Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rough times for Ireland’s golf clubs as rain constantly halts play

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One swallow does not a summer make. Never was this truer than for the hundreds of golf clubs across the country that have only finally caught a break. 

After one of the wettest winters on record, the rain finally stopped, the temperatures rose, and some heat finally entered the earth. A week of fine, dry weather has made everything possible — but golf clubs, like elephants, do not forget. 

They are but one day-long downpour away from disaster again. The members may be looking forward to six months of unbroken play, but the greenskeepers and course managers always have one eye looking back.

“It’s been rough,” says Gary Madden, teaching professional and club manager at Glenlo Abbey on the outskirts of Galway City. 

“The season seems to be getting shorter and shorter every year. You might get deeper into November, even December, but everything from then on is a wash.” 

What “a wash” means is this; day-to-day decisions on whether the course is playable or not. Such calls are not taken lightly and require staff to show up, inspect the course and make an informed call on how feasible it is to allow members and green fees out on the links. 

“You’d be surprised how resilient our members are when it comes to putting on the oilskins and playing,” Madden continues. “The course may not thank you for it, is the only thing.” 

There is another element to the struggle, which Madden attributes to a dichotomy between expectation and reality. Members expect one thing, clubs can only deliver another. 

“Members are a lot more demanding and discerning then we might have been, growing up and playing golf in the 1990s,” he says. “They aren’t as tolerant of temporary greens and tee boxes as we may have been. They expect more, which puts more pressure on staff. It’s one thing keeping courses open, another keeping them open to a standard that lives up to members” expectations.” 

What is true in Glenlo is true for Parkland courses across the country. Dromolond Castle Golf Club hosted the Women’s Irish Open in 2023, but its championship status does not make it immune to the same meteorological impediments that every other parkland course faces.

Leona Maguire drives off at the KPMG Women’s Irish Open Pro Am at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. Picture: Don Moloney

Director of golf Eamon O’Donnell explains: “We have closed 29 days from January 1 until today. Every single one of those days is an on-the-day call. Effectively we are a month behind. Our membership has been extremely patient, but it’s amazing how reliant you become on getting one fine day to kickstart the whole season. Last week finally seems to have provided that.” 

Woodstock GC, just outside Ennis, only fully reopened last weekend after months of similar sporadic closures. Unlike Dromoland Castle, which is tied to private multi-million-euro private investment from an Irish-American consortium of investors, courses such as Woodstock are reliant on patience and good fortune. 

“We couldn’t open during January and February, but we couldn’t do any of the maintenance you might usually get done either,” explains course manager Eileen O’Grady. 

“We needed to hollow-tine the greens, but it was so wet the past few weeks, we could only do it just as we were opening again, which is frustrating for members.” 

In Glenlo, the greens are the one thing that benefited from the longer off-season. 

“Rain actually helped us in the sense that the course was fully closed for six-and-a-half weeks of the last eight,” says Madden. 

“Some of it was planned, but there was no heavy machinery on the course either, because it was just so wet. On the plus side, our greens are relatively blemish-free. No pitch-marks, very little physical footprints or disease that might ordinarily come with regular traffic. 

“We’ve had a clear run of it. Good greens keep people happy.” 

Investment in drainage, too, can often be good money after bad. 

“The money is better spent on better equipment and training of staff,” according to Madden. “You could literally pump hundreds of thousands into drainage and there’s no guarantee it will work.” 

Morale, too, is a key factor, not just for members, but for staff. Incessant rain in the off-season is a heavy hit for greenkeepers. Worse again, says Madden, is the upkeep of the dreaded driving range. 

“Over the winter, trying to maintain a facility that members enjoy. One that requires new, high-quality balls that literally plummet from a height straight down into the wet earth, never to be seen again…that’s absolute torture. It’s genuinely worse than anything we deal with on the golf course. We do all our picking by hand during the worst winter months. It’s back-breaking work. All for very little return.” 

This impacts teaching professionals, too, who rely on range work to sustain them through the barren winter months. When you can’t see where the balls land as a teacher, it’s hard to guide the student.

“The only way forward is the indoor facility,” explains Madden, who is currently in Baton Rouge as coach to Aine Donegan, an NCAA student athlete at LSU who is in Dallas for US Open qualification. 

Aine Donegan hits from the ninth tee during the first round of the US Women's Open at the Pebble Beach Golf Links on July 6, 2023. Picture: Darron Cummings/AP
Aine Donegan hits from the ninth tee during the first round of the US Women’s Open at the Pebble Beach Golf Links on July 6, 2023. Picture: Darron Cummings/AP

“The days of an outdoor range in the west of Ireland from October through to April are numbered. Simulation will eventually take over. The better the technology gets, the better for all of us trying to teach.” 

Memberships across the board have remained steady. The post-pandemic boom in golf, one of the few sports which thrived due to its inherent reliance on fresh air and physical space, has endured. Members are only members because they want to play. And playing is only possible if conditions allow it. 

Junior golf programmes remain among the most over-subscribed of any sport in the country. The success of professionals like Rory McIlroy, Leona Maguire, Shane Lowry, and Seamus Power enhances the profile of the game. Similarly, the amateurs on both the Walker and Curtis Cups. In many respects, golf has never been more popular in Ireland — it’s just never been as difficult to play.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry after winning the PGA Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in Avondale, Sunday, April 28. Picture: Gerald Herbert/AP
Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry after winning the PGA Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in Avondale, Sunday, April 28. Picture: Gerald Herbert/AP

What is certain is the golf season in Ireland is getting shorter, and that trend is unlikely to be reversed. The climate is changing faster than the technology that better positions golf courses to heal. 

Drainage, in most cases, is the only panacea, and that is not the cost-effective solution many lazily think it to be. Patience remains the most valuable virtue — but with costs rising and seasons shortening, it’s hard to see where the game goes from here.

Indoors, on a virtual screen with artificially imagined palm trees and super-fast greens appears to be the only option. Which is a shame. The thrill of having a golf course to yourself on late June evening, a seven iron in your hand and 160 yards to a generous pin, will forever be one of purest things in amateur sport. 

Far from a good walk spoiled, it gives meaning to the otherwise mundane.

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