With the 2014 Irish Open returning to Cork from the 19th to the 22nd of June, golf is very much to the fore around ‘Ireland’s Second Capital’ with a wonderfully diverse selection of courses to choose from.
Fota Island is obviously in the spotlight, and with most of the mainline European Tour players committing to the event, it is a rare opportunity to see the likes of major winners Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington on Irish soil. For Padraig, Fota holds many fond memories as he won the Irish Amateur Open there in 1995. So too, for current Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley, who took the Irish PGA Championship at Fota in 1997.
Just down the road, and close to Fota Island, is the venerable ‘Grand Dame’ of golf in the region, Cork Golf Club, commonly known as ‘Little Island.’ Its origins date back to 1888 with a 9 hole layout at a nearby hillside. In 1897, some local gentry moored their yachts near an abandoned quarry and decided it would make an ideal setting for a golf course. In 1924, no less a person than Alister MacKenzie, the famed creator of Augusta National, redesigned the course. He used the steep chasms around the old quarry and the costal setting to magnificent effect. Soon Cork became host to the major amateur and professional events, including the Irish Open, the Irish PGA Championship and the Irish Close Championship.
Many of the great players of yesteryear trod the scenic layout including Harry Vardon, Henry Cotton, Christy O’Connor, Snr. and Cork’s own, Jimmy Bruen. In 1983, the late Severiano Ballesteros came to Little Island and played an exhibition match against the long hitting local, Liam Higgins. However it was Seve’s drive on the 11th hole that caught the spotlight, travelling 332 metres, which was unheard prior to our modern equipment. A Spanish chestnut tree was planted on the spot where his drive came to rest and is a major feature on the hole today.
In 2009 a decision was made to upgrade Cork Golf Club. The brief of maintaining the essence and character of MacKenzie’s design while bringing the layout to modern standards. The contract was giving to the world renowned firm of Hawtree Golf Course Architects, who specialise in MacKenzie course restoration. The project took three winters to complete but resulted in a course that is now as challenging as it is scenic.
Moving past Little Island and Fota Island, one comes to the Great Island, home of Cobh Golf Club. Here, architect, Martin Hawtree, has sculpted a demanding tract on a hillside overlooking the waters of Marino Point, Cobh. The 12th hole features an island green which is as visual as it is intimidating.
The area is home to some little hidden gems with Water Rock, Youghal and East Cork Golf Clubs. Water Rock is a delightful Paddy Merrigan design. There are some lovely holes, none more so than the challenging par three 12th, appropriately named ‘Swan Lake’ – get the picture? Many of the holes at Youghal overlook the bay. It is sometimes had to concentrate on the game in such a visual setting. Be warned, East Cork’s front nine is hilly, but the back nine is a delight!
Cork’s newest addition, Castlemartyr, is also located nearby. With its luxury hotel, it is very much in the manner of the Fota Island Resort. Ron Kirby’s layout is designed as an inland links and it certainly has that feel. Ron did a lot of work with Jack Nicklaus over the years and had quite an input into the Old Head of Kinsale’s final configuration, also not too far away. He deserves top marks for Castlemartyr.
Spoilt for choice? I’d say so. Stay in the East Cork region and you are minutes from four hidden gems, an inland links and two of the finest championship courses in the south of Ireland. There are great deals to be had everywhere, especially for open days, and should be on every visitor’s itinerary. I’d call them ‘The Magnificent Seven’!