Internationally-renowned for a culture of open-armed welcomes, colorful personalities and a lilting, poetic embrace of sport, the Irish are downright direct when it comes to an ingrained adoration of their home turf.
Of course, said grounds can prove a fickle lover.
A hotbed for North American travelers (the year 2017 reported a national tourism industry worth more than $10 billion), the southwest region of Ireland makes for a golf nexus, and one where traffic is defined by spike steps in lieu of buggy wheels amid the walking culture.
Highlighted by historic links’ plays along the North Atlantic and primo parkland-style stars, southwest Ireland pairs the gent’s game with an inviting culture of post-round pints for guests from the west.
For the area’s course managers, a mix of old school homage and new era approaches present a range of plays as diverse as Ireland’s climate of extreme weather patterns.
To wit: After the winter and spring of 2018 provided a record-setting stretch of rain, the summer season provided the driest two-month spell in a half-century. Not that all the courses across Counties Kerry and Clare were affected in the same “manner.”
At Adare Manor, just outside of Limerick, the recently overhauled course is the talk of Europe and is making a worthy bid to host the 2026 Ryder Cup. Originally designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., an 18-month overhaul by Tom Fazio – with input from Irish pros, Padraig Harrington among them – saw the parkland-style grounds opened anew in the late spring of ’18 with deserved fanfare.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done outside of bringing up my children,” Alan MacDonnell, golf course superintendent at Adare Manor, says of the rework’s labor of love.
Sporting 180 acres of wall-to-wall grass, the course and surrounding grounds are spotless, with nary a leaf or grain of sand seemingly out of place. Dichotomic in presentation from the country’s weather-contingent links’ layouts and aesthetics, the Adare course and immaculate 840-acre spread across the property (also under MacDonnell’s purview) are as verdant as Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. “I feel it safe to say, without doubt, that we are the greenest golf course in the country,” MacDonnell says of grounds that contain 1,450 sprinklers, the most for a parkland course in Ireland or the British Isles.
Concurrent to the vision of Fazio and Adare owner J.P. McManus, MacDonnell credits a flow of dedicated labor, irrigation and mow strategy for the course’s lush appearance. The superintendent works with slender mowers, and while the approach is slower (it takes two days to cut the entire course), the results indeed show on seemingly every blade.
“We tried the big, noisy machines, and now the 5-deck rotary mowers are parked in the shed all year,” MacDonnell says. “We’re just getting such a cleaner cut with the smaller mowers.”
In the re-work, over 220,000 tons of sand capped the site. “The fact that the whole site has been sand capped, the irrigation is obviously a driver of that,” he adds. “We have 6 inches of sand on our fairways and 3 inches of sand on the rough, so the pace drives quickly. The fact that we sand capped, and the fact that we have such an intensive drainage system, the enormity of the irrigation system has made us where we are today.”
A full-time staff of 43 works the course with an earnestness befitting Adare’s opulent price tag.
“We have brand new irrigation systems and we have fabulous labor – and it’s the labor that has kept it going,” MacDonnell says. “We could turn on the irrigation system and keep it on, but we’d be about 65 percent coverage. It’s the guys on staff who are the key.”
While the grounds’ crew has a local flavor, the top of Adare’s totem has a decidedly American training.
“We’ve pulled in eight greenskeepers from the Ohio State program, and they’ve come home to work as senior and assistant greenskeepers,” MacDonnell says. “But it’s a bit like when the K Club was the course; they introduced a lot of very good greenskeepers. So, it will be a constant conveyer belt here. People are going to leave us, and I’ve made a commitment to promote from within when senior positions do come up. The lads are very loyal to me, and I feel I have to be very loyal to them.”
Being the hot new course in Europe doesn’t come without its inherent stresses.
“Every day is pressure here,” MacDonnell says. “We’re charging a fee … I want every golfer to walk off this course and say, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s that wow factor. Design is one thing – and the design here is lovely and fabulous – but we’re the keepers of the green. We are what’s going to set us apart from the other clubs in the area or across Europe. It’s that attention to detail, and we have to have everything immaculate.”
And the super isn’t just settling for the lure of Adare’s reopen.
“I have peers coming in and telling me they’ve never seen anything like it,” MacDonnell says. “And I hope they’ve never seen anything like it, just as I hope in five years’ time they’ve never seen anything like it.”
At a more traditional parkland style play, historic Killarney Golf & Fishing Club maintains 36 holes within its eponymous, 25,000-acre national park.
A four-time host to the Irish Open (twice won by Nick Faldo), the championship Killeen Course offers a postcard setting along Lough Leane, the region’s largest freshwater lake. Killarney proves an inviting mix of past meeting present, with the club’s rich backdrop maintained with a truly modern strategy.
“We very much promote a biological and organic approach toward our courses, so we’ve moved away from chemical applications as much as possible,” says the sprightly Cormac Flannery, general manager at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club. “So, we’re using urea natural, urea Hercules and we’re using a lot of biological tees, which is very new, certainly in western Europe, which helps promote this healthy, earth soil profile.”
With its national park orientation, which limits certain applications and products, Flannery notes a result of healthier soil and grasses, along with promoting grasses indigenous to the area.
“And the grasses you traditionally don’t want in there are reacting poorly, in our favor, to this biological approach, because we’re promoting the drier profiles with less compaction, which our finer grasses prefer,” Flannery says. “There are probably fewer than five of Ireland’s 300 golf courses that are utilizing this approach, but I would say that in as little as 10 years, I’d expect that half the courses will have converted down this road. Every year there’s a product that is taken off the market because of EU regulations, whether it involves earthworms or daisies or herbicides, pesticides.”
Course peripheries also pay deference to the organic approach.
“There’s a nice definition to our longer rough, which is a bent-fescue mix and we treat that every winter, though not chemically,” Flannery says. “Once upon a time, a selective herbicide was placed on that with Rescue being the most well-know. And that can be very expensive. Nowadays, come the close of October every year, we’ll get contractors in, cut it, bale all that grass and take it away. And then we just treat it again in the springtime, essentially with a heavy raking, no chemicals, totally friendly to the flora and fauna within the park.”
Per the latter, Flannery references the property’s ample red deer, native to the country. “On the rare occasion when two males meet each other on a green, that’s the nightmare scenario,” he says.
An animal of a different variety may be explored at Lahinch Golf Club in County Clare, site of the Dubai Duty Irish Open for 2019. Home to sister plays on the Wild Atlantic Way, the rugged, mounded grounds and salted air across its tough Old Course are befitting a test from the best on the European Tour.
Dating back to 1892, Lahinch counts among the country’s most cherished plays, with the Old Course having enjoyed the design hands of both Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie before an eventual restoration at the turn of the millennium by well-respected Martin Hawtree.
Playing at the behest of Mother Nature, the fairways trended from golden to near dormant amid the summer drought of ’18, though a late July sprinkle offered the hope of a return to gratis irrigation.
“Links golf is dependent on the weather, that’s namely the challenge to the golfer,” says Paddy Keane, general manager at Lahinch Golf Club, as a light mist finds his glasses. “So, we need to be mindful as we set up the course. It can be a beautiful morning with the sun shining and then, four or five hours later, you might get our misty weather with some wind that could make the course near unplayable. So, we need to set up for what we have in the morning time, but also what’s forecast for the afternoon.”
Lahinch irrigates greens and tee boxes, and hand waters fairways to promote finer, fescue grasses.
“The difficulty for all the greenskeepers is the extremes,” Keane says. “We get rain, we get wind, we get sunshine. But when you get the wettest winter on record like we just had – over 2 meters of rainfall recorded – and go from that to the driest spell in nearly 50 years, the grass is just going, ‘I’ll grow, I won’t, I’ll grow, I won’t.’ It’s all working with and around nature. And that hasn’t changed here from the day golf was first invented.”
Not that new lessons in course maintenance can’t be learned.
“Around eight years ago, we had a dry spell with no rain, and we were watering morning, noon and night, and it made no difference,” Keane adds. “So, this year, what we decided to do was hand water the fairways with mobile sprinklers on a roving basis, and we kept the moisture level around 8 to 10 percent on the surface. So, when it does rain, it will recover quickly.”
Provincial knowledge of weather patterns, including the region’s high winds in April and May, followed by high tides in January and February, are key to the course watchmen. “Our head greenskeeper on the Old Course, Brian McDonagh, is from this locality so he has a good idea (of what’s going to happen with the weather),” Keane says. “A lot of it is local knowledge.”
As the mist finds couples with a wind gust, the filled Lahinch tee sheet sees players teeing off like turnstiles. Inclement conditions are all part of the Irish experience.
“For most of our North American market, when they come here and there’s a 50 mile an hour wind and the rain is sideways – when our local members wouldn’t dream of playing – the visitors, they love it,” Keane says. “They don’t get that experience at home. Most people are on holiday; they’re here for the experience and here for the fun. And they’re particularly here for the 19th, for afterwards – to go get something for dinner, have a few pints, talk about the rounds and engage with our locals.”
Further charm of locality flows like a properly poured Guinness at inviting Dooks Golf Club in County Kerry, home to classic links play since 1889. Bone dry in the ’18 summer, the fast and firm fairways play off the cosmetics of the comely Dingle Bay setting.
Owned by its members, one can also taste the provincialism at Dooks. It’s one of those special places where the flavor of rounds long bygone seem to float through the salty breeze.
“We’re all about being a real, links course,” says John Foley, general manager at Dooks, his accent deep and energetic. “It’s probably the most natural, oldest-style links you’ll play. It’s a small bit of property, the greens are small, and we have little pot bunkers – it’s a throwback to the old time.”
Such throwback is of theatrical proportions.
In the late 1960s, the course was saved by members from a takeover by absentee owners in what became the nationally-known “Save Dooks” campaign as course popularity grew and Dooks’ brass recognized a need to augment from its original nine-hole layout, members got creative with finding turf to build a back nine, sometimes bringing in sod from their own home yards.
The turf’s progeny plays on to modern day. “No ryegrass, no nothing; it is complete fescue, top-to-bottom,” Foley says of Dooks’ greens.
And of the fairways, Foley scoffs at the idea of bringing in ryegrass to assist with sturdiness. “We don’t want to go down that road,” he says smiling. And he’s content to let nature take its course on landing areas. “To tell you the truth, if you played golf in Ireland for 20 straight days, you wouldn’t be able to tell which courses irrigate fairways and which courses don’t,” he adds.
Provincial pride in tending only enhances Dooks’ character. “Our man is a wizard out there,” Foley of his superintendent. “He’ll be out here at 10 o’clock at night. It’s a labor of love for him and he takes so much pride in this course.”
Such pride is well-evident across this nation, complimented by the personality and pints of its people. On and off-course, the Irish present a welcoming wit and word. It was County Dublin-born Samuel Beckett who wrote:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
And, of course, he too was a golfer.