Slí na Fírinne, is the most modest, scenically speaking, a "quiet" 420-yard dogleg right that plays inland and slightly uphill to a narrow, elevated green. With the wind at our backs I considered using a three-wood to make sure I hit the fairway, but foolishly opted for a driver instead—pushing my teeshot over the out-of-bounds posts on the left.

"Oh, dat's too bad. I tink you'll have to hit anudder," my teenage caddie, Daniel, a Kinsale youth with a buzzcut and a single earring, said, shaking his head ruefully. (Daniel, as it turned out, was a rookie looper in Old Head's ambitious caddie-training program; in fact, this was only his second day on a bag.) Since we were in Ireland, I hoped we might be playing first-tee mulligans, but my mates just smiled and shook their heads when I petitioned. I lost the hole to both of them, with a triple bogey, cutting my Blarney Cup lead to four strokes.

Not the way to begin the Irish Pebble Beach.

The second hole is a gorgeous par-four that plays from a towering tee down a slope, then doglegs left, rising to another elevated, narrow, well-contoured putting surface. From certain vantage points the green appears to hang out over the ocean. My caddie gave me 220 yards to cut the dogleg and I foolishly took the bait, attempting to drive the red lateral hazard stakes marking the gouge in the cliffs. My long draw flew down the steep grassy bank to a spot only a mountain goat could play. Once again young Daniel shook his head, once again my golf mates smiled, and reached for their fairway artillery to play safe.

Old Head's third hole is another cliffhanger, a wee, par-three gem with a narrow, two-tier green. Only an idiot would have gone for the upper-left pin placement, which perhaps explains why I did exactly that—pulling yet another shot left. Daniel closed his eyes out of respect for the dying.

By the time I walked off Old Head's third I had blown my entire USGA handicap and was seven over par. Worst of all, my Blarney Cup competitors were within two strokes of the lead and having a regular busman's holiday. Sensing a dramatic reversal of fortune, they posed ridiculously on the green, while John O'Connor thoughtfully pointed to the spot, roughly 10 miles to the southeast, where a German U-boat sank the Lusitania in 1915. I knew the feeling.

Finally, at the fourth hole, aptly called The Razor's Edge, I wised up and played safe, a three-wood to the right side of the fairway, then coaxed a low-running seven-iron onto the putting surface, and finally recorded a par. The tea and sympathy were on hold. I had a little bit of my dignity back and still enjoyed a two-stroke lead on McDaid and Sager.

The fifth, turning back inland, swooped modestly downhill and back up to a green set in grassy hummocks. The rule of thumb that a putt always breaks toward the sea didn't apply here, perhaps because the sea was all around us, but I nevertheless coaxed a solid second putt into the jug for a par and we moved on to the handsome sixth. This classic par-five dipped down and turned right toward an ample green by an ancient stone signal tower. All four of us parred the hole, then loitered awhile on the little summit, the sharp wind in our faces, as John indicated ancient stone steps cut down through the rock, the approach to Old Head used by Celt warriors and fishermen.

For my money the seventh, a shortish downhill par-three, is the course's only weak hole. Perched on the edge of the cliff, it provided extraordinary views of the distant northern headlands—and reminded me of Pebble Beach's tiny, ocean-girdled seventh. However, the putting surface was too flat for the angle of light, giving the impression that the hole had been hastily added on after the others were built. As we played it, John O'Connor admitted as much. (Though the course looks as if it were shaped more by the winds than a bulldozer, it turns out that 30,000 square meters of soil were shoved around to create it.) I also thought that a little more green contouring and shoulder mounding on the rear and cliff sides of the green, perhaps even a punchbowl effect, might have rendered the hole not only more fun but visually more enticing. On the other hand, our host and my playing partners fancied the hole. But then none of them struck a teeshot high into the wind, as I did. It was promptly blown over the cliff.

The par-five eighth roved inland over a small rise and required you to aim for an ancient standing stone—a common feature of the landscape as well as the club logo at Old Head—and the 450-yard ninth felt two kilometers long in that particular wind. Calculating a chip shot into a three-or four-club wind is not easy, and while my mates were shy of the ninth putting surface on their third shots, my strong pitch flew the green and landed in a patch of thick tussocky sea grass. I somehow thumped out and onto the green and made my only good putt of the day, a long uphiller, on the surprisingly fast surface for bogey. Under the circumstances it felt like a birdie—and walking off the green it was tempting to feel I'd pulled one over on the ancient spirits of Old Head.

Two thousand years ago, give or take a teetime, this dramatic landmass was home to a race of early Celtic settlers called the Eireanns. They were fisherman and subsistence farmers, and it probably never crossed their pre-Christian minds that one day a delightfully deceptive par-five—the 10th—would cross their ancestral burying grounds. That's fitting, because the game of many modern golfers will die here in years to come.

This fairway rolls downhill toward the cliffs, and creates the unnerving illusion that you are about to drive the ball into the brine if you don't lay up. We took John O'Connor at his word and let out the shaft of our drivers. McDaid and Sager hooked into thick rough, and my long teeshot veered right and landed precariously on the grassy crown of a nest of pot bunkers. From there it was only 180 yards to the putting surface, but I had to carry the burial grounds. Daniel the Doubter advised me to lay up, handing me a five-iron. He didn't looked too pleased when I handed it back and asked for my five-wood. My well-struck ball cleared the cemetery, bounced once, and rolled up sweetly onto the green 20 feet below the hole.

O'Connor congratulated me. "You'd be surprised how this hole bedevils players. It also bedeviled us a bit when we built it." He explained that preservationists initially cried foul when they heard a golf hole was going to be routed over the site, forcing the government to dispatch a watchdog archeologist to make certain nothing important was disturbed. "She and our superintendent hit it off so well," O'Connor added, wryly, "they started dating soon afterwards."

I missed my golden opportunity at eagle but made birdie, and we pushed on to the par-three 11th, a difficult hole made more so by the rising wind, which was suddenly coming off the tee. It blew our shots far to the left of the putting surface. Suddenly the clouds were scuttling overhead and the sky seemed a cold dark curtain dropping. Chipping into the teeth of the gale with sand wedges, both my golf pals saw their balls drop woefully shy of the hole, leaving them impossibly long putts. I opted to use a putter from 15 paces off the fairway and gave my ball a wild rap down one slope and up the shoulder of the green. Somehow it followed the green's contour and rolled to within a couple feet of the pin. Then I was fortunate enough to strike the ball much harder than I'd intended to as the wind barely allowed it to reach the edge of the cup, then actually held it there an instant before letting it drop in for par and a win.

Upon John's suggestion, we traipsed to the rear tees at 12, a breath-catching par-five skirting a stretch of cliff that houses a bird sanctuary. We paused to admire one of the world's rarest geographic sights—caves which the churning ocean had cut clear through the peninsula's ancient bedrock. According to our host, the Royal Geographic Society had designated it as one of the "oldest formations in the world."

We used the stone dolmen standing on the hill across a narrow chasm to direct our teeshots. I hit an accurate drive and got a bonus—my ball bounced sharply left and rolled downhill toward the small, elongated green perched close to the cliff's edge. (The hole's routing recalled the signature ninth at Turnberry's Ailsa Course.) Because of the elevation and the wind, now at our backs, it was possible to reach the hole from here in two with a long iron. But the kicker was the green—a small, hourglass-shape putting surface with a tight entrance and only slight mounding to prevent a pulled shot from vanishing over the rocks into the rookery. I gambled and hit a four-iron onto the green, causing young Daniel's Irish eyes to smile for the first time that day. I collected my second birdie, and once again enjoyed a four-shot bulge in the Blarney Cup.

The march home from there was beautiful to see but painful to experience—six tough finishing holes—including a final four hard by the ocean. We turned back into the teeth of a very strong wind at 13, a 200-yard, par-three nobody could reach in regulation, even with drivers. I came up woefully short, chili-dipped miserably, then missed a lengthy putt for bogey. My mates both parred, halving my lead.

Fourteen played only slightly easier than it would have in fair weather but Haulie's Leap, the short, par-four 15th, turned out to be one of the sweetest "small" par-fours I've ever encountered. From a slightly elevated tee you fire your ball to a fairway that is more generous than it looks. The trick here is to reign in your adrenaline and force yourself to hit a shorter, controlled shot, leaving yourself a safe approach to the putting surface. Too bad I faded an otherwise easy three-wood over the lateral water hazard stakes right, resulting in a double bogey and reducing my lead to one.

Now the game was on, as Old Head threw her most intimidating holes at us. Sixteen is a spectacularly difficult 186-yard par-three, with a steeply sloped green set in a hillside, no bailout room right, and dense native grasses left. As we walked toward our teeballs, John O'Connor explained that more than a million ornamental grasses had been planted on the course, which someday soon, he averred, would give the raw-looking fairways a considerably softer look—and nightmares to Americans, who aren't used to recovering their shots from deep links rough. As it stands, the fairway grass at Old Head is a wiry, tough, not particularly yielding coastal species that causes balls to skip and bound, as mine did into a thick mound of grass. It took me three to get down from there for bogey.

Old Head's 17th hole is one of the great par-fives of the world, an eye-opening 650 yards long from the tips. (I couldn't help wishing that the course finished here.) You must drive your ball up over a long hill, then keep your second shot away from a 15-foot-high grassy mound. The smart play is to lay up shy of the obstruction and deal with a partial view of the green. The gutsy option is to try and hit a fairway wood beyond the hillock to the left, and hope to have a clear view from the rough down to the postage-stamp green.

I chose the latter strategy, and it nearly worked. Using a driver, I struck a low running ball that flew below the wind and almost past the mound, but was held up by the steep slope. I was forced to make a blind seven-iron approach shot—a moment to "trust your swing" if there ever was one. I hit what felt like a superb shot, and indeed the ball flew exactly where I'd aimed. But a moment later I learned my Titleist had screamed "Goodbyyyyye" as it flew over the green and vanished down the cliffs, taking my Blarney Cup hopes with it. Even as I cursed the hole, I told myself that I couldn't wait to play it again.

Thanks to a decent recovery chip I lost just one stroke to Sager, who parred. McDaid did no better. At our host's suggestion we walked back to the championship tee at 18—a sliver set at the base of the imposing lighthouse. The wind was now howling like a tormented soul, and raindrops were pelting our caps.

Old Head giveth and Old Head taketh away—that seemed to be the lesson of the day. Sager drilled a high ball, and the wind had a field day with it, shoving it far to the right—over the bordering stone fence and out of bounds. He reloaded and drilled another drive; this one hooked sharply left into a patch of stunted undergrowth.

"Stick a fork in me," he said, shaking his head at the confoundedness of it all. "I'm done."

McDaid then hit a pop-up that barely reached the fairway and left him a monstrously long, steeply uphill approach shot.

As the Irish like to say, it's an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody some good—in this instance me. Daniel handed me the driver, but I told him to put it back. Instead I pulled out my three-wood and hit a slight draw that curled in the wind and found the upward slope of the fairway—170 yards out—my best drive of the day.

Even with the wind over your shoulder the approach to 18 plays much farther than it appears. Once again I overcompensated and flew the green; to compound that I made a poor chip, but my competitors fared worse, due to the rapidly closing weather. Sager had blown himself out of contention at the tee; McDaid had died in the hard sand of the front bunker. Just as one of those rare rainstorms unleashed its fury, my second chip shot rolled close enough to the hole to let me tap in for bogey and a win.

Over lunch and a fine white Burgundy in the dining room, which has large glass walls facing the lighthouse and the closing holes, John and Patrick talked about their ambition to make Old Head the venue for a major European golf tournament. That could well happen. Meantime, the club is aiming to earn its crust off visiting American golfers, tour groups, and corporate memberships—a marketing strategy that's the reverse of most Irish and Scottish golf clubs. The rich appointments of the clubhouse (the locker rooms and showers are the rival of anything found in the States), the well-stocked pro shop and high greens fees ($120), make Old Head feel more like an upscale American resort than an Irish seaside golf club. It won't be every golfer's cup of tea: Too posh for those looking for the simplicity of Portmarnock or Royal County Down, too "American" for those who want to rub elbows and hoist pints with the locals. The club had recently come under criticism in the Kinsale paper for its high greens fees and limited public access. Almost no locals play at Old Head, though all the caddies are local kids.

"Once we get the finishing touches in place and the course matures a bit," John O'Connor said, "we feel—and we've been repeatedly told this by visitors from all over, including the press—that someday soon Old Head will be considered among the world's greatest golf courses."

It was hard to disagree with that assessment, but I wondered whether the course might actually be a bit too difficult for the average player. "Well," John agreed, "that may be--at times. When the wind is blowing, there is no question that it's a very stern test. It plays just at 6,800 yards, but it can feel like far more than that."

"It felt like far more than that," said my nemesis, McDaid, expressing my exact thought at that moment.

"That's probably because you're only an average player," countered Sager.

These were fighting words among old friends—and we quickly agreed the rules of the Blarney Cup should be amended on the spot to accommodate another spin around the Old Head Links. The sun had come back out, and the caddies were loitering. So we finished our wine and hustled out to the tee for a second go at the Pebble Beach of Ireland.

I didn't play this round much better, but it's no cup of blarney to say that the Old Head Links, like all great coastal courses, looked more enticing and challenging the second time around.

Love it for its incomparable beauty, or hate it for its wind-blown difficulty—I still wasn't sure which way I felt. But one thing was certain: I had never played another course like it.

James Dodson, the author of Final Rounds (Bantam), recently completed A Golfer's Life, an autobiography of Arnold Palmer (Ballantine).