Old Head Golf Links visionary John O’Connor, who lived in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, died in Kerry General Hospital in Tralee yesterday, almost a week after suffering a suspected heart attack at home. He was 69.
“He was charismatic — a great character — who established the Old Head as a world-class attraction and developed the course into one of the world’s must-play golf courses,” his long-time friend, auctioneer Dominic Daly said.
“Today, the course is bucking the trend with increasing numbers of Irish members.”
Mr O’Connor, along with his brother, Patrick, bought land on the Old Head of Kinsale from local farmer Michael Roche for less than £250,000 in 1989.
The purchase was made on a whim, Mr O’Connor later acknowledged. With experience in the international property market — particularly in high-end housing development in Florida, California, and the South of France — developing a golf course on the scenic headland was the last thing on his mind.
But by 1997, he had opened a par 72, 7,200 yard 18-hole golf course for play, with the aim of establishing it within a few years as one of the top courses in the world.
It targeted international golf travellers, high-rollers, millionaires, and captains of industry, who at one stage were forking out up to €1,000 for a fourball.
John O'Connor, president of Old Head of Kinsale, Passed away today, after a short illness. His legacy will live on forever Slan John. RIP.— Carr Golf (@CarrGolfTravel) June 10, 2013
Membership was pitched at €50,000 a year, with a regular day fee in 2006 set at €275.
International players would jet in on their private aircraft to Shannon or Cork airports, then helicopter to the course to play a round of golf as part of a golfing tour of Ireland.
Former US president Bill Clinton is among the big names to have negotiated his way around the spectacular links.
It opened specially on Mar 18 to allow mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, play a round with former Bord Gáis CEO, and former president of Cork Chamber, John Mullins.
But the development triggered a very public and oftentimes bitter campaign to preserve access for the public to the headland.
Hill walkers and environmentalists staged numerous protests at the site in a campaign that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Today, the Old Head Golf Links is recognised as one of the world’s top courses, consistently ranked as one of the most spectacular and challenging.
Regular green fees for 18-holes, playable from April to October this year, are €160 in the low season and €200 in the high season.
Rates for corporate and international membership, features of which include a concierge service where chauffeur transfer, helicopter transfer, and private jet arrangements can be arranged, are not published on its website.
Mr O’Connor, who was separated from his wife and who is survived by his son, Benjamin, was a keen golfer and gardener, who also had a passion for fishing and shooting.
In an interview in 2006, Mr O’Connor said: “Making the Old Head what it is today is certainly not about money or profit.
“If that’s all that drove me I would certainly be better served putting up hotels or office blocks in places like Shanghai or New York.
“What it has done, however, is make me a great many friends around the world in practically every country of any consequence.”