[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
“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 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.