Tom Coyne shakes hands with an Old Head legend, starter Paddy Brassil through the Celtic Stone of Accord.
Monday, August 13, 2007

Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, is making his way across Ireland on foot this summer, playing every links golf course in the country. In Fall 2008, he'll publish a book about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland. In the meantime, he'll be writing a travel journal for GOLF.com. The complete journal is here.

My Kinsale story begins in the farthest reaches of Northern Ireland. Many weeks ago, I found myself walking into a place called Ardglass, and as I've written before, I found the stone's throw triangle of clubhouse to restaurant to pub to B&B to be one of this adventure's great finds. A close second to the discovery of the Olde Commercial Pub in Ardglass was the discovery of a gentleman named Gerard sitting within said pub. His bewilderment at what I had undertaken, to walk and golf the whole of this island, was a genuine amazement, and I certainly appreciated it.

As I race for the finish line, I often forget what it is that I'm so close to pulling off. Gerry made me feel like something of a Superman, and I almost believed him. It was another one of those boosts that keeps the knees going. Gerry was also a proud Ardglass member, and he wetted our appetites for the fine links across the street with hole-by-hole accounts of what we had in store for us. He was a good guy, and in the space of an evening, became a friend.

As we discussed my itinerary, recounting where I've played — a list too extensive to recall from memory — and where I was headed, to the great links of Dublin and the Southwest on my way to Ballybunion, my story stopped when I made the turn from the European Club, and Gerry heard that I was indeed headed to Kinsale.

"You're going to play the Old Head?" he said, eyes wide, a shy sort of reverence in his voice. I knew many Yanks who considered Old Head to be a golfing Mecca, but I figured the Irish to be more blase about a course of their own. Gerry thoughtfully conveyed to us that playing Old Head was one of his life's dreams. And after a few pints, feeling quite full of myself, Ireland's golfing superhero, there was no way for me to bite back the inevitable promise: "You make it to Kinsale, Gerry, I'll make it happen."

How I was going to make it happen, I had no idea. Frankly, I didn't know if they'd let Gerry on the property, didn't know if he could break 150, couldn't be sure he was going to show up in sneakers and cut-offs. You see, where I'm from, promises that have anything to do with tee times, business and/or travel plans, loans of personal property, etc. — when made after 11 p.m., they are to be considered null and void until reaffirmed in the sober light of day. I thought my offer had vanished with that evening's lager. But this was Old Head I was talking about. And this was my new fourth in Kinsale, Gerry from Ardglass.

The texts started rolling in a few weeks later, voicemails left from a number in Northern Ireland, inquiring as to whether I was still headed to the Old Head, and still looking for some company. I'm basically golfing Ireland at the kindness and charity of these clubs. I can't rightly say who I can or can't ask to join me, really, but I also can't say no to Gerry. If there's any Irish trait I hope rubs off on me when I return home, it's a bit of the relentless hospitality. Just a few of the absurd acts of graciousness we've encountered here in Ireland: my buddy Tim getting an hour's lift from the airport with the Irish woman he sat next to on the plane; Chip getting an hour's ride to Dublin with Pat Ruddy's son; Terry from the Rosapenna hotel, who not only treated us to one of the best meals I've had in Ireland, but threw in a foot massage! This wasn't the land of "I can't make it happen." This was the land of "I'll get it sorted," even when you didn't have a clue how the hell you would.

And so last Thursday, Gerry started out from Ardglass, about as far away as you can get from Kinsale, driving eight hours to the country's southern tip. Old Head ensured me that we had a foursome set, with a spot booked for one Gerry Ryan (didn't know his last name, Ryan sounded safe enough). He had traversed the country alone, no place to stay on a bank holiday weekend, driven by an aging bar-room promise. And that's how special Old Head is. Gerry wasn't the most fit man I've met in Ireland, but I think he would have walked there with me if he had to.

Having been blown away by Old Head on one of Jerry Quinlan's father-son trips (if you've got a son and the resources, give Jerry a call), I was familiar with the mixed feelings surrounding one of the most ambitious golf courses ever built. For those of you unfamiliar with the miracle that is Old Head, a few brothers from Kerry bought what is essentially an island off the tip of Kinsale, spent years covering it with soil and fairway, and built a golf course on a piece of property that you'd be afraid to traverse as a goat, let alone a golfer. (Lore about the purchase of Old Head says the farmer sold because he was tired of losing sheep off the cliffs.) Taking in a photograph of Old Head, it almost looks impossible — not to play, just to imagine.

Along with glowing reviews from golfers turned speechless by Old Head, I'd also heard protests about its price (at 295 euros a man, it's not for the disinterested), heard complaints from purists about the manufactured quality of the place. Too American, too expensive and wrong for a golf course to cover up this historic bit of rock. And while I would typically sympathize with a number of these points, in the case of Old Head, I'll allow myself some anti-elitist dispensation. I guess I don't really care if the place is for millionaires, or if it is indeed overrun by Yanks (membership is over 80 percent American). Hell, I am American. And if Old Head is for millionaires, then I'm going to have to devise a better plan to become one. Because the Old Head of Kinsale is simply the most spectacular golf course in the world.

Spectacular, I say — not the most classic, not the most historic, not the most challenging, not the best in Ireland, even (Carne is still top of the pops for me), but spectacular in a way that makes 295 euros seem like a steal. Gerry and I were joined by the Philadelphia native turned Kinsale legend Pat Spellman, and none of us played particularly well. To say the weather was shite would be a rosy assessment. But this was the first time in many months where I hardly noticed the rain. I hit three solid hozel-rockets, broke ninety by the skin of my teeth, and still, soaked and frozen, I grinned my way around the whole back nine. Looking around at Old Head — it might sound corny, but I swear, from time to time, you just sort of giggle.

It's not just the golf course. You'll be pressed to find a place more focused on the visitors' experience. There's value at Old Head past the vistas, and it comes from the people who make your day unique. As a visitor, you typically get a tee time and someone to point you toward the locker room (County Down, we didn't even get that much, where we were actually handed a scorecard through the clubhouse window). At Old Head, from the hello at the gate from resident comedian Noel, to the fuss made over you by Mary and Clodagh in the clubhouse, to the 10 minutes of Old Head history that you get from Paddy Brassil on the first tee, you get the sense that you are not only about to do something very special, but that everyone is happy for you to be doing so. I've been told how great a particular course is, as if to make me feel lucky for being there. At Old Head, they make you feel like they're lucky to have you (at 295 euros, I guess they pretty much are).

And so Gerry got his scorecard from Old Head, along with a half-dozen brochures for disbelieving friends in the North. That night at dinner, over steaks and spuds that Gerry was only too happy to splurge for, he explained, "That was the most amazing golf course I have ever seen. I mean, Tom, how do you even begin to write about a place like that?"

I toasted my friend and told him, "Easy, Gerry. I just write about you."

Next, on to Waterville and Skellig Bay... three weeks to go!

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