Pars and stars at the Old Head of Kinsale: Quietly managing one of world golf's great experiences

From a portable building in the car park to a golfing must-play of world renown, the Old Head and its genial General Manager Jim O’Brien have quite the adventure to reflect upon
Pars and stars at the Old Head of Kinsale: Quietly managing one of world golf's great experiences

Jim O'Brien, who is retiring as general manager of the Old Head golf club in Kinsale. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Given his time at golf’s majestic Old Head of Kinsale began in the Supreme Court and ended at the uncomfortable end of a global pandemic, it is revealing to hear Jim O’Brien reflect on the most difficult period at the world-renowned resort.

“2008 was a very rough time, when the global recession was about to hit and hit hard. A very difficult phase of cutting staff and salaries. I had just come back as general manager from (a stint at) Skellig Bay in Kerry and went straight into cost-cutting mode. It was about survival. The American economy had crashed, they weren’t travelling, the bottom had literally fallen out of the industry and there were golf courses going into Nama.”

Taking his cue from the WHO’s Mike Ryan on the danger of procrastination in a crisis, O’Brien says they had to react “very fast” to the circumstances. “We were battening down the hatches.”

Two years earlier, the bankers and wankers watched as the lads drained pints from the roof of the clubhouse at the K Club after the 2006 Ryder Cup extravaganza. The corporate clients made haste for their helicopters. If you listened really closely, you could hear the bubble bursting.

“Within a couple of years, the troika was called in and the industry was decimated. It’s easy to overlook it now, younger lads would hardly know what you were talking about. I had to let 20-30 staff go in the first week back. Act and act fast, I was advised.

“We had to rethink our pricing, rethink relationships with tour operators, and go through our cost base, line by line. We did the same this year with the Covid situation in terms of pricing for the domestic market and I wouldn’t apologise for making any commercial decision. I am a banker by trade and if you don’t make those tough calls — some are right, others can be wrong. We had a split season in 2021, the first few months we catered exclusively for the domestic market, and we priced our product accordingly. Everybody wins. Then come August, when the overseas market opened up, we responded to that too. We are a business at the end of the day.”

Jim O'Brien: 'Within a couple of years, the troika was called in and the industry was decimated'. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Jim O'Brien: 'Within a couple of years, the troika was called in and the industry was decimated'. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

And a spectacularly successful one to boot. It’s the greater part of 25 years since Jim O’Brien first became acquainted with the O’Connor brothers, John and Patrick, who dared to dream with a unique parcel of lightly-farmed headland outside Kinsale. Last week O’Brien retired as GM, his plan for a modest exit torpedoed by a succession of well-earned thank yous from the industry and farewell bashes with friends in Kinsale.

“Did I die or something?” he wondered at a tribute night in Martin Shanahan’s Fishy Fishy.

That he might walk light and disappear, like one of those pre-noon fogs that linger over the promontory, then evaporate out to sea, was fanciful. Now, though, he can get lost on the plunging fairways, examining the flora and fauna as he goes, hit a few balls and let his successor as GM, Danny Brassil, progress the project.

“Sunday mornings, I would always go out the course on my own. I am not being melodramatic but that’s my cathedral, walking down the second fairway, thinking that in high season, there’s 130 people making a living from the Old Head. I get huge satisfaction out of that.”

The Supreme Court thing was “part of the journey” for the Old Head. When the facility opened in 1997, there were specific — and in hindsight, unsustainable — conditions attached to the planning, such as continuing access for the public through the golf course.

The course design was a collaboration of Ron Kirby, Paddy Merrigan, Liam Higgins, Haulie O’Shea, and the late Joe Carr and comprised 180 of the 220-acre headland.

“This was a one-off,” Kirby told Golf Monthly. “When you first drive in here you just say, ‘Wow. What a wow factor this place has!’ I got the assignment to do the strategy and the final design, and we went from there. I got a lot of input from Joe (Carr).”

Explains O’Brien: “My initial job was to open the course — we had a very raw landscape. We opened up very basic, operated out of portable buildings in the car park for the first year. The (County) Council claimed it was a public right of way, but we soon discovered that golf and walkers were not compatible along the same routes, so John (O’Connor, the impatient visionary and developer) challenged the planning, and got a judicial review.

“It went to the High Court, who ruled in our favour — and then Bord Pleanála appealed to the Supreme Court. At that stage, we were nervous because if the decision had gone against us, we might not have what we have today. We wouldn’t have shut it down, but it would have been very different. Potential members mightn’t have been that confident if there was a public right of way through the golf course. It meant so much to us that the decision was reversed.”

With their terms and conditions secured, the O’Connors, O’Brien and the team went at it “hell for leather”.

“John had a huge vision and dream for the Old Head that he was going to make it the most spectacular golf course experience on the planet. At the time, nobody believed him. He would be picturing helicopters flying into us every day with golfers from all over the world. I would have thought the guy was mad. But he had this vision and a determination to match it. He set the bar very high. It took a while.

Jim O'Brien looking out from the members bar. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Jim O'Brien looking out from the members bar. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I think we have changed the landscape of Irish golf tourism and I say that without arrogance. Golf tourism is now a very important part of the Irish economy, and at a micro level, Kinsale benefits hugely from the Old Head.”

O’Brien’s phlegmatic disposition was a critical part in riding out the initial storms and placating John O’Connor. The irascible owner would frequently stick his head around the office door with a morning greeting for O’Brien: “Try not to f*ck things up again today.”

The Macroom man and former bank manager did his best to comply.

“A lot of us were absolutely enthralled by the headland itself, the stunning beauty and drama of it. We could see the potential, but John had bigger dreams still. A lot of the so-called designers and experts told him he was mad, that the site was too severe and exposed. He persevered. John relished a battle. An extraordinary man, a passion and a driving force that rubbed off on us all – good and bad.”

O’Brien was the GM in the car park who greeted kings and princes and the game’s global elite by day and then slipped into Jim Edwards in Kinsale for an evening pint. He saw initial scepticism and scorn replaced by pride and support.

“The Old Head has played a huge part in setting standards and within a very short space of time, we became a must-play destination on the tour operators’ list. Within three years, we knew we were on the right track and began to develop a hybrid model with our membership — a member’s club with limited outside play.

“There was a lot of anti-feeling initially because there was a perception out there that the Old Head was always public property. John was on record from a very early stage saying it was not the Phoenix Park of Cork. As a kid, I went in there, but you were always trespassing.

“Paul Mulcahy, whose uncle owned Waterville golf links, saw the ad in the paper one Saturday morning, a 220-acre farm for sale, and he rang John. He and his brother Patrick then bought it, not realising from the outset they were going to develop a golf course.

“It proved a very difficult site to grow grass on. In the first couple of winters, we lost up to ten greens each year. In heavy storms, 15-foot waves hit the cliff-face and wash salt spray, detrimental to grass, over the course. In a bad winter, you can get that for days, even weeks at a time.

“The greenkeeper then, Martin Galvin, discovered a grass type that was fairly salt tolerant — Seaside 2 — and once we nursed that, we not only could grow and maintain greens, but we could push them out to the cliff edge a bit more. Martin trialled 30 or 40 plots, giving them very little TLC, and crucially, two or three survived the winters.

“It remains a challenge for the current superintendent, Neil Deasy. The Old Head is virtually an island remember, so when you get those heavy swells in January and February, there are days you can’t see the lighthouse because of the spray. The eastern side, the 4th and the 7th, is pretty well sheltered, but the western fringes takes the brunt of the south-westerlies so No’s 12, 16, and 17, they are the ones that get hammered every year.

The wonderful par 5 12th hole at the Old Head outside Kinsale.
The wonderful par 5 12th hole at the Old Head outside Kinsale.

“Tom O’Byrne, the renowned Cork ecologist, was a huge influence. One of John’s passions was horticulture and they would have travelled the world sourcing plants that would survive at the Old Head. Tom would have done all the environmental impact studies and was hugely conscious of the headland.”

Is it a links? “It’s a cliffside golf course,” O’Brien says. “Ocean views now from every hole — we built new tees on the first to ensure that.”

Now, the Old Head is spoken of with the same reverence as Pebble Beach in terms of jaw-dropping majesty. The initial marketing strategy, such as it was, saw John O’Connor take off most winters to the four corners of the world, to the US, China, India and South Africa, to spread the word in his own inimitable way.

Was anyone believing what he was telling them? Perhaps. Serendipity helped. The Golf Channel came knocking on a stunningly beautiful Sunday morning in 1997 and beamed Old Head’s glory into millions of homes. O’Brien and the team wondered a while why the phones in the portable buildings were suddenly ringing off the hook with bookings for the following year.

“Around the same time ‘ Links’ magazine has us on the cover as the most spectacular course in the world. A six-ball arrived one day — Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Payne Stewart, David Duval, Lee Janzen and Stuart Appleby — on their way to the British Open.”

Kings and presidents, corporate clientele and members from across the globe come and go, using Kinsale for their culinary soirees. “Selling the Old Head is the easiest part of the job now. The only problem I faced was bad weather.

“John would always say he wanted to make Old Head the best golf course in the world. That’s subjective, but I promised him we would make it the best golf experience in the world. We are conscious of the Irish welcome from the moment they come in the gate. From the caddie experience, the flora, fauna, it’s the sum of many parts. My office is just over the 18th green and I can hear fourballs and their comments coming up the hill.”

Waterville builder Haulie O’Shea was a good friend to Jim and the Old Head. The Kerry man was central to the course construction and was excavating the cliffside back tee on No 15 when his digger went from under him and 300ft down the cliff-face. Haulie jumped.

“He was lucky. He did get a hole named (Haulie’s Leap) after him but he earned it.

“So I left the Old Head for a year or two around 2004 because Haulie was building his own course, Skellig Bay, in Waterville. When GM John O’Dwyer was leaving the Old Head for Quinta do Lago in Portugal, John O’Connor rang me. I’ve been here since.”

Apart from hosting Tiger and the King of Malaysia, O’Brien isn’t inclined to namedrop but his affection for the late owner of the Miami Dolphins, Wayne Huizenga, is evident. And clearly reciprocated.

The wonderful par 5 12th hole at the Old Head outside Kinsale.
The wonderful par 5 12th hole at the Old Head outside Kinsale.

“He was a huge fan of Irish golf. He would fly the Dolphins jet into Shannon and play the pick of the south-west tracks. One of my career highlights was when he issued an invite to play in a pro-am at his course, the Gary-Player-designed The Floridian. There were only nine guests and three pros — Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. I died and went to heaven that week. Wayne was a very decent and down-to-earth man.”

What have the O’Connors invested in total?

“It’s ongoing, every year, both on and off the course. The team have plans for the future, eventually, we will move the restaurant and bar out towards the sea. There are 21 suites there in total, looking out on the ocean.”

Globally recognised now as one of the great golf experiences, Old Head is set fair, even with the continuing uncertainty with coronavirus.

“Hopefully we see a huge bounce back for the golf industry next year. The bookings are there. The Americans are chomping at the bit to come to Ireland, and not just us — all the resort courses will prosper. Ireland’s list of ‘must-plays’ is growing by the year. They are talking about St Patricks in Donegal as the daddy of them all, and that is fantastic for us all. In international terms, Donegal to Cork is not a long haul for a golf tourist who will play Lahinch and Ballybunion on the way down.”

He might get a chance to drop in on a few industry colleagues himself now. Visit his kids in Singapore, New York and Puglia, Italy. Or read a book or two.

“I’ve gotten into audio books lately. Listened to Melanie Brown’s — aka Scary Spice — Brutally Honest which is a fantastic story. I probably wouldn’t even look at it on the bookshelf, but it popped into my app feed and I found it riveting. The same with Eddie Jones, the England head coach. An interesting man. I might even wander out on a Sunday morning and find a quiet fairway — if they’ll have me.”

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