The Old Head of Kinsale is mostly in the sea. Surrounded by sea or sky on all – yes all – sides, Old Head is a promontory hanging off the tip of County Cork just south of Kinsale. It is also on every golfer’s bucket list – the aerial view of Old Head must be the most over-used picture in golf (save Augusta, Turnberry and Thracian Cliffs. And that place in Mauritius). If you look closely you can almost make out the drool marks of a million salivating golfers.
It is not inaccessible though. Cork is just an hour away and offers regular flights to the UK. So this particular golfing extremity is not quite as remote as that picture makes you think. However, you should excpect sensory overload. Old Head smashes you in the face, gives you a tickle, makes your eyes water, and stands your back hairs on end.
If you can imagine a clown with his tie spinning, shoes unravelling, and steam coming out of his ears, that was me arriving at Old Head (not one of those scary clowns appearing at the window of a city-centre restaurant; a nice one from the 70s).
You can gather your senses on the 1st, which is a gentle and uninspiring opener. But on any rollercoaster there is the long climb as your carriage clicks to the top of the first big drop. That is the function of the 1st – the 2nd tee is where the thrills begin. It is advisable to hold on to your clown hat. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th are golf holes without comparison. They hug the Atlantic, and with a breeze off the sea on the day we played, they are not for the faint-hearted.
‘Trust the wind,’ our caddie preached. Easy to say but harder to do as shot after shot started life over miles of ocean. These holes don’t just offer spectacular views – they give you choices, angles to negotiate and interesting green complexes. Old Head has arrived in your memory and these holes will stay there.
From the 5th tee to 6th green you are back climbing the roller coaster – an unremarkable par 4 from an elevated tee then a reachable par 5 where out of bounds looms the wrong side of a wall. When you get to the 7th tee, the sea is back, this time to your right. From here you can fully appreciate the uncommon sliver of land that links Old Head to the mainland.
The 8th and 9th take you across the centre of the promontory, a gentle par 5 offering you a scoring chance which is immediately snatched back with a tough 4 to finish the front half.
The 10th is another reachable par 5 that sweeps left to right off the tee, and requires a 2nd shot to clear a wasteland shy of the green, while the 11th offers a taster of the thrills to come as you send a mid-iron across a pit with the ocean to your left.
No 12 is a par 5 like no other. The tee sits atop the highest cliffs and provides you with a view that begs you to take on an impossible carry. Under strict instructions you aim further right than is plausible and blast out into an expansive fairway, leaving you a view into a green site perched like a crow’s nest on the most extreme point of the course.
If you were constructing a golf hole on a computer game, you may well end up with this one. It is immense, bonkers and beautiful, and indeed is the signature, some might say. The 13th is brand new, and you would have to say a triumph. It asks you to hit a short iron to a green buried into the cliff side. It is short on yards, long on charm and anywhere else would be the stand-out hole. Old Head is nowhere near done with you yet though.
Perhaps the architectural genius of the routing of Old Head is that it uses the land to the max. It blows your mind at the start, provides you with respite through the middle of the round and builds to a climax that is the rival of anything I have played. With that in mind the 14th eases you back down to the western edge and you are buckled in for a four-hole stretch that offers almost everything.
The 15th is a short 4, a shorter version of the 14th at Cruden Bay. Then comes the toughest of the 3s – at least in the south-easterly we played in – and Championship in stature. No 17 is a monster of a par 5, and it’s followed by one of the very best finishing holes. All four are played along the cliff edge, three with the ocean to the right, before turning back to the clubhouse for the monumental last.
Also striking is the condition of the course. Given the piece of land is ravaged by the elements nearly all year round (and the weather is so extreme that the course is closed for five winter months) the golf course is perfect, like they have cut and pasted the very best turf of a classic American track into an area where traditionally only the hardiest grasses survive.
Watch out for cliff edges however as you gawk at the horizon. The land was previously owned by a farmer who sold it when he got sick of his sheep falling into the sea. The risk of a similar fate is a threat to any golfer not watching his step, or his follow-through carefully. Much of this unique golf course is not for the vertiginous or those with a slippery grip.
You leave exhausted and exhilarated. Old Head is an almost un-rankable golf course, in a category of its own. Celebrate the uniqueness, the human endeavour that has gone into building a golf course to this standard in an uninhabitable place. Enjoy the views, and be grateful for the privilege of being able to say you have not only been, but survived on a spit of land where several hundred sheep have perished.