Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cloverhill and Tony the Pro

It’s official: I’m changing the name of my book. I’d always liked the title ‘Hooked: an amateur’s guide to the golf courses of Ireland’, but after my recent visit to Cloverhill Golf Club it has become apparent that it must be changed to: ‘Me and Tony the Pro’. I suppose I should be thankful that Tony didn’t insist on: ‘Tony the Pro and me’, or just: ‘Tony the pro.’

[Photo: early morning visitors in the car park]

After arriving at this very rural club, which takes some getting to, I was chatting to Colin who manages the course. That in itself is a story. Three years ago at the age of 21 he decided to take over the golf club as the previous owner (the local farmer) had fallen ill. Talk about jumping in headfirst. After three years he remains upbeat and his enthusiasm seems to rub off all round. This is a small club with a small clubhouse and everyone knows everyone. Newcomers (i.e. me) are welcomed with open arms – and generous offers of free pints! – which is how I encountered the resident pro. Tony asked a few polite questions and was then ribbed by the others when he got to the heart of the matter: “So how much will you make from this book?” Hmm, not much. “And are you getting free green fees?” I could see that Tony was forming a plan. Well, as a pro, I imagine that all the clubs would happily welcome him.

[Photo: the long par 4 1st over a stream]

I suggested he come back in the morning and we could go out for a round at 7.30am. Tony blanched. You see, Tony plays off 19, but clearly he has aspirations, and I admire him for that. It might be a tad early to be calling himself Tony the pro, but obviously he wants to keep himself motivated. The Captain’s prize had been played the previous day with the top 12 golfers qualifying for a 9 hole play-off. Both Colin and Tony made it to the final but they were beaten by a man who scored 44 on the first 18, and then finished off the final 9 with 21 points. He may now be nursing a victory headache but he’ll also find a handicap severely slashed.

Cloverhill presents two interesting dilemmas. First it is not a quality course and it needs significant sums of money if it is to lift itself up the ladder of Ireland’s golf courses. But how do you get the money if you can’t attract the green fees and new members? It is a problem I have encountered time and again. Compare this with Killeen Park – the Nicklaus course in North Dublin that hosts the Solheim Cup in 2011 even though it’s not yet open – where the snag list for correcting the original design came to €20 million. Yes, I took that with a pinch of salt too, but even if it was only €2 million imagine what some of the smaller courses could do with that.

[Photo: the long drop dead gorgeous par 3 9 th, with the 10th off to the right]

Second, Cloverhill has two remarkably distinct sets of holes: Holes 1 to 7 and 13 to 18 can only be described as open and straightforward parkland holes. Holes 8 to 12 are a different matter entirely. Lethally tight, they creep around the edge of the mountain and around a small lake. Great parkland holes, infested with rocks, gorse and ferns. Pure excitement, and the rocky perch for the 9th tee might bring on vertigo. But here’s the dilemma: societies are not coming back to Cloverhill because these five tough holes are too tough and they’re swallowing golf balls by the bucket load (while I was in the bar two youngsters came in with bags of balls). You can see why societies would want more of the open hole approach. I, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled by the open holes and anyone who is more serious about their golf will want to play 8 to 12 a few times, ignoring the rest (although the 1st is Index 1 for good reason).

[Photo: the par 3 12th]

But at least, either way, you play golf in gloriously rugged surroundings – this is the Ring of Guillion – a collapsed volcano apparently.

Colin was very interested in my thoughts when I came in the following morning and I was quite frank about certain things, but it does come down to money. However a few things did jump out:
1. Better tee markers would add – at present they’re cardboard on small placards of wood.
2. Directions to the 8th tee would help as the gate implies the path is for a local gun club.
3. The drive off 5 threatens golfers coming up the 6th. Even though hitting up 6 is OB, it would help if the view from the 5th tee was altered – and my suggestion would be to let the rough grow up properly under the trees dividing the holes.

I have been treated exceptionally well at many clubs but Cloverhill was fantastic. Never mind the free pints (thank you Colin and Gerry), but Colin’s mother popped next door, prepared dinner for me and brought it back in to the clubhouse. I had a long chat with Joe, the father, who writes for local newspapers and was intrigued about my adventures, and I ended up doing far too little work. But this kind of hospitality is what makes country golf so enjoyable. I wish the family the best of luck with the course. And also with the ducks who insist on trying to break into the clubhouse on every conceivable occasion.

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