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Teeing Off at the Edge of the World

© Courtesy of Old Head Golf Links / Lambrecht Photo

After more than a decade, Old Head Golf Links in County Cork is finally a must-play.

When Old Head Golf Links opened 11 years ago on a cliff-lined peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, it produced jaw-dropping wonder even in hard-core golfers all too familiar with the world’s great designs. That included the many new must-plays that open each year with the type of press push usually saved for major film releases. This is, after all, an age when newer, better, and bigger courses appear by the dozens every year, and each is associated with marquee names such as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman or larger-than-life developers like Steve Wynn and Donald Trump. So getting jaded golf enthusiasts to sit up, take notice, and immediately start booking flights to a course designed by a no-name committee in a fairly remote corner of Ireland was an enviable feat.

Old Head’s problem—and in the golf development game, there is almost always a problem—was that while the headland setting was unparalleled, the course itself was not quite ready for its close-up. Visitors were awed by the 12th-century Norman ruins and the sandstone peninsula jutting some two miles into the Celtic Sea. But with little shape or contour to the fairways, the holes lacked the mystery, suspense, and reward found in top courses. Players complained that the practice range directly abutted the holes, bunkers were missing, the par fives were too short, and the course conditioning was uneven. They were frustrated that the rocky terrain forced them to tee up the ball before every shot, even on the fairways and around the greens. “Most people came to the top of the hill, stopped, looked out, and were mesmerized by the headland,” says Danny Brassil, Old Head’s director of golf. “They didn’t even see the course. But then they approached the first tee with ungodly expectations.”

In fairness to developers John and Patrick O’Connor, it took a Herculean effort just to put the course in. More than 128 acres of topsoil had to be trucked out to the headland because they were building on rock with little to no topsoil. Twelve of the greens were subsequently destroyed by landslides or wicked winter winds that blew sea salt across the layout. (On-site nurseries growing salt-resistant grass would eventually temper this problem.) “The setting has been both a blessing and a curse,” says club general manager John Dwyer, adding that the common reaction had been “Great property, pity about the golf course.” An industry insider at a leading course-design firm, whom Dwyer refuses to name (but would seemingly be happy to push off one of the many cliffs ringing the course), went so far as to refer to Old Head as “Irish golf’s ugly stepsister.”

And yet none of the country’s legendary courses, such as Ballybunion, Tralee, Lahinch, and Waterville, have quite the otherworldly setting and vertiginous high dudgeon of Old Head. This fact was not lost on the O’Connor brothers, who before committing to buy brought architect Eddie Hackett—the man behind Waterville, Enniscrone, Carne, and other top Irish layouts—and a world-class local amateur golfer out to the headland for their opinions. “One told me I could build the most spectacular course on the planet,” says John O’Connor. “The other said it could be the eighth wonder of the world.”

False start aside, that promise still remained. So in the dead of winter, when the club is closed, Old Head is steadily, quietly undergoing renovation. And it’s not one of your usual high-profile redos—where a course is shut down and then reopened six months later with a lavish ribbon-cutting affair—but an ongoing nip, tuck, tweak, and shove of thousands of tons of earth. This facelift has gone on five years, an unheard-of amount of time for a course looking to improve its image in the marketplace. The good news is that Old Head’s owners have addressed and corrected what Dwyer and others familiar with the original design always saw as missed opportunities.

All but one of the 18 holes have changed significantly: Nearly every fairway has been recontoured with new mounds, and bunkers have been created to give definition and increase depth perception (imagine a flat football field transformed into a rolling meadow with hidden corners and mysterious pockets). Greens, reshaped for more visual drama, are now closer to cliff edges; many rest on rocky overhangs. And a valley’s worth of foliage has been trucked in and planted to further enhance play and intensify the beauty of the setting. So far the retooling has cost an estimated $13 million, and counting. “Every year we have a board meeting and the owners ask us what still needs to be done,” says Dwyer. “We tell them, along with how much it will cost, and they say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, here you go.’ All the revenue that comes into the club, they reinvest back into the course. It’s incredible.”

So is the new Old Head. The result is nothing short of stunning. Sergio Garcia, the perennial Ryder Cupper and no. 12 golfer in the world, chose Old Head as his tune-up spot for last year’s British Open. When the Spaniard came to the 18th tee that first day, he leaned over to director of golf Danny Brassil, who was walking the course with him, and said, “I’ve never seen such a dramatic tee shot. I didn’t even know such a shot existed.” The shot in question was a drive across an oceanic chasm to a heather-lined fairway into a demanding wind from a sliver of land encircled by 100-foot cliffs in the shadow of an ancient lighthouse: routine stuff for Old Head. Garcia came to the Irish links to play one round and stayed for three.

It is a testament to Old Head’s unique setting that a crowd of people who can tee up anywhere—Michael Jordan, Rudy Giuliani, and Phil Mickelson, to name three—have all considered it a must-visit. And yes, you can add Tiger’s name to that list.

A few years ago the world’s number one was playing Waterville Golf Links, in neighboring County Kerry, with Mark O’Meara, Stuart Appleby, Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen, and David Duval. When the pros finished their morning round, they telephoned the folks at Old Head and asked if the weather was clear enough for them to fly in by helicopter; they wanted to play the course they’d heard so much about. If you own a golf course and Tiger Woods asks if it’s safe to come by, naturally you say, “Oh yes, it’s perfect.” Then you pray. Sure enough, when the pros reached the headland, the entire peninsula was shrouded in fog. The conditions were so bad that the helicopter had to set down in a nearby inland pasture, much to the surprise of a local farmer who suddenly found himself surrounded by startled cows and six of the sport’s top players.

For all their reinvestment in the course, the O’Connors have been able to turn a slight profit, no small feat given that the Celtic Sea still reclaims various parts of the course each year. In the winter the club can have 50 days when the wind blows more than 40 miles per hour, with sea spray at times cresting the headland’s lighthouse that towers almost 250 feet above sea level; the same sea spray has necessitated the replacement of the 16th green four times and the 17th green five. Part of the reason for the O’Connors’ profitability, no doubt, is the club’s membership—a veritable Fortune 100 who’s who of CEOs, chairmen, and Wall Street power kings (270 of the club’s 380 members are American). The course is also open for public play, with most visitors coming from the States.

One industry titan who calls Old Head a home course is Rick Goings, the chairman and CEO of Tupperware, who first played the course while on a business trip to Cork. “I live at Isleworth in Orlando, where the course is home to a large group of PGA pros, so something really has to be terrific to get my attention,” says Goings, also one of Old Head’s founding members. “When I saw it, I was taken with its topography, and every year I go back, the layout is ten percent to fifteen percent better. Many of the people I’ve invited out to play, people who have played all over the world, have said to me, ‘It’s Pebble Beach on steroids!’ ”

Course improvements and comparisons aside, Old Head is threatening to become something of a luxury retreat. Until recently members tended to lodge in nearby Kinsale, one of Ireland’s most attractive villages and its gourmet capital (if sightseeing time is short, skip Cork and visit Kinsale instead). This year, however, Old Head opens 15 luxury suites, complete with a spa and fitness center; the suites are available to both members and nonmembers, as are the two on-property helicopters, which can shuttle golfers from Old Head to many of Ireland’s top courses.

Given the multitude of headaches involved in the building and growing of Old Head (for instance, a dump truck that got too close to the 15th tee and tumbled off a cliff into the sea—thankfully the driver was able to make it out in time), John O’Connor admits, “If I knew then what I know now, I am not sure I would go down that road.” Still, the hardships and hurdles seem as much a source of pride as a cause for grousing. “The best compliment came from someone who saw the course right after it opened,” O’Connor says. “He actually said, ‘What a lucky bastard you are! You found this great piece of land and all you have to do is cut the grass.’ If he only knew.”

The initiation fee for international memberships at Old Head is $73,000, with annual dues of $3,600. Nonmember greens fees start at $430. The course’s 15 guest suites start at $510 per night. For information, call 353-21/477-8444 or log on to www.oldhead.com.

Staying Put: the Resort at Castlemartyr

When Horst Schulze retired from Ritz-Carlton after almost 20 years as president, COO, and vice chairman, he did not go quietly into the night. Instead he launched Capella Hotels and Resorts, an international hotel brand meant to combine the luxury of the Ritz with the intimacy and service of a boutique hotel. Capella resorts, which average around a hundred rooms, will open this year in Düsseldorf, Germany; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Sentosa Island, Singapore; and Telluride, Colorado, joining the current properties in the Alpine town of Velden, Austria, and County Cork, Ireland, just an hour from Old Head.

The latter, called Castlemartyr, is housed in a 17th-century estate and attracts travelers looking for a high-thread-count home base in a country famous for B&Bs with limited hot water and owners who look at you crossly if you come home past 9 p.m. No two rooms in the manor are the same, and the decor calls to mind a well-appointed country house. You will not find a concierge at the front desk, but the hotel offers personal assistants who cater to each guest’s every whim, from scheduling tee times anywhere in the country to arranging Irish whiskey tastings at private manor houses.

Castlemartyr itself is the perfect launching point to southern Ireland’s best golf courses and is an hour’s drive from Old Head. Castlemartyr also has its own 18-hole golf course, plus a Michelin two-star chef straight from London’s Pied à Terre and a 24,000-square-foot spa with a line of organic beauty products and an ozone-treated pool. Oh yes, there is even a pair of requisite Irish setters—Earl and Countess—who may stroll with you along the estate’s 220-acre grounds, which feature the ruins of a 1,000-year-old castle. From $610; 353-21/464-4050; www.capellacastlemartyr.com.