KINSALE, Co. Cork, Ireland -- As a golf industry executive, David Graham has been lucky enough to tee it up on some of the game's greatest golf courses: Pine Valley, the Old Course at St. Andrews and Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Even so, it's the dramatic setting of the Old Head Golf Links, along the southern coast of Ireland near Kinsale, that captured his heart. If he had one tee shot left to hit in his life, Graham said, he'd take No. 12 at Old Head -- a harrowing blind blast at an aiming rock over a coastal chasm.
"Old Head offers some of the most exciting shots you'll hit in your life, the times when you hit over the ocean," said Graham, who has played the golf course twice while vacationing from Michigan. "The views make Pebble Beach look like a municipal course. Every view is beautiful."
Old Head Golf Links occupies a 220-acre, diamond-shaped promontory that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. Its iconic black-and-white lighthouse sits at land's end. Tees and greens are cut so precariously close to 300-foot cliffs that only red ropes and signs that read "Do Not Pass" stand between you and a watery plunge.
Old Head as a golf course has its critics, but the Old Head experience is second to none. If you walk one of the world's most scenic layouts with a caddie, followed by excellent food and a Guinness on the patio of a castle-like stone clubhouse that overlooks it all, it can cause sensory overload. Stare over the ocean as seagulls glide on air, and it seems almost surreal.
Put it this way: It's worth every cent to shell out 200 Euros, one of the most expensive green fees in the world, if you catch Old Head on a good day.
Old Head Golf Links President John O'Connor said golfers regularly tell him Old Head exceeded their expectations. Old Head features an international membership and a reciprocal relationship with the historic Oak Hill Country Club in New York.
In Old Head's heyday before the economic recession, it was common for rented helicopters to land at the golf course. Old Head sits far from the other trophy links like Ballybunion and Waterville, so it takes some effort to find. Those who make the trek are rewarded with memories to last a lifetime.
Old Head Golf Links: "A one-of-a-kind sort of place"
"It is a one-of-a-kind sort of place," O'Connor said. "Cape Kidnappers (in New Zealand) and Pebble Beach are what people compare it to."
Old Head Golf Links stands so exposed that no trees can survive the wicked winds and salt sprays off the Atlantic Ocean. Howling winds or a blinding fog can close the golf course during summer at a moment's notice. Many of the foot paths run right along the cliffs.
Those who dismiss the layout as disappointing do so only when comparing the golf course to its breathtaking surroundings. Architect Ron Kirby, a former Jack Nicklaus associate, led a collaboration of men, including Ireland’'s late, great Eddie Hackett, in crafting the design.
The 7,159-yard golf course, which opened in 1997, lacks dynamic bunkering and greenside contouring.
But O'Connor shrugs off the complaints, insisting he wants Old Head Golf Links to stay playable for all. It's no pushover, though, considering the course record of 68, shared by Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods.
"We want people to leave with a warm feeling in their bellies," O'Connor says.
Old Head Golf Links remains a work in progress. Every hole has been redone since 2000, according to director of golf Danny Brassil, with more plans are in the works. The greens of two par 3s on the back nine -- the 258-yard 13th and 186-yard 16th -- could be moved.
"We want to push 13th on to a cliff," Brassil said. "It would be the most spectacular hole on the course."
Now that's saying something, since eight holes already dance alongside the cliffs.
Visual stunners more than make up for a handful of pedestrian inland holes, like the par-4 first and fifth. It's hard not to flinch on the tee of the par-4 second, called the Gun Hole, and on the par-4 fourth, Razor’'s Edge. A slight hook or draw will send your ball to the same watery grave that claimed 1,198 unfortunate souls when a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania off Old Head in 1915.
Walking to the seventh tee, players pass the ruins of an old lighthouse that dates to 1750 and a stone cottage that was once a brothel.
The back nine features the unique combination of three par 3s and three par 5s. Throw in a drivable par 4, the 342-yard 15th, and there exists an opportunity to score well.
After the heart-stopping 12th hole, the golf course climaxes as the green of the 623-yard 17th and the tee of the 434-yard 18th sit the shadow of the lighthouse.
"It's hard to concentrate when you take in all the views," Brassil said.
After the round, golfers are served more eye candy in the clubhouse, from the windows of the Lusitania Bar or the five-star de Courcey Restaurant. To splurge a little more, pick your lobster from the live tank outside the restaurant.
Fifteen spacious members' suites and a spa built beneath the clubhouse, tucked into the hillside, rank as the newest amenities, added in 2009. Large beds and bathrooms with dual-headed showers and a small terrace near the 18th green come standard.
If the resort is full, book a hotel in downtown Kinsale, a charming seaside town known as the gourmet capital of Ireland. The Blue Haven Hotel sits within walking distance of 30 pubs and 12 internationally renowned restaurants. The hotel serves a great complimentary breakfast, too.
The verdict: Old Head Golf Links
Words and pictures don't do justice to Old Head Golf Links. The best advice is to just go experience it -- and now. The economy has made Old Head more affordable than ever, too. If you're lucky enough to secure a sunny day like I did, you'll leave the golf course feeling high on life. And allow time to spend at least a half of a day exploring Kinsdale. Your taste buds will thank you.