[Photo: approach to the par four 2nd]
It’s funny how things catch your eye. There are certain colours and certain crests that scream ‘golfer’, and I spotted one when I was walking around our local supermarket, in early 2008. As the man passed by I saw the words ‘Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club’ on his dark blue jumper. I stopped and thought about this as I had heard rumours of a new club being built somewhere around Bunclody.
I turned around and struck up a conversation. The man’s name is Michael Cowman and he is one of thirteen directors who took on the project of building this new course. I explained what I was doing and he suggested we meet up when I started my next trip, and he would take me on a tour of the club.
A couple of weeks later I met Michael at the Millrace Hotel, immediately opposite the gates for the golf course. My camper van wouldn’t make it as far as the clubhouse, he explained. And sure enough, we bounced over dirt road for about a mile in Michael’s jeep before the half built clubhouse appeared. From there he took me on the guided tour through fields of mud, the occasional flash of green and a couple of holes that were practically finished. Elsewhere, greens were still just mounds of sand and bunkers were empty pits. It was, as you’d expect, a total mess. Michael took me down to the bottom of the course, by the River Slaney, so he could show me the lift that all the fuss is made about. It was one of the few things that seemed to be finished.
It took me all of five seconds to realise I wouldn’t be able to review Bunclody for the book. It’s a shame, but I would never have been able to do it justice – and as I played it only recently (see review below) it was a sensible decision.
The next time I came across the course was during their intensive Sky TV advertising campaign during the Ryder Cup. Every ad break almost. That must have cost a pretty penny, and after the first two times I couldn’t watch it any more. The course looked beautiful, as did the clubhouse, but the golfer they were using in the ad was a disaster. They showed him driving, hitting out of a bunker, chipping… and he was a hacker. Everything about his swing sucked. For me, that reflected poorly on the club. There must be hundreds of golfers who would love the opportunity to be in an ad (like me, for example), but I surmised that the hacker was one of the directors, or a son, a nephew, a cousin, a 2nd cousin…
[Photo: the par three 17th]
It took me until October 2009 to finally make it to the course, and even then that was a fluke. I was in a coffee shop and bumped into a friend of ours who was with some English visitors. She introduced them and told me she’d sent them a copy of the book. One thing led to another, and a couple of phone calls later we were booked to play Bunclody.
My playing partners were Paul Novak and his father, Vladik. I know Vladik doesn’t sound very English, but he’s been living in the UK, and Birmingham specifically, for decades. He is from Poland originally. In his home club – a prize 95 acres of real estate in the centre of Birmingham – people who don’t know him refer to him as Billy. Between you and me, I don’t see that the name ‘Vladik’ is that difficult to pronounce, and calling him Billy is lazy. And rude. He changed his surname to Novak, by Deed Poll, for similar reasons. When I asked him to pronounce his original name, it came out beautifully. But it was difficult to grasp. When I asked him to spell it, I think I got the first four or five letters: W O J Z Y S, and then I got lost.
[Photo: Vladik tees off on the par four 16th, which curves around the River Slaney]
Paul has been playing for almost two years and loves the game. His goal is to get to single figures in two years. He was gobsmacked when I told him about John Richardson playing a level par round of golf within one year, from a starting point of 33 over. I suggested he buy the book, ‘Dream On’ to appreciate how much work John put into it. Paul plays a lot (Bunclody was his third round of golf in three days, with another round the next day) and he has the swing, but he’ll need lessons if he really wants to achieve the single handicap so quickly – I hope you’re reading this Paul.
We had an extremely enjoyable game. There was no one in front and no one behind, so it was leisurely, and the guys were lapping it up. They both play off 18 and Paul has a competitive spirit. He reckons he’s played with his father about 50 times and has only won twice: once when Vladik had a dodgy leg, and once when Vladik had played five days in a row and was exhausted. At Bunclody, things were looking promising for Paul. He was ahead for most of the round but then lost the 15th (where he tried to hit a ball off rocks and took a chunk out of his 5 iron) and the par three 17th (lost his tee shot, while Vladik parred), meaning they went to the par five 18th all square. Two good drives, and two good seconds, but then experience kicked in. Vladik, who is not a long hitter, played a five wood out of the rough from 160 yards. It flew straight, sailed over the water, hit the green and stopped 12 feet from the flag. It was the shot of the day. Not bad for an 83 year old. Paul crumbled and took four horrible shots, before ending up in the water. So close, and yet so far.
We managed the whole round without rain, but when we returned to a packed car park the heavens opened. Don’t you always feel a bit smug when that happens!