Saturday, August 21, 2021

Druids Heath - a €1 Million+ Investment

Many years ago I met a fourball of elderly gentlemen in a Greystones bar. They looked beat, despondent, even distraught. They had played Druids Heath, and they were drowning their sorrows after their round. It was their first visit to the course and, they said quickly, their last.


Up until this year, Druids Heath was not a kind course to high handicappers, short hitters or those of a gentler age. It was punishing, long, dressed with 97 large bunkers and big, fast greens. You couldn’t always see the landing zones and when the gorse shone bright it set off fire alarms in a golfer’s head.


It was a brute that required your ‘A’ game for 18 holes because the Heath showed no mercy. It was never high on my list of favourite courses.

 

I’m not for a second saying it was a bad course… just too tough for a ‘fun’ round of golf.

 

But things have changed. New owners (the Neville family) have pumped €1 million into the Heath, calling on the skills of one of the original architects, Peter McEvoy, and (re)Golf, alongside Turfgrass.

 

“We are re-landscaping the existing bunker footprint (over 30,000m2), adopting a more handcrafted bunker and landform layout, each with their own individual function and character, while maintaining diverse strategic values which engage golfers of all abilities,” said a recent press release.

 

That’s all fine and well but until you see what has been done it’s impossible to visualise. I visited last week and was amazed at the changes. The holes and the routing are the same but there is a very different feel to the place thanks to new bunkering and a new approach to fescue grasses. There are other unseen elements too, but we’ll get to that.

 

The key here is visual accessibility and visual appeal. The 97 big bunkers have been reduced to 36. Many of the greenside bunkers have been removed entirely which makes the greens more accessible targets. The greens, after all, are an essential highlight here… and they have always been one of the most testing aspects of the course. 

 

The change to the bunkering is massive. Consider what happened recently at the Hermitage. It was a major upgrading of the course’s bunkering but it still fitted with what was there before. At Druids Heath that is not the case. From big, open bunkers there are now smaller, deeper and sharply shaped, with high sides and a high penalty tariff for hitting your ball in one. That reduction of 63 per cent seems like a huge shift… and yet there are more than enough bunkers to keep you on your toes. With fewer bunkers protecting the greens it also means that low shots, of a bump-and-run nature, present themselves on several occasions. That’s an entirely new aspect to the course. 

 

Some of the new bunkers are positioned where old bunkers had been… but by no means always. On the par-4 18th one single, new bunker occupies less than half of one of the old bunkers. Some bunkers have been nudged into fairways: on the par-5 2nd a small lone bunker awaits in the middle of the fairway, a serious threat to your second shot as you lay up short of the ponds. It calls for a different game plan… although the fairway has been widened down by those ponds. 

 

On top of that the bunkers will use Sportsbond, all sand will be replaced, and Ecobunker has been used in several places where bunkers are cut tight to the greens. The brows of these bunkers will be blanketed with golden fescue grasses and a texture like sun, adding to the difficulty (see photo of 18th: those dark green edges will burn gold in the future) and, undoubtedly, drawing the eye. The final comment on the bunkers is this: avoid them. They are deep – the famous par-3 14th now has a bunker tucked in hard to the green which that will leave you five feet under the pin – and you may find some awkward stances. 

 

This is the most obvious change but not the only one: the back Blue tees have all gone, making the course some 400 yards shorter; certain fairways have been widened; some fairway shoulders have been removed to enhance hole visibility – on the 9th and 10th most noticeably; small fescue-covered mounds appear on some holes, adding aesthetic appeal, and blending with the blazes of fescue chaperoning fairways; and a lot of gorse has been removed to speed up play and, again, to improve aesthetics. I won’t go through every hole but there are plenty of subtle and less subtle differences. One honourable mention must go to the quirky and difficult par-4 13th which has lost a tree defending the fairway on the left while the lake beneath the green will be reduced in length by 20 yards to create the hole’s only level landing area. The tree fronting the green has also gone.

 

I mentioned the unseen elements. There are several. The 28,000 metres of slit drainage across 15 sections of the course for starters. Playability was never an issue but this drainage will add extra bounce! There’s the Sportsbond in the bunkering and the grasses on greens have all been swapped for Crystal Blue Bent grass… which looks every bit as good as it reads.

 

Once it is all completed – laying the bunkers finished in late July – Druids Heath will be a more friendly course to play… and members are already expressing their approval at the changes. It is no longer overwhelmed with sand, it offers different strategies for golfers of all abilities, it is more playable and the efforts to give it a more links-like appearance have given it extra bite.

 

My ‘Hooked’ review of the course will certainly be changing.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Abbeyleix Golf Club and 70 Years

Life, love and longevity… every one a legacy when it comes to Abbeyleix Golf Club and a membership that has lasted 70 years.

[Caption: L-R Mel Flanagan (Golf Architect), Andy Cole, Anthony Collins (Men’s Captain)]

 

The Early Years

When Andy Cole joined Abbeyleix in 1951, he was barely interested in the game. He and his brother were hurlers and they used to peer over the fence of the recently moved (1948) Abbeyleix Golf Club, in Rathmoyle, and wonder why grown men were searching through the long grass for small white balls. They soon found a couple of balls on the road and took them home. They fashioned clubs out of branches from a hedge and started hitting the balls around the yard.

 

A family friend, John Baggot, drove into the yard one day to visit the boys’ father but after watching the two boys hitting balls he drove out of the yard without getting out of the car. He was the 1951 Captain of the golf club at the time and he returned a short time later with a bag of hickory clubs and gave them to the boys. Then he drove to the club and signed them up as family members. Andy was 15 at the time and he has been a member at Abbeyleix ever since. In 1952, he was beaten to the Captain’s Prize on a count-back.

 

It will come as no surprise to read that at the age of 86, Andy has been a Captain (1970) and a President (2000) of the club, been on the Committee for many years, and won the coveted Captain’s Prize. Even then, 70 years hold a rich history… and not just for Andy, but the club too.

 

Being a paid-up member at one club for 70 years is a feat in itself when you consider what life throws in your path. I doubt many – if any – of us know someone who can claim the same. It certainly inserts you into the very fabric of Abbeyleix, a cog that turns with many others to ensure the life and success of the club. 

The 8th Hole at Abbeyleix

 

Playing Away

“I played golf wherever I went,” says Andy, listing various clubs around Dublin, after graduating with Honours in Agricultural Science. He started working in Dublin, for the Institute for Agricultural Research (which became Teagasc, in 1998). In 1965, he became Head of Peatland Research, before going on to lead Department of Foreign Affairs Agricultural Research Projects overseas, particularly to Lesotho. He worked with the European Commission in Brussels, for 20 years, and his work for the European Land Use & Development Research Programme took him across Europe. Of his many achievements, one was to publish the first Soil Map of Europe. Even after finishing with the European Commission, he wasn’t actually done: Brussels asked him to do a further two years in Belarus… which turned into six.

 

And all that time he remained a paid up member of Abbeyleix, where his scientific knowledge proved a bonus for the club.

 

“My fondest memories of Abbelyleix would be winning the Captain’s Prize in 1964,” Andy says, “and also the extension of the course to 18 holes when the club honoured me by appointing me President in the year the new course opened (2000).” 

 

From 9 To 18

Andy was Captain during the club’s centenary year (1995) and he promoted the idea of extending the course to 18 holes. This set the wheels in motion and additional land was purchased and planning permission sought. Mel Flanagan, who has designed many golf courses, was awarded the project (beating three other designers to the job) and cleverly crafted 18 holes into an area of just 99 acres. That might read as a small space, but it never feels like that when you play here, and Mel used the boundaries and natural undulations to maximum effect, constructing 11 new greens, 3,050 yards of new fairway and even a wildfowl sanctuary.

 

I am a big fan of Mel’s work (Rathcore is one of my favourite Irish parklands and the recently closed Dunmurry Springs was always under-rated) and he showed me around the course a couple of weeks ago (with Andy Cole alongside). Mel outlined how he had rerouted the course and the smart design elements he had introduced to give the course some oomph, and to ensure holes didn’t simply go back and forth.

 

Andy was invited to name the new 18 holes.

 

“But it’s mostly the people you’d meet that create the memories,” he says. “I remember in my school days when I’d be out messing about when someone would call me from the clubhouse to make up a fourball. And that would end with us in the clubhouse bar afterwards where I’d be bought soft drinks. So I started standing around waiting for a game and because I was a schoolboy I never had to buy a drink afterwards, even though my dad gave me some money.”

 

His lowest handicap was 4, where he stayed for a number of years, and he held a single figure handicap for over 20 years. It was only in later years that the figure started to soar. He’s now a 20 handicap but he knows he can still compete in the club competitions. Indeed, he was runner up in the Captain’s Prize only a couple of years ago.

 

What’s Special

What does he find special about Abbeyleix?

 

“The convenience and accessibility, but the golf course itself is absolutely a credit to all. The layout, on 99 acres, promises a challenge on every hole and a different challenge on every hole. It’s an excellent mix whatever your handicap.

 

“I love the par-3 17th, looking down on the Slieve Blooms. I have a thing about tourism in Laois, which attracts the lowest tourism in Ireland.” Over the years, Andy has worked to try to correct this, including being Chairman of Abbeyleix Heritage Company, which successfully campaigned to have Abbeyleix designated as a Heritage Town.

 

At 86 he’s not playing as frequently as he used to when he was young. “How I got through secondary school I don’t know, as I was out on the course every evening.” But his enthusiasm for the game and especially the club hasn’t waned one bit.

 

 

 

Monday, June 28, 2021

3D To Adare Manor

A recent Top 100 Best Golf Resorts in Britain and Ireland ranking by Today's Golfer saw five Irish resorts make the Top 10. Adare was the best of these, coming in at number 3. Above it are Gleneagles and Turnberry, with three and two golf courses respectively. Adare Manor has one golf course... but it is a piece of art and has elevated the course up golf rankings everywhere.

Most golfers know the story behind the course's regeneration - who hasn't seen the photos showing off the velvet fairways and silky greens - but know less about the

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Big International Flavour for ISPS HANDA World Invitational

 With five weeks to go until the ISPS HANDA World Invitational presented by Modest! Golf, a strong international field across the three sanctioned tours has currently entered to play in Northern Ireland from the end of July.


The ISPS HANDA World Invitational stands out as the only tri-sanctioned event in the northern hemisphere where the European Tour, LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET) have come together in an innovative and inclusive mixed event.

A total of 288 players (144 men, 144 women) will arrive at Galgorm and Massereene for tournament week from July 28 – August 1, 2021 to compete in two separate 72-hole Stroke Play events at the same time at the same venues and for equal prize money in the US$3 million event. Official Suppliers GreenAware will fittingly plant 288 trees for each player in the field as part of their support of this year’s event.

With so many players competing from the men’s and women’s game, there is genuine depth in the field; Ryder Cup players, multiple tour winners plus former Irish Open champions.

Denmark’s Søren Kjeldsen and Wales’ Jamie Donaldson are entered to play, and both know how to win on Irish soil. Kjeldsen won the 2015 Irish Open at Royal County Down, while Donaldson took the spoils at Royal Portrush in 2012 in front of record crowds.     

Those with experience competing in the cauldron of pressure of the Ryder Cup are also entered, such as Victor Dubuisson (France) and the English pair of David Howell and Andy Sullivan, who have all played Ryder Cup.

When it comes to proven tour winners, Scotland’s Richie Ramsay and Stephen Gallacher may be lamenting last evening’s soccer results at the Euros, but the Scottish pair stand out on the entry list. 

An international theme of tour winners on the men’s side continues with the likes of Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal or Dubuisson’s compatriots, Gregory Havret and Raphael Jacquelin. Go further afield and players such as Australia’s Scott Hend or South Africa’s Richard Sterne are also entered to play. Recent Tour winner Richard Bland from England, who made a fast start at last week’s the US Open, is also entered. 

A number of these players will arrive at Mount Juliet in the coming days ahead of next week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open before they make scheduled returns to Ireland for the ISPS HANDA World Invitational in a few weeks.      

There are so many exciting narratives on the women’s side of the draw from both the LPGA and LET Tours. Slovenia’s Ana Belac competes on the LPGA Tour in her rookie season after being crowned the 2020 Symetra Tour Player of the Year. The LET’s Lee-Anne Pace, who has won 22 professional events, recently added the Investec South African Women’s Open after winning on home soil.

There is also the exciting Jutanugarn sisters, Ariya and Moriya, from Thailand to keep an eye out for. Ariya is currently eighth on the LPGA money list with Moriya closely followed inside the top 20. Ariya is a two-time Major winner and has won 11 times on the LPGA Tour, while Moriya is also a proven winner and was Rookie of the Year in 2013.

And if marking your card for big hitters, keep an eye out for the Netherland’s Ann Van Dam or Bianca Pagdanganan from the Philippines, two players who are also entered and would complement the bit-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts in the men’s draw.

“We are delighted with how things are shaping up at this stage with five weeks to go until tournament week,” explained Gary Henry, ISPS HANDA World Invitational Event Director.
“We have some great names in both the men’s and women’s lists, who are currently entered to play.

“With players now finalising their plans after the Olympic qualifying cut-off we are starting to get a clearer picture of who will be able to join us at the end of July. We continue to work within government guidelines around COVID restrictions and plan to make some big-name announcements in the coming days and weeks as momentum builds ahead of another special tournament week here in Northern Ireland.”
       
Tickets for the ISPS HANDA World Invitational are currently on sale and can be purchased through the tournament’s official ticket platform EventBrite. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/150314144653
 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Druids Heath Dances to a Different Beat

Anyone who has a copy of Hooked only has to turn to the entry on Druids Heath to know I’m not the course’s biggest fan. Druids Glen, absolutely… Druids Heath less so. It’s a course I’ve always felt was difficult just for the sake of being difficult. Rippled fairways hide much of what lies ahead, the big and numerous bunkers are everywhere, gorse appears often and the sprawling greens are some of the most lethal you’ll encounter in this country. It has been designed as a hybrid of traits, combining heathland, parkland and links into a challenging round of golf. Talk to anyone who has played it and, as complimentary as they might be, there’s bound to be an element of battle fatigue too.

I’ve played it several times and that’s certainly how I feel. Don’t get me wrong, there are strong and attractive holes here and a good rhythm within the layout… but it’s not the most relaxing affair.

 

That though is about to change as the resort has issued a press release spelling out the major changes to be made to the course this year. At the top of the list is a massive reduction in the number of bunkers. 

 

Here’s the press release:

 

The Neville Family, as owners of Druids Glen Hotel & Golf Resort are pleased to announce a significant investment into Druids Heath Golf Course will take place from this April, in advance of further investment and renovations to Druids Glen Golf Course in 2022.

Since purchasing Druids Glen Hotel & Golf Resort in 2019, the Neville family has committed to reviewing all aspects of the golf business to ensure that correct decisions are made for the future success of a high-quality golf experience for members and guests in the resort.

To assist the owners in these long-term ambitions for golf, they have liaised with some of the golf industry’s leading experts during this review process; Jeff Lynch - Golf Course Architect with (re)GOLF DESIGN working in conjunction with renowned Course Designer, Peter McEvoy and John Clarkin of world renowned agronomists, Turfgrass.

“Peter McEvoy & (re)GOLF are delighted to be working with the Neville Family in Druids Glen Hotel & Golf Resort with the renovation of Druids Heath. Already a fabulous layout, we are re-landscaping the existing bunker footprint (over 30,000m2), adopting a more Handcrafted bunker and Landform layout, each with their own individual function and character, while maintaining diverse strategic values which engage golfers of all abilities.

Parallel with this, as the great Jack Nicklaus stated, what makes a successful golf course “Drainage, Drainage, Drainage” we are incorporating over 28,000m of drainage across 15 sections of the course”.

“Turfgrass are delighted to work with the Neville Family and (re)Golf Design on the renovation of Druids Heath. As Project Managers, our goal from the outset is to improve playability and reduce the level of difficulty for high handicappers without compromising stroke index, health or safety.

Working with Jeff Lynch & Peter McEvoy, we have drastically reduced unnecessary bunker area and relocated bunkers, grass hollows and runoff areas to maintain the strategy of the course. The bunker renovation will give Druids Heath a new identity. In addition, a large scale drainage programme will commence as part of the works programme on selected holes.”

Upon completion of this investment plan, the greenkeeping team will continue to build on the good work already completed on the course since July 2019. The approach is very much to preserve all that makes Druids Heath the wonderful course that it has been and will be again.

Druids Glen Golf Course and the historic clubhouse, Woodstock House are part of a further investment plan in 2022.

The course will be upgraded to return Druids Glen to the pinnacle of Irish Golf with the owners’ ambition to bring back Championships tournaments such as the Irish Open. While the renovation will not be a complete course redesign, the key natural features of the course will be retained and enhanced through the programme of works to ensure that the history and magic of Druids Glen is maintained while upgrading the course to championship standard.

The existing facilities at Woodstock House, will be upgraded along with the addition of a new members clubhouse, housing new male and female changing rooms, bar and dining facilities and a new pro-shop and café area. The development will also include the provision of luxurious sleeping accommodation.

I very much look forward to seeing the changes and how it alters the course’s DNA and its playability. It will certainly single out the greens as the course’s core defence… while also making them that much more accessible to golfers of all abilities. That can only be a good thing and will also bring in one essential 'links' element... the art of bump-and-run. Good luck to all involved.

 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sportswashing in Saudi Arabia - and shame for the sport of golf

 I think it's a shame...

... actually, scratch that, I think it's a disgrace that on the day the Masters tees off in 2021 there's an announcement that the nine-time Major champion, Gary Player, has joined Golf Saudi as its latest and most influential ambassador. Player will work with Golf Saudi "to help implement a shared vision for golf and its future development within the Kingdom". 

Alternatively, you could also read that as 'helping to implement a sportswashing campaign that has seen Saudi Arabia spend $1.5 Billion to paint themselves as a global sports player... while expecting the world to ignore their human rights abuses." 

It sticks in my craw that the announcement was made shortly before Player took up his traditional role as the honorary Masters starter, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Lee Elder. On a day when the world welcomes its first Major of 2021, and Irish golfers get to enjoy Major golf on TV as we wait to get back to the fairways, I'm now forced to think about Saudi Arabia and the crap that country is pulling. Maybe this is of no interest to you but it shames the sport to play any tournaments in this country. In my opinion, it also shames Gary Player, one of the all time greats.

I wrote an article about Saudi Arabia's sportswashing back in November 2020, ahead of the first Aramco Saudi Ladies International (LET) and, this past March, The Guardian produced another outlining the money involved. 


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Carton House Set to Re-Open After Major Refurbishment

There has been a lot going on at Carton House in the past couple of years and a new chapter is set to begin this summer as a multimillion-euro refurbishment will be unveiled. This covers a magnificent refurbishment of the original house, the surrounding hotel and the grounds. Carton House itself is a Georgian estate dating back 250 years but it will soon reopen its doors as a Fairmont Hotels & Resorts property.

 

Carton House O'Meara's famous 16th par-3

The refurbishment has renewed the beauty of the estate, sensitively blending past and present. It has been carried out under the creative guidance of McCauley Daye OConnell Architects, with exquisite attention to every aspect

Sunday, April 4, 2021

A Seed of an Idea for Golf Investment

Here’s an idea with a difference. An Irish golf company is offering a chance to get in on the ground floor… so to speak. You can now buy a share in the success of Seed Golf. If you haven’t heard of Seed, then, to put it simply, they produce golf balls … and they are very very good. 

Seed has launched a unique crowdfunding campaign as part of its ongoing expansion plans. The campaign offers its key audiences and its customers an opportunity to invest a total of €250,000, which will be matched by Seed’s planned €1 Million seed investor round. This will be managed via crowdfunding platform TheStartUp Crowd, with Seed giving its customers the first chance to register early to secure investment. 


How much can you invest, you ask… you might as well know upfront that the