Saturday, June 23, 2012

Old Head- World Class Experience

Planning this years Ireland golf adventure the course that intrigued me the most was Old Head. I set aside an additional day to hopefully get some great photo's and at least a day of sunny weather. Last year I did the same at Royal County Down and experienced some of the best conditions of the 18 days, the weather at Old Head would turn out to be even better than at RCD. I arrived around 6 PM and was treated to a wonderful dinner in the De Coursey Dining Room and a visit from one of the O'Connor brothers, Patrick. Chatting with Patrick I commented that I hoped I would have enough golf balls for my round tomorrow, when he informed me that he would be surprised if I lost one ball. Having previewed the course on their website, looked at the yardage book and overhead photo's it appeared I would be playing on the edge of the world on several holes. I was all ready to donate a couple sleeves of balls to the Atlantic Ocean, I will check back with Patrick after my round to see how many I lost.

After dinner I took a cart and got my first glimpse of Old Head Golf Links and a shot few photo's. It was a perfect evening, not a cloud in the sky, no wind, with cool temperatures around 60. I stayed pretty much on the cart path and got a quick preview of what I would be playing the next day.  What I found were magnificent 200-300 foot cliffs encapsulating the property with a beautiful white Lighthouse at the headlands point. When I had arrived earlier at the stone gate house, drove up the stonewall lined driveway, past the ruins of the old lighthouses to the stone clubhouse and lodging it felt like these structures had all been here for hundreds of years. They all blended into the surroundings and didn't detract one bit from the Lighthouse's prominence. I could hardly wait for tomorrow's round of golf and had mixed emotions as too what type of weather I wanted to play in. If there isn't any wind, the saying in the British Isles is "It isn't golf". Give me sunny and 10-15 mph winds.

I was met in the pro shop by Danny Brassil, the club pro, and we headed out to the range to warm up. Very few courses in Ireland have full practice ranges, so it was nice not to be hitting my first shot of the day off the first tee. Mick was assigned to be my caddie and another perfect day awaited us on the first tee, if you didn't want any wind. The ocean would be calm and tranquil for the whole round. It didn't take long to get you to the cliff's edge as the 2nd tee takes you to a three hole stretch that hugs the eastern edge of the property out to the lighthouse. (At no point on the course does it take you right to the edge of a shear cliff, for safety on a windy day, I guess they want to return to the clubhouse with the same number of golfers they started the day out with). You have a 160 yard par three sandwiched around two nice dogleg left par fours bringing you to a breathtaking view of the Atlantic near the lighthouse.The tee of hole five is at the base of the lighthouse and starts a two hole uphill stretch back across the center of the property to the, par 3, 7th hole. Here you get a view of the isthmus which the 12th and 13th hole play over. There are a series of stones positioned around the course that give you important historical facts about Old Head. I thought they were very interesting and added to the experience, except for the one that comes into play near the green on hole #10. Holes 8 and 9 take you back around the western border of the practice range in the center of the property.

The back nine takes you back toward the ocean with a reachable risk/reward par 5, that has your approach shot playing over a stone fenced sacred grounds. Hole #11 is an uphill long par 3 that has a newly exposed rock face as a backdrop. Danny was very helpful in providing me with what changes have taken place over the years to the course and what plans they have for the future. I like to see management being open minded, wanting to improve their product, and give the player more options of play. The 12th hole has one of the most spectacular views and the most intimidating tee shot of any hole at Old Head. You are confronted with a blind uphill tee shot that created doubt in my mind where I should actually be aiming my drive. That doubt resulted in a hooked drive that somehow ended up on the walking path to the fairway. Instead of using my wedge for my third shot, I punched it out on my second and hit a hybrid 200 yards pin high on the green for my third shot. The walk from the tee on the narrow pathway to the fairway is one of the best you will ever take in golf. Today on a calm day you can hear the birds that are flying from the sanctuary 300 feet below on the rock cliffs and caves. The 13th is a monster uphill par 3 that if played from the back tees may need a driver to reach the green. Fourteen is the long par 4 that if the wind was up could not be reached in two. I had a long approach which I pushed right into a narrow band of vegetation right of the green. After thoroughly searching the area we could not find my ball, so I had lost my first ball at Old Head. Hole 15 is a short, downhill, reachable par 4. Often on these types of holes I play two balls, the first being a lay up and the second going for the green. My first shot with a hybrid landed on the upper plateau of the fairway, my driver produced a result just off the front edge of the green. Both balls produced birdies, one of the few times I can remember this happening. Sixteen is a medium length par 3 which provides some fantastic views of the rugged coastline and lighthouse. Seventeen is the last of the par 5's. Old Head is an interesting mix of five par 3's and par 5's. My drive found the fairway and left me with a blind layup to the fairway. My caddie and I miscommunicated on where I was to be aiming and immediately after striking the ball Danny said "that one is gone". Lost ball #2 had found the ocean. After figuring out where I should have been aiming I dropped another and found a nice spot in the fairway short of the green. The back tee of the finishing hole is located on a narrow path adjacent to the stone wall directly in front of the lighthouse. A dramatic tee box, but what if this area could be widened and lengthened another 15-20 feet? You would have one of the greatest all or nothing short par 3's ever. The eighteenth finishes in front of the clubhouse and as I mentioned earlier blends into the landscape nicely. Coincidentally, as I walked in the lobby there was Patrick. I told him that I did lose two balls but under normal circumstances I shouldn't have lost a ball.

The next morning before heading west I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jim O'Brien, the Old Head GM. I know they would like to have their course universally recognized as a world top 100 course and are patiently working to make that happen. I told Jim that, "If you put a wall around the playing perimeter and only looked at the golf course, that Old Head was not yet a top 100 course. What you have here at Old Head, is one of the Top 10 Golf Experiences in the World that I would want to come back and visit before playing many of the top 100 courses in the world". Luxurious accommodations, fine dining, spectacular golf, and a warm and friendly staff produces a great experience that I hope to visit again on my next Ireland trip.

So, what would I suggest to help move it up the list of top courses? I like the current routing of the course but found the bunkers, though somewhat strategic and penal, very mundane. It is what I would characterize as resort course bunker design versus classic top 100 bunker design found at courses like Portrush or RCD. Bunkers are as esthetically important to a golf course as the wheels are to a sports car, the landscaping to a home, or the icing on a cake. Having just played the European Club, and Gozzer Ranch in the past year I have seen some of the most esthetic bunkers in the world. Steve Smyers courses are also beautifully done with many bunkers that do not come into play but add eye candy to the golf experience. The interior holes at Old Head would benefit the most with added/redesigned bunkers, as they are not nearly as memorable as the scenic ocean holes. The white Lighthouse and adjacent wall which can be seen from many of the holes dominate the landscape at Old Head. Why not replace the sand with something nearer a white color than the current brown to compliment it. Accent the bunkers with wisps of native grass. The silver sleeper ties that Pat Ruddy used at European Club would really highlight the bunkers even more. I really enjoy playing a course that has one hole where you have to make a forced carry or all is lost. These make for great memories especially if you make it on in one shot. I would add a Bonus Hole at the back tee on #18, call it 17S (short). You could either proceed from the 17L (long) green to the 5th tee and share that teeing area or develop a tee between 17 green and the front 18 tee as close to the edge as possible. A NANO green of about 25 feet deep by 30 feet wide, running adjacent to the lighthouse wall, would produce some great fun and a challenge to hit with or without wind. Create a bulkhead to match the white walls and you have a fantastic looking little hole. You would only need an iron off the tee, a pocket full of golf balls, and a putter to play this hole because there would be nothing in between. Hit until you put one on or have only one ball left in your golf bag. In 1986 it took a golfer 66 shots to play the 17th at Sawgrass. I once played behind an Asian foursome there and watched as they rinsed at least 25 balls on seventeen and enjoyed every minute of it.

Notable Holes: #4 , #9, #11, #12, #15, #17.

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