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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 5)

On the south coast of Ireland, near the precious harbor town of Kinsale and not too distant from the city of Cork, a new golf course is taking shape on land from the distant ages. In the years to come, it may be spoken of as one of the world's great courses, and it no doubt sits on one of the world's greatest natural sites.

The site is the Old Head of Kinsale, the course is the Old Head Golf Links and the visionary behind it all is John O'Connor. O'Connor is an Irishman who has managed to take an exquisite and rare geological and historic site and turn it into a spectacular 18-hole golf course, one that from an aesthetic point of view challenges America's Pebble Beach.

The Old Head of Kinsale is a rock promontory that juts out into the Atlantic midway along Ireland's south coast. Because it has two-billion-year-old exposed rock that once was on the coast of Africa, the promontory draws geologists from around the world. The Old Head is also part of ancient Irish history. The Stone of Accord is here, a freestanding limestone rock where people used to seal deals by placing their fingers through a small opening at the top. Remnants of Dun Mac Padraig Castle are also here, as is a sixteenth century lighthouse.

Now, there is a golf course whose symbol is the Stone of Accord and whose merit will be tested by players this summer. And what merit there promises to be. Nine holes play atop the cliffs, which rise 200 feet in some spots--twice the height of the cliffs at Pebble Beach. Designed by and brought into final form by Ron Kirby, Jack Nicklaus' longtime assistant, the Old Head will be 6,650 rugged yards of golf completely exposed to the elements in a setting so humbling that a four-putt green may seem irrelevant.

The course has been six years in the making, with the backing of O'Connor and the advice of the great Irish amateur Joe Carr, a three-time British Amateur champion, and the Irish links designer Eddie Hackett. It is scheduled to open this June. O'Connor and his brother, Patrick, are international real estate developers and agents based in London, though they still call Ireland home. "This is such a special place for the Irish and such a special place to build a golf course," says John O'Connor. "I don't know if there will ever [again] be anything like it."

Kinsale is one of Ireland's prettiest towns, and it boasts the world's oldest yacht club. It also is a culinary center of the country. There are some hotel accommodations in Kinsale, as well as the ever-present bed-and-breakfast homes. Cork, 40 minutes away, has several hotels. Over an hour from Kinsale is Ballymaloe House, the largest country house in Ireland with one of Ireland's best kitchens.

O'Connor has planned an interesting clubhouse in the middle of the site. Built of stone, it will rise as rock from the ground in an attempt to be in complete harmony with the environment. The small parking lots will be dug into the ground to keep cars out of sight. A variety of wild grasses and plants grown by O'Connor at his estate in Ballinskelligs will grace the course with natural beauty.

But there will be no more beauty than the natural wonder of the Old Head of Kinsale. The drive across the tiny neck of stone that connects the Old Head to the mainland is breathtaking by itself and the sense of anticipation is acute. The Old Head is a place to behold, and with the crashing waters visible from every hole, more than one golfer is going to be caught gaping rather than playing.

This course, which has come from the ages, will be a course for the ages.

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