Changes take the experience at Old Head Golf Links in Ireland up a notch

KINSALE, County Cork, Ireland -- Old Head Golf Links has pushed its awe-inspiring experience to the edge once again.

The new 13th hole, which opened in 2014, and reshaped 17th fairway (dating to 2013) occupy the last bit of the cliffs not used during construction of the original routing. There might not be a more dramatic setting for golf in the world than this 220-acre diamond-shaped promontory jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The 300-foot cliffs, iconic Old Head lighthouse and stone walls and ruins stimulate at every turn in southeast Ireland.

Naples (Fla.) resident Gary Guyton rated Old Head an "11 out of a 10" after his group stayed in the luxurious suites below the castle-like clubhouse while playing two rounds in June. "A lot of the guys said this was the best golf experience they've ever had," he said.

Old Head opened in 1997, a collaboration of Ron Kirby, Ireland's beloved links architect Eddie Hackett and a host of others. Tinkering has been constant.

The new 13th hole replaces a more mundane inland par 3 that is still intact. The new 168-yard cliffhanger faces the par-3 seventh hole coming from the other direction. The 16th hole, a daunting seaside par 3 in the shadow of the lighthouse, saw significant revisions recently as well. A new front bunker protects a revised green that's smaller and more undulating.

Impressive stone monuments planted throughout the layout in 2013 educate golfers on Old Head's colorful past, weaving tales of shipwrecks, sunken cannons and the history of the lighthouse. It's too bad former Old Head president John O'Connor passed away last year before he could see the final changes.

Old Head Golf Links highlights

Highlights of the course come in waves, like the ocean below. The first hole eases players into the round before the next three holes ride the cliffs. The par-4 fourth hole, called "The Razor's Edge," doglegs left to a narrow green at the base of the lighthouse. Any approach shot that misses the green left will likely bounce over the "Do Not Pass" sign and fall into oblivion.

As good as that early three-hole stretch is, nothing can compare to the coastal chasm in play off the 12th tee. It takes real nerves to go left of the aiming rock to take on the cliffs. The fairway of this dramatic par 5 shrinks ribbon-thin at the green. Holes like No. 4 and No. 12 are so visually explosive that the inland ones, albeit solid, just don't provide the same jolt of excitement. Many of the footpaths on these coastal holes run right along the cliffs, providing a breathtaking hike during the round.

Old Head is so exposed that no trees can survive the wicked winds and salt sprays off the ocean. Howling winds or a blinding fog can close the course during summer and halt the helicopters flying golfers in at a moment's notice.

At least four mechanical birds buzzed by my group to land at the club's helipad the day I played, probably delivering the private-club crowd from Killarney in the west, Dublin in the north and beyond. People who can afford this grand entrance cut down the hassles of driving to find such a remote fantasyland.

I can only image what Old Head looks like flying above the gulls and gannets. It must be bucket-list golf at its best.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Changes take the experience at Old Head Golf Links in Ireland up a notch