If you could choose to fly into only one golf course in the world, there may be none more breathtaking than the Old Head. The peninsula, once fortified by the original Eireann Celts, rises out of the water like a kelpie, the mythical Irish sea creature, and is surrounded by cliffs hundreds of feet high. Flying around the striped lighthouse at the tip of the Head, we banked out over the white waves crashing against the cliffs below. I gradually realized the sandy punctuation marks that I could see were bunkers in a setting that takes on Pebble Beach and Cypress Point and renders such opposition weak. I didn't want to land, I wanted to look.
Like an airborne carousel, the bird went round the peninsula again before setting us down, softly as cotton, outside the stone clubhouse. A cart took me up to the building, and if our approach from the air was act one of the drama, act two on the ground was no less inspiring. The course is a theatrical display of Gaelic inventiveness, the Riverdance of seaside golf. The entire promontory project is said to have cost about ten million Irish pounds, or nearly $12 million, and is now considered by some to be worth ten times that. For its 240 international members (to rise to 500, with limited public play), who each pay $50,000 to join plus $1,000 a year, the sight of a helicopter is routine: During the summer months there can be six or more landings a day.
This, however, was September. The wind was up and the Old Head's defenses were near their meanest. After my quick coffee, the caddiemaster ordered me to the first tee. My playing partner was Brian Ferris, a tall property developer from Georgia who owned his own golf course in Atlanta. He was a two handicapper with an elegant swing and an even more elegant wife, Shannon. The Old Head was their last port of call in a week of Irish golf, Shannon's birthday present to Brian. Though, she admitted, "We stayed on the ground, Jim."
Shannon strolled along happily while Brian and I slugged it out atop the cliffs. Drives seemingly aimed a hundred yards out into the sea were caught in the fists of the wind and thrown back to fairway safety. Level par after five holes, I thought, like Ulysses' men taking on Aeolus, the god of the winds, I would triumph. I didn't. On the back nine we played into a tempest. Brian's honed Georgian skill survived far longer than my game did.
I left him and Shannon in the smart clubhouse scanning the sports pages of The New York Times, anxious to find a football score. The bird had waited patiently. Barely out of my FootJoys, I could see the farewell waves of strangers as we reached the required takeoff power of 317 horsepower. "Bravo-kilo-tango to Cork, leaving the Old Head and heading to Waterville, over." Through my earphones, I heard the reply, "Roger, Bravo-kilo-tango, you're clear to . . . ." But I missed whatever came after that. Our love affair was back on as we flew west along the coast past Clonakilty, toward Skibbereen.
A single-engine JetRanger tries to stay over land as much as it can. If its engine fails, it won't, as most think, plummet from the sky like a stone. Instead, it can glide down to safety. So to avoid the wide expanse of Bantry Bay we headed north, over the town of Glengarriff, where George Bernard Shaw wrote part of St. Joan and where Queen Victoria enjoyed the occasional vacation.
Everything looked peaceful, refined, elegant, as Victoria herself might have seen the world. But as we flew higher to go over the Caha Mountains and then down toward the Kenmare estuary, the JetRanger began vibrating because it was being pushed and nudged by the windturbulence off the mountainside. It wasn't unnerving, only a reminder of what was keeping us up there: air.
We'd passed out of County Cork into the Kingdom of Kerry. Macgillycuddy's Reeks, a wonderfully named range of mountains, lay to the north. We flew west along the Ring of Kerry toward Ballinskelligs Bay, Waterville House and one of the world's great links, Waterville, the vision of an Irish-American, Big Jack Mulcahy.