Golf’s Most Exhilarating Courses

Ireland’s Old Head is golf’s most exhilarating experience

There are moments in golf that you wish could be frozen in time: Stepping onto the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews; emerging from the trees to greet 15, 16, and 17 at Cypress Point; staring down the daunting approach over the Pacific at Pebble’s 8th. You feel grateful to be alive to take in these displays. There are also courses that practically overwhelm the senses from start to finish. These four-hour moments of awe and wonderment are tied to a combination of drama, scale, elevation, and vistas. The golf course that yields the ultimate in exhilaration is Ireland’s Old Head Golf Links.

Draped atop a rocky, heart-shaped headland in Kinsale, County Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland, Old Head astonishes early and often, thanks to holes that hover up to 300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Overcome the vertigo that accompanies the dizzying clifftop views, and it’s the variety that engulfs you. Perhaps that’s no surprise given the diverse makeup of the committee that created the course.

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Old Head (photo by Evan Schiller)

Irish-American businessmen John O’Connor and his brother Patrick O’Connor purchased the Old Head promontory where cattle and sheep once grazed in 1989 with visions of a world-class golf course. A fistful of Irish golf legends consulted on the design, among them Dr. Joe Carr and Liam Higgins and acclaimed architects Eddie Hackett and Patrick “Paddy” Merrigan. American Ron Kirby ultimately took Old Head across the finish line in 1997. Haulie O’Shea handled construction—and what a feat that was.

The O’Connors maximized the drama—enhanced further by current CEO Lhara O’Connor—by insisting on crafting tee boxes and greens scandalously close to the cliff edges. More than half the holes teeter along the bluff and it is playing those holes that induces jubilation.

The first needle-mover arrives at the 402- yard par-four 2nd, which rambles downhill to a green mere paces from cliffside doom. A similar fate awaits the yanked tee shot at the 178-yard par-three 3rd. The adrenaline then surges to a new level at the 427-yard par-four 4th, aptly called “Razor’s Edge.” Cliffside and ocean await a hook, while behind the elevated green sits the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse that dates to 1853.

Not every hole offers such eye-popping drama, but the pulse pounding never quite ceases. It soars again at Old Head’s most remarkable test, the 564-yard par-five 12th. From an edge-of-the-world tee, the hole jackknifes to the left around a gaping maw of cliffside and plays to a ridgetop green overlooking the Atlantic.

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Old Head 2nd hole (photo by Evan Schiller)

When the planet’s greatest golfer, Tiger Woods, arrived for a visit in July 1999, he was part of a sixsome with Payne Stewart, Mark O’Meara, Stuart Appleby, Lee Janzen, and David Duval. The dense fog they suffered through for 11 holes finally lifted and Woods got a clear view of No. 12. When his caddie told him the name of the hole was “Courcean Stage,” the then 23-year-old Woods responded, “You should just call it ‘Holy S*#t!’”

Twenty-five years later, Tiger’s statement remains accurate. And it easily applies to describing the entire course.

3 Other Intoxicating Layouts

Michigan-based architect Mike DeVries teamed with Australian course critic Darius Oliver to design the pulse racing Cape Wickham on King Island, between Tasmania and Melbourne. With eight holes alongside Bass Strait and huge sand dunes in play, no wonder DeVries raved, “We’ve got everything here, from clifftop holes to tees on the rocks in the water with waves washing below you to sandy beach.”

Cape Wickham 18th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

In July 2021, Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady took on Bryson DeChambeau and Aaron Rodgers in the made-for-TV event, The Match. From the very first tee, there were audible gasps for the stage itself, The Reserve at Moonlight Basin in Big Sky, Mont., a Jack Nicklaus design which takes your breath away via an 8,000-yard spread perched at 7,500 feet, dizzying elevation changes, and mountain panoramas.

David McLay Kidd crafted the Sands Course at Gamble Sands in central Washington to be an epic-scale fun-fest. The 10-year-old track sports enormously wide, rumpled fairways that twist through massive sand ridges and lead to equally firm, gigantic greens. The journey encompasses bold bunkers, chasm carries, endless horizon views, and vistas of the Columbia River and the snowcapped northern Cascades.

Gamble Sands 2nd hole (photo by Brian Oar)

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