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Old Head: Ireland’s Spectacular Cliffside Links

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Old Head Golf Links is regarded as one of the world’s most spectacular and beautiful golf courses. Perched on a dramatic 220-acre headland that juts out over two miles into the wild Atlantic Ocean near Kinsale, Ireland, Old Head offers breathtaking vistas and thrilling golf.

The course opened in 1997 and quickly earned a reputation for its stunning seaside holes playing along sheer cliffs dropping 300 feet to the ocean below. From the first glimpse upon turning onto the narrow drive leading to the cliff’s edge, Old Head delivers a one-of-a-kind golf adventure that every golfer dreams of.

Nine exhilarating holes run along the cliff’s edge, showcasing the rugged natural beauty of the windswept headland. With ever-present ocean breezes and sloping greens, Old Head presents a serious test of links golf matching its breathtaking scenery.

This post will provide an in-depth look at Old Head Links, its origin, development, and reception. We’ll walk through both nines and learn what makes these Irish links so memorable. Finally, we’ll recommend further reading and videos that bring this course to life.

For more posts like this, see our “Legendary Links” series, featuring many other renowned courses and hidden gems worldwide. As always, with this series, the images are simulated to add context and set the scene.

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Origins of Old Head

This unique site has a rich history, with evidence of early Iron Age settlement and legends dating back to the Fianna warriors. The headland was named after a 3rd-century AD fort called Dún Cearmna, built by the Celtic chieftain Cearmna. Control of the strategic headland passed from the Celts to the Vikings, who called it “the Place of the Inner Fjord,” then to the Normans in 1169 AD. The current Old Head Castle enclosing the neck of the peninsula was likely built around this time.

In recent centuries, the Old Head saw the 17th-century establishment of an early lighthouse to assist ships in navigating the treacherous coastline. The iconic black and white striped Old Head Lighthouse, still operating today, was built in 1853 on the southern tip of the headland. The area is also the nearest land point to the tragic 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which spurred America’s entrance into World War I.

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Early History and Course Design

Old Head Golf Links’ story begins in 1989 with Irish-American entrepreneur John O’Connor. As he stood on the narrow 220-acre peninsula jutting out from the coastline, gazing out over the crashing Atlantic waves far below, O’Connor was struck with a vision – to build a spectacular golf course along these cliff tops and headlands.

Despite resistance and environmental concerns, O’Connor persevered and assembled a skilled team of renowned golf architects like Ron Kirby and Eddie Hackett to help design his dream course. Their thrilling design took full advantage of the innate drama of the site, winding nine exhilarating holes right along the sheer cliff’s edge high above the sea. Holes dove through tunnels in the cliffs, then emerged to open vistas of the wild ocean. Fairways rippled through seaside dunes and knolls, with the ever-present ocean winds adding to the challenge.

Construction began in 1993, requiring massive efforts to blast and cart away rock and then import tons of topsoil to shape the undulating fairways and greens. Maritime grasses were planted by the thousands to complete the authentic links look.

oldhead construction

Opening and Reception

Old Head opened in 1997 to wide acclaim for its thrilling seaside holes and captivating natural beauty. It quickly earned a reputation as one of the world’s most spectacular and beautiful golf courses.

Recent years have seen new additions like an elevated 8th tee with better Atlantic views, a relocated 13th hole, now a par-3 playing right along the cliffs, and planned cottages and amenities to complement the captivating course O’Connor brought to life hole-by-hole with vision and perseverance.

The magical experience has earned Old Head golf’s highest accolades. It was voted the world’s “Most Spectacular Course on Earth” by Links Magazine in 2011 and consistently ranks among the global top courses, including #32 in the UK and Ireland’s 2023/24 Top 100.  

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The Course

The course plays to a par 72 at 7,159 yards from the tips. It comprises eight par 4s, five challenging par 5s, and five scenic par 3s that require precision. The narrow, undulating fairways and small greens demand accuracy. Hazards include deep pot bunkers, rolling dunes, and the cliffs lining holes with wayward shots potentially lost at sea.

As you walk between holes, keep your eyes peeled for stone walls and other remnants of the ancient settlements that once occupied this dramatic land. The lighthouse behind the 15th green has guided ships to safety since the 19th century. Old Head manages to blend this rich history seamlessly with a modern test of golf. The back nine showcases how Old Head has taken what nature has provided and created something spectacular.

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Outward Nine

The front nine at Old Head begins innocuously, with a straightforward opening hole heading back from the clubhouse. But the adventure ratchets up quickly as the second heads straight toward the sea before veering right. Golfers get their first taste of seaside golf at the par-3 third, playing to a cliffside green with the ocean below.

After that exhilarating start, the front nine tours through a wonderland of seaside golf. The fourth hole finishes below the iconic lighthouse, providing a perfect vantage to gaze back upon holes five and six, which dive through cliffside chutes to ocean coves. The seventh traverses a hillside, while the eighth returns inland through undulating dunes.

The outward half culminates with two strong closing holes that build the anticipation for the back nine. The par-4 ninth approaches the lighthouse again, tempting longer hitters to cut the corner over the rocks. Golfers make the turn filled with adrenaline and eagerness, having sampled Old Head’s adventurous brand of links golf. Nine thrilling seaside holes await on the back, each more dramatic than the last.

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Inward Nine

As you turn from the front, the 10th hole greets you with a view straight down to the ocean below. The 12th hole, “Courcean Stage,” is the signature hole – a 564-yard par-5 playing right along the cliffs. Your drive must carry the ocean; any pulled shots will find a watery grave. The green itself perches precariously close to the edge.

The 14th is the #1 handicap hole, even over the more famous cliff-side 12th. In addition to the wind, the 452-yard par-4 features a blind tee shot. “Haulie’s Leap,” the 15th, continues the dramatic ocean-side theme. This short par-4 doglegs sharply right towards the lighthouse. Long hitters can cut the corner over the ocean but lose it left, and it’s gone.

The par-5 17th turns inland slightly but still plays a massive 623 yards. Finding the putting surface in regulation will take three solid shots. The 18th hole is a dramatic 548-yard closing hole along the cliffs towards the Old Head lighthouse. The fairway is wide open, allowing big hitters to swing freely without fear of finding trouble. The 18th provides stunning ocean views and a memorable finish.

Visit Old Head online at https://www.oldhead.com.

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Further Reading

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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Anatomy of a Golf Course
by Tom Doak

Summary: The book explains the thought process and strategies used by golf course architects in designing courses, including factors like hole length, placement of hazards, and routing. It aims to help golfers understand why certain design choices are made so they can better approach playing the course. Written by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak, it appeals to both knowledgeable golfers and beginners interested in course design and architecture. The book also includes an appendix with examples of noteworthy golf courses that are worth studying.


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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Old Head Golf Links
Old Head – Drone Video
Old Head Links – Overview
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