‘Glorious defeat’ at the Old Head

It was, in the words of a local sage, a day borrowed from the weather gods at the Old Head of Kinsale. The water sparkled, the sky stayed blue and the breeze was testing enough to brook no debate about who was boss.

It was one power struggle the ex-president of America was always going to lose.

Fifteen of the last 18 US presidents ’fessed up to being keen golfers, and Clinton is one of the more able. Therefore, the chance to play the world-renowned jewel outside Kinsale in Co Cork yesterday — and renew some special acquaintances into the bargain — was a few hours too good to pass up.

Clinton has enjoyed a “genuine, solid friendship” with former tánaiste Dick Spring since their midnight-oil work on the Peace Process. The former Labour leader played 18 holes with him and a cast of thousands in Ballybunion 14 years ago, and, now happily recovered from a recent back operation, had enough of his game back yesterday to tee it up again with Clinton.

The low-key four-ball was completed by New York hotelier John Fitzpatrick and top New York businessman Declan Kelly, from Tipperary, a close friend of the Clintons. Kelly, a former Irish Examiner staff writer who never lost the run of himself, is CEO of Teneo Holdings and the man who essentially delivered the former US president to last night’s Worldwide Ireland Fund dinner in Ballymaloe House.

Mr Clinton travelled by road from Cork Airport to Kinsale yesterday morning, and because of it, had a better sense of the special experience he travelled early from France for.

Teeing off just after 10.30am, the former president chatted amiably to his caddy as he eased his way into one of the toughest tests in links golf — the Old Head when the wind blows.

Asked how he got on, Clinton said: “The course won but it was a glorious defeat.”

“It was a good, testing breeze,” said Old Head general manager Jim O’Brien. “It was stiff even by Tralee [Barrow] or Ballybunion standards,” said Mr Spring.

The quartet was guided around the front side by caddies Aidan Moynihan and Michael Moore and forecaddie, Ben O’Connor, a son of Old Head owner John O’Connor.

It wasn’t just the wind that bowled Clinton over. “Dynamic”, “remarkable”, and “extremely beautiful” were terms resounding in the conversation.

“He just loved the scenery,” said Mr Spring.

Jim O’Brien added: “It was soon pretty evident they were having a good time.” The company and privacy helped. “The caddies are always a good barometer of whether players enjoyed the experience,” said Mr O’Brien, “and they say the ex-president was at ease and very pleasant to deal with. There was no fuss, no standing on ceremony, no protocol. It was four friends out for a nice game of golf.”

The golf, according to Mr Kelly and Mr Spring was “good in the circumstances”. Said Mr Spring: “Given the unpredictable weather we’ve been having, we really got away with it. The sun was shining, and there were a few pars thrown in there too.”

The four-ball played the front nine before a break for food at the halfway pit-stop, where a choice of Irish seafood caught the eye. They moved on directly to the spectacular and daunting par 5 No 12, where players are challenged to drive up and across the cliff-face before zeroing in on a funnel approach to a tiny green.

“Actually, we all negotiated it quite well,” said Mr Spring.

Clinton was particularly chuffed to par the heart-in-your-mouth No 16, a par three along the sea where swinging a club is often a challenge in itself.

“Even though the Secret Service were there, it was like they were just four guys out for a round,” said Jim O’Brien, an old hand when it comes to entertaining golfing VIP’s.

Dick Spring, ever the Kerryman, took the opportunity at the 9th to formally invite the ex-president to his own Tralee Golf Club at Barrow the next time he visits Ireland.

“He has always been a most gracious guest. He spent plenty of time with the caddies and the staff, but that’s his nature. I hadn’t seen him since Dublin last year and I will always see Bill Clinton as one of the two men [along with George Mitchell] who did the business, big-time, for this country during the Peace Process.

“Anytime there’s an opportunity, he invariably asks me to play. We have a lot of common interests and he’s been a good friend to this country.”

He’s hardly done the global reputation of the Old Head any harm either.

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