Sport Golf

Friday 25 May 2018

Adare Manor has raised bar in race for Ryder Cup

Rory McIlroy plays his tee shot on the ninth at Adare Manor on Friday. Photo: Eoin Noonan
Rory McIlroy plays his tee shot on the ninth at Adare Manor on Friday. Photo: Eoin Noonan

Dermot Gilleece

In pursuit of parkland perfection, Adare Manor Resort have undertaken an ongoing commitment unprecedented in Irish golf. While maintaining a superbly upgraded golf course, they are looking to a return of the JP McManus International Pro-Am in 2020, and beyond that, the grand prize of the Ryder Cup in 2026.

An ideal way to make a jewel sparkle, is to flood it with light. Which is what glorious sunshine did on Thursday and Friday for a facility which is now known as The Golf Course at Adare Manor.

It is set to revolutionise the Irish golf experience in terms of quality of finish and firmness of sod. Rory McIlroy could hardly believe the latter during a visit last December after the south-west had been lashed by rain. "I came here, played the golf course, and it felt like it was the middle of summer," he said.

Crucial towards achieving that level of firmness was the installation for the first time in this country of a sub-air system for the greens, which was pioneered by Augusta National 30 years ago. And, interestingly, in an undertaking that has had a budget of around €50m, I understand that the Adare system, which can regulate moisture levels, cost less than €1m.

"It's now pretty much as I imagined it could be," was the typically understated comment from McManus when I asked if he was pleased with the end product. "I'm passionate about the county [Limerick] and I'm passionate about this place. And it's nice that as a family, we can leave our mark here." He added: "I would like to bring the Ryder Cup to Ireland, to Limerick. I would like to have it in Adare and give the whole south-west a boost."

McManus then made a point of recounting how the contract for the upgrading by leading architect, Tom Fazio, went ultimately to Atlantic Golf Construction from Ballybunion. "We asked three companies if they would be interested in doing six holes each," he said. "Two of them insisted on doing nine holes each, so we gave 18 holes to the guy who was happy with six."

The extent to which he has succeeded could be gauged from a two-day visit, culminating in a charity exhibition on Friday in which Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry diplomatically halved with McIlroy and Paul McGinley. One had the feeling of treading terrain which is certain to make a significant impact internationally. Indeed as a measure of attention to detail, Harrington made eight visits there over the last four years, advising on key elements such as the choice of bunker-sand, green run-offs which are a feature of the revised lay-out, and general playability.

All of which brought me back to another time and another, very different visionary. When Mount Juliet, as the country's best-conditioned parkland course, staged the American Express Championship in 2002, Tiger Woods declared: "These are the purest greens imaginable; set a putt on the right line and it's in the hole all the way."

By way of emphasising the point, Woods carded a stunning, 25-under-par aggregate of 263 yet was still only one stroke clear of second-placed Retief Goosen, who also putted brilliantly. So it was that the greens superintendent, Aidan O'Hara, continued to dream wild dreams. He thought it might be possible to maintain the pristine, Penn A4 greens which Woods had loved so well and which were complemented by six inches of sand-plating on the remainder of the course.

That was when O'Hara embarked on a losing battle with meadowgrass, or poa annua as the experts call it. "I'll never forget August in 2004, when myself and the staff spent four solid days hand-picking the stuff out of a particular green," he recalled. "Contamination levels were so intense that we were physically removing probably half of the green with our hand-picking.

"Eventually, I had no option but to rip out a particularly bad area towards the front with a sod-cutter and re-sod it with turf from our nursery. This gives you some indication of how invasive that weed-grass is and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it." He concluded: "Reluctantly, I was forced to admit defeat."

Against this background, it's fascinating to note the main elements of Fazio's work at Adare. Like O'Hara, he had the course plated with sand, but to a depth of nine inches on fairways and 12 inches on the 18 greens, along with the putting green and practice greens.

This meant a total of 250,000 tonnes of sand, truck after laden truck. And instead of Penn A4, the greens have been seeded with the latest development of this strain, known as Pure Distinction. "It is 40 per cent more dense than Penn A4, which makes it all the more difficult for poa to intrude," said John Clarkin, the consultant agronomist on the project.

From a different source, however, I learned that Augusta National continue to spend more money each year on eradicating meadowgrass from their greens, than the average course budget of an Irish golf club. So, how will Adare tackle it?

As O'Hara discovered, money is the key. For a start, with a projected annual course-maintenance budget of around €1.5m, Adare has a greenkeeping staff of no fewer than 50, headed by the superintendent, Alan McDonnell, a Kerryman who is seriously enthusiastic about his craft. But that's only part of it.

"We have 45 caddies and when time permits, they will be seconded to duties on the greens, hand-pulling any intrusive weeds," said CEO, Colm Hannon. "This will be done on a daily basis, so as to maintain the standards we're setting here."

As is evident at Old Head Links, top quality is expected by customers who are being charged top rates. And with a green-fee of €340 (€250 to hotel residents), there is a similar awareness at Adare where, incidentally, caddies cost €55 per round.

From a visual perspective, the main changes I observed from, say, its presentation for the Irish Open in 2007 and 2008, are to the ninth and 18th holes. The ninth green has been re-located right of the original site, with the effect of creating a stunning backdrop of the extended Manor House, all the way back to the tee.

The removal of trees and considerable cleaning-out of undergrowth is especially evident around the 18th green. From about 200 yards down the fairway, there is now a beautiful, framed image of the Manor partially hidden by the iconic, 400-year-old Cedar of Lebanon on the right, and the charming bridge over the Maigue constructed in the resort's earlier incarnation at a cost of £250,000.

Though 4,000 new trees have been planted, there is a general openness about the course, not unlike the images in black-and-white photographs of Augusta National from its embryonic years in the 1930s.

The presence on Friday of European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley pointed towards a significant future for Adare as a tournament venue. Though he was understandably non-committal about the Ryder Cup or a possible return of the Irish Open in the immediate future, Pelley thought it appropriate to walk the course.

His verdict? "The golf course is an absolute masterpiece," he enthused. "Truly remarkable. The condition is impeccable and the design is as good as I've seen." Still, with a board of directors to consider, he insisted that it would be inappropriate to discuss the 2026 Ryder Cup, until this year's tussle in Paris is completed.

Meanwhile, our leading professionals can embrace a spectacular new playground. As Harrington put it: "Myself and Shane [Lowry] would often talk of having a golf course which would be like being on Tour. A place we could come down and play while getting ready for the next tournament, where the greens would be as fast as you wanted and there would be difficult chip shots like you might get out on Tour. Now, Tom Fazio has given us such a course."

As I looked out on Friday on the shimmering, 14-acre lake which dominates the front nine, memories returned of an ambitious project which the original architect, Robert Trent Jones, brought to life 25 years ago. And you had to think that the great old man of golf-course architecture would have nodded approval of a glorious reawakening which will set standards not only here, but for golf in Europe, for years to come.

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