Fota Island


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

The flood of development money that has washed through Irish golf in the last decade has made a dramatic impact on the golfing outlook of the Emerald Isle. Golf tourists may flock to Ireland in large numbers to play the country's great links, and it is this market that has fuelled the development of coastal retreats such as Doonbeg and Old Heat, but the simultaneous boom in ritzy, American-style inland courses such as Mount Juliet and the K Club has at heart a more domestic economic underpinning.

From a relative backwater twenty years ago, Ireland has now become one of the most affluent countries in Europe, and, correspondingly, one of the most expensive places to live. Housing is both scarce and costly, and planning permission for new residential development is not always easy to secure.

Combine these factors, and you have the essential reasons why the Irish, blessed as they are with some of the finest and most natural links courses in the world, should so readily have embraced the idea of upmarket parkland golf combined with equally upmarket housing.

The Fota Island golf resort, located in Cork Harbour on the former demesne of the Smith-Barry family, might initially seem a poor example of this trend. Fota was built in the 1990s as a hotel-driven golf tourist destination, and its Peter McEvoy-designed golf course, later altered by Irish-Canadian architect Jeff Howes, hosted the Irish Open twice at the start of the 21st century. But standing still in the dynamic Irish golf market of recent years is a recipe for falling behind, and when an opportunity arose to build a nine hole extension, combined with 240 houses, the resort's owners turned back to Howes to create the new holes.

Fota's new nine occupies an area of land separated from the existing course by a belt of trees. Where the old nine has a feel of mature parkland, this is mostly open.

It's not devoid of features, though, as an old quarry forms an interesting hazard on the par four seventh hole, making the player pause for thought and decide where to place his tee ball for his preferred approach. The quarry cuts into the fairway on the right side, and a tee shot hit towards it will leave a shorter approach, but one that must fly all the way over the quarry. Going left off the tee lengthens the second, but provides a slightly less intimidating angle. The following hole, an attractive water-carry par three, features a green that looks terrifyingly shallow from the tee. The more cautious golfer may bale out left, away from the water, and aim for a chip and putt par, but when GCA visited, head professional Kevin Morris showed how the hole was meant to be played, flying his iron shot straight at the flag.

The best hole on the new course, though, is the long par four sixth, which happens also to feature the most interesting topography on the property. A ridge rises across the fairway at around most players' driving distance, and a bunker in the right centre of the fairway further complicates the tee shot. The dilemma is obvious, at least to anyone less confident than the big hitting Morris, who simply fired his ball straight over the bunker, in that right of the trap offers the shortest route to the green – no small matter on a hole of 473 yards – but the gap between bunker and rough is narrow on that side, and the drive must be struck further to reach the top of the ridge and so gain a view of the green. That said, left is no picnic either: the golfer must hit a strong and straight shot if he hopes to have a view of the distant green for his approach.

Morris says that the club plans to integrate the new nine into its existing course. There will not, he insists, be an 18-hole course and a subsidiary nine, but three equally valid options – the original 18, now known as the Deerpark course, and the Barryscourt and Belvelly, each of which will incorporate the new holes along with nine from the original – for the golfer to play his round. As such, many players will come to the new nine having already played the first half of their game, and that, it seems to me, will help overcome one possible downside of the course, that its opening holes are built on rather bland terrain. Until the later holes, the course lacks interesting undulations, and it doesn't at any point have the attractive water views that Fota's original 18 has to offer. Jeff Howes and his team, led by senior associate Paul O'Brien, are to be commended for their work: the new holes will make a valuable addition to Fota's facilities.