TONY LEEN: Old Head the golfing gem that’s the cherry on top for Ireland’s gourmet capital

It drives spin-off business in Kinsale to the tune of around €10m every year. Little wonder the reopening yesterday of the acclaimed Old Head golf links for 2016 has the town smiling. It isn’t just a boon for golfers, writes Tony Leen

Andrew Corcoran, the owner of the stylish Perryville House bed and breakfast in Kinsale smiles sending 46 hungry diners out his front door looking for food each night.

Enviously? Not so much. The premium nightly rate at his 23-room establishment is €350 for the four-poster, double-bathroom treatment. Corcoran’s problem? If only the Perryville had more of them...

The fresh south-westerlies whistling in over the Old Head of Kinsale don’t crest at the private golf resort that is home to what Links magazine labelled “the most spectacular links on earth”. Those winds carry with gusto into the town of Kinsale, pouring millions of euros into the port area, its bars and its eateries.

Not to mention its B&Bs.

“I would venture very few people outside Kinsale truly understand the wealth and business the Old Head brings to the area,” Andrew Corcoran maintains. “These are seriously wealthy people who might fly in from America — frequently on their private jet — for two or three days. It is quite superb. It pumps millions into the town.”

Hence, Kinsale’s blue-sky disposition this week. The Old Head reopened for business yesterday for the 2016 season, all but booked solid until closure again for the winter next October. The phenomenal part is not so much how it survived without any significant readjustment in price or philosophy through the recession. More that so few people outside its business circle and the town appreciate the global behemoth on its doorstep.

“In the four or five recession years we did respond to the market, but not in a dramatic way,” Jim O’Brien, the Old Head’s general manager, maintains. “When (the late owner) John O’Connor was alive, his philosophy was always to maintain standards every hour of every day in every part of the experience. And John was a world traveller so he had plenty of reference points.”

Corcoran, who’s a member of the golf club, concurs. “A key aspect is the way they run the place. There are other great golf courses in Ireland, but the way they run the place... it’s the best-run golfing experience in Ireland.

“They nearly lift you out of your car when you arrive. I don’t golf as much as I should, but every time I go out there, I come away thinking ‘why am I not out there every day?”

Philip Horgan, who runs one of Kinsale’s premier restaurants, The Man Friday, is already seeing bookings escalate this weekend.

“Every town in Ireland would love to have an Old Head. That, in essence, is what it means to the town. It’s a phenomenon. It brings in seriously good spenders into Kinsale, the top end of the market, and we all reap the benefits.”

A former bank manager, Jim O’Brien is not given to hyperbole. A quietly-spoken man, he prefers to operate the levers with director of golf Danny Brassil, assistant general manager Lhara O’Connor, and other key members of the team at the Old Head from behind the scenes, and is as likely to be found having a quiet pint in Kinsale of an evening as he is shucking oysters with the corporate clients overlooking the 18th green.

“We would be a key player in the commercial life of Kinsale now. We have 15,000 visitors a year coming in to play here. Of that, maybe six to seven thousand will stay in Kinsale, big-spending tourists. If they spend €500 a day for three days, that’s €1,500 per person. The maths are easy after that...”

Another to prosper when the golfers get hungry is the renowned Fishy Fishy restaurant. Proprietor Martin Shanahan says the Old Head golfers from overseas don’t just carry gold credit cards. They carry seriously influential opinions back home.

“During the recession, when there was no more Celtic Tiger, the Old Head kept Kinsale ticking over. Now it’s like the anchor of Kinsale. We all feel the wind at our backs from the moment they re-open. First, it’ll be the corporate clients from around Ireland, then it’s the visitors from overseas. Last year we saw a lot of Swiss and Germans in the restaurant.”

“We are at full capacity for this season,” O’Brien confirms. “The numbers have been that way for the last three or four years, and we can’t fit in any more tee-times. We used to have a ‘shoulder’ period for the first six weeks and the last six weeks of the season. We don’t have that any more. We are full now until the end of October.”

At the Old Head of Kinsale, you don’t just play the fourth or 12th hole, you navigate the ball through one of the most spectacular beauty spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. That challenging course plus top class service make it a magnet for wealthy golfers from all around the world

John O’Connor was a walking, talking, marketing campaign himself, and he spent the Old Head’s winter downtime in Asia, South Africa and west coast America telling golfers to come and compare this golfing masterpiece to anything else they’d played.

Word of mouth helped create its worldwide stellar reputation without ever formalising a marketing spend. Golf Digest said it was a “course in a million.” The Golf Channel beamed pictures of the course’s 10 cliff-edge holes into 54 million homes worldwide. That helps.

“The O’Connors have always kept raising the bar, to make the Old Head the flag-bearer for Irish golf from a standards point of view. Huge investment has gone into the place,” said Jim O’Brien.

“This is a very successful business but the O’Connors put every piece of profit they made back into it.”

Some numbers. The member-guest playing ratio is about one third-two thirds. Membership starts at €30,000 to join, and there are 300-plus who do that and pay the annual fees. The Old Head has about 120 American members with 80% of its overall membership from outside Ireland. The 20% will increase, says Jim O’Brien, because the owners want to grow the Old Head now as a members club.

“We are very much a commercial entity, at least compared to other (golf) clubs which would be owned by members, who take a lot of tee times. We allocate three hours a day to our members. But that will increase and we see down the road when we will have only an hour or two (tee-times) per day for outside visitors.”

At the height of season, nobody blinks at the idea of paying €1,000 for a fourball. “We never ever get a complaint here on value,” says O’Brien. “Any complaints we might get would be more about a foggy day or a bit of slow play.”

In terms of visitor traffic, the numbers that are key to the commercial mainline of Kinsale: 50% from the US every year, 30% from the rest of the world, and 20% from around this country.

“Scandinavians, Italians, Germans now travel here for golf where once they headed to sun golf resorts like Spain and Portugal. There’s a very healthy Asian clientele traffic. We had 1,000 rounds of golf in 2015 from China, India and Korea. But the tour operators who bring in business are still bringing the majority of their clients from America.”

All of whom know what they want, and use the likes of Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Augusta, and Pebble Beach as their benchmarks.

“The golfers who go out for dinner in Kinsale might go through 10 bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages on a night out. And those Bordeaux are €500 a bottle,” Andrew Corcoran points out. His Perryville House times its clocks by the Old Head. When the golfing season starts this week, Perryville primes itself, opening a few days ahead.

“Some of our rooms are 700 sq ft and the clients from the Old Head always book early and say ‘we want the big room’. We’ve been trying, without success, to negotiate with local planners, to extend our B&B but that’s for another day...”

Martin Shanahan adds: “Fishy Fishy is one small part of the jigsaw in Kinsale, but the Old Head is the key part of the puzzle. If a visitor experiences five or six pieces of the Kinsale jigsaw while he is here for golf at the Old Head, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Funnily, those are the exact words Jim O’Brien uses in describing the golf course’s relationship these days with the town.

“In the early years, there were misgivings about the Old Head, let’s be factual about it. Everyone knows about the long, protracted legal battle over public access and the terms and conditions that would have made the place inoperable from our point of view.

“But even before that, the O’Connors were told by all the experts that you could not build a golf course here, that you couldn’t grow the grass or fit 18 holes into the headland and its 220 acres. There were 54 routings done before we finally decided, with designer Ron Kirby, on the final track.

“There was a fallacy about there always being public access to the Old Head. The farmer that owned the land before the O’Connors bought it, Michael Roche, would tell you it was private, but we all trespassed with impunity. Once you came in over the locked gates, you were trespassing.

“The O’Connors bought it. It was a huge leap of faith. They (John and his brother Patrick) were among the very few people who would have had the gumption, or the pockets, to take on the authorities and Bord Pleanála all the way to the Supreme Court. It was a nightmare time for the family.”

At the Old Head of Kinsale, you don’t just play the fourth or 12th hole, you navigate the ball through one of the most spectacular beauty spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. That challenging course plus top class service make it a magnet for wealthy golfers from all around the world

Now, says O’Brien, almost everyone in Kinsale agrees the synergy is a win-win.

“We have changed opinions, I think. We have seldom, if ever, gone out looking for publicity. Whatever exposure we get is passive. But one of the strengths of the place, and the reason we don’t need to shout from the rooftops, is that it’s so photogenic. Any of the pictures in any magazine around the world is an invitation to come here and experience it.”

Public access protesters weren’t the only hostile opponents in the early 1990s. High waves and salt water have wiped away greens over the course of the past 20 winters. One night, a 120 ft wave scaled the rocks and swept away the green at the par 3 16th.

“We eventually found a grass, developed in the nurseries here, that was salt tolerant,” says the general manager. “Now we have got to the point where we can look at the cosmetics of the place more. In the early years, we were always protecting the course against the elements. Every year there is a six-figure spend, upgrading and improving things. John always said it was a work in progress.”

As the fine-tuning continues, ditto the spin-offs. 120 staff and 80 caddies employed at the height of season. An estimated €10 million a year into Kinsale’s economy.

“What makes me proud is that we do make such a contribution to the local community,” O’Brien stresses. “Kinsale is the gourmet capital of Ireland, so it isn’t all down to the golf, but we do make a contribution. I knew what we had here would be as good a golfing experience as anything in the world. People continue to say that, its uniqueness makes it so special.”

Kinsale’s Chamber of Commerce would heartily concur.

Ireland’s south-west to be ‘golfing mecca’

Director of golf Danny Brassil, assistant general manager Lhara O’Connor, Rory McIlroy and Old Head general manager Jim O’Brien during a visit last year by the four-time major champion to the acclaimed links

Jim O’Brien, the general manager at the Old Head of Kinsale golf resort, predicts that Ireland’s south-west and mid-west is on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s greatest golfing meccas.

A lavish spend by many of the region’s blue-chip golf resorts and links will help form a loose alliance that pumps millions of euros into the economies of Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Clare.

“The great golf courses which already enjoy a global reputation would be Lahinch, Waterville, Ballybunion, Tralee, Doonbeg. All those courses are being seriously upgraded — and I mean seriously — with considerable financial investment.

“Ballybunion is re-laying all 18 greens and tee boxes, Lahinch has already done a superb remodelling job and the Donald Trump resort at Doonbeg is also undertaking massive improvement works.

“On top of that, JP McManus will doubtless do a serious job and leave no stone unturned to make Adare, the best parkland track in the country. As a package, that represents a golfing mecca for discerning golfers and world travellers. It won’t be cheap, but it will be special.”

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