Saturday 23 March 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Lahinch's time to shine'

It's not about green fees or new members, it's about the whole county

Lahinch Golf Club
Lahinch Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

They're doing some serious spring cleaning down around Lahinch these days. In fact, local endeavour is positively transforming the West Clare resort in preparation for what is being viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine.

The lead has come from a celebrated golf club which is set to stage the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in July. And when details of the masterplan were outlined to me during a visit last week, a picture emerged of a traditional venue capable of meeting all modern tournament requirements.

It could hardly be more different from the scene I encountered on my first visit to Lahinch for the South of Ireland Championship of 1967. That was when my report was typed by the light of a storm-lantern in a 'press tent' located behind the 18th green, before being dictated to Dublin over a wind-up telephone in the clubhouse, bearing the number Lahinch 3.

That particular area will have a spectator grandstand, with another one, back a little behind the first tee. From the other side of the Liscannor Road, an imposing corporate hospitality structure with more comfortable views of the final hole will be located within the grounds of the Castle Course. Viewing from there will be enhanced by the removal of six electricity poles, with cables moved underground.

Meanwhile, communications have moved on somewhat from the time I reported on Noel Fogarty becoming the first winner of the 'East' and 'South' titles in the same year. From the television compound adjacent to the clubhouse, modern technology will transmit the event to 400 million homes across the globe.

There will be glorious images of ancient links terrain, where a master's touch was applied by architect Martin Hawtree in a major upgrading over the millennium. And the enhancement continues, in preparation for July's momentous happening.

Verdant pathways, freshly sown, glistened under a bright winter's sun while other greenkeeping skills were evident in the fresh revetting of a pot bunker on the short eighth. The Irish Open course will be a par 70, with the long second and the famous Klondyke fourth as par fours and where new tees on the 13th, 17th and 18th will push the overall length beyond 7,000 yards.

At 335 yards, the tantalising par four 13th will still be driveable by the stronger hitter. There will also be an eagle chance on the 555-yard 18th, played off the men's forward tee on the 15th. In between, the 17th becomes a stunning 460-yard test off a new tee located about 10 yards in from the Liscannor Road and back, left of the 16th green. From there, this straight-away par four has never looked better.

Significantly, these changes were approved by Hawtree, whose sympathetic treatment has been crucial in landing the grand prize. When Lahinch were interviewing prospective architects, Seán Murphy, the greens committee chairman who also happened to be Limerick's County Manager, asked the Englishman: "If we decide to go with you, what will you leave us with when you're finished?" His answer convinced them they had found their man.

In accordance with the wishes of championship host, Paul McGinley, the links will replicate, as far as possible, the sort of challenge competitors may anticipate in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush two weeks later. With this in mind, moderate green speeds will be just below 10.5 on the Stimpmeter, while the rough will be of comparable height.

"The only marked difference will be our fairways, which are somewhat narrower than those at Portrush," said the club's general manager, Paddy Keane.

Three golfing friends became central to one of the game's great stories of our time. John Gleeson, chairman of Lahinch's Irish Open committee, first met the 2017 captain, Pádraig Slattery, when they were students at UCD. Gleeson also got to know McGinley as a rival in the Barton Shield.

In the context of the Irish Open, a critical door was opened when McGinley accepted an invitation to be guest of honour at a South of Ireland champions' dinner in 2017 to mark the club's 125th anniversary. "On the afternoon of the dinner, which was on a Monday, Paul, another South of Ireland champion, Pádraig McInerney, Pádraig Slattery and myself went out on the course in two buggies," Gleeson recalled. "Seeing it for the first time since his South win of 1991, Paul was hugely impressed by the way Hawtree had preserved the integrity of the place.

"As I was to discover, that's when a crucial seed was sown which bore fruit in a phone call from Paul some months later. He talked confidentially of Rory McIlroy stepping down as Irish Open host and that he, Paul, would be taking over for 2019. His two preferred venues were Portmarnock and Lahinch, but when it became clear that the gender issue effectively put Portmarnock out of the reckoning, Lahinch was the favourite."

In early January last year, Slattery was heading for the captain's drive-in at Sutton GC when Gleeson phoned. During a lengthy conversation, they could see the chance of a wild dream becoming a reality, though as club captain, Slattery knew nothing could happen without his council's approval.

"In early February, they held an extraordinary meeting with only one item on the agenda: 'If we were offered the Irish Open, would we accept'," he recalled. "The unanimous decision was that they would, leading ultimately to approval by the European Tour."

The deal is unique in the history of the Irish Open, very different from Ballybunion in 2000, when Murphy's managing director, Pádraic Liston, wanted the event in his home place. Different too from Ballyliffin and Portstewart who were motivated by commercial considerations.

"This isn't about boosting green fees or attracting new members," said Keane. "The vast majority of our members see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase Lahinch. They feel a responsibility to the local community, extending to West Clare and, indeed, the county as a whole. We're looking to the biggest sporting event in the history of the county, something that can benefit the local economy for the next five, 10 to even 15 years. That's really what it's about."

To this end, the County Council have invested heavily in local infrastructure, while making grants available to businesses and householders to refurbish property and family dwellings in the area. As a pay-off, the event could be worth between €12m and €15m to the economy of West Clare.

As if in recognition of their great undertaking, Keane showed off a special gift received from Ashford Castle. It's a beautifully preserved niblick, crafted by Willie MacNamara, the one-time professional at Lahinch, which will be on display during Irish Open week.

According to the 'Golfer's Handbook' of 1930, a certain FS Bond of the Royal Wimbledon club witnessed MacNamara hitting a drive all of 400 yards on the Klondyke [now the 4th] in 1913. The bemused player later remarked: "How the ball ever got where it was I do not know, unless that it happened to bounce on a stone or something very hard at the end of 250 yards, and then ran the rest of the distance down the hill."

There seems to be no shortage of space, with the tented village taking up some of the 88 acres of the Castle Course. The links lies on 161 acres on the sandhills side of the Liscannor Road, two kilometres of which, incidentally, will be closed to traffic where it borders the course and where spectator access points will be created through openings in the perimeter wall.

The main spectator route will be on the N85 from the Ennis bypass, then onto the R460 at Inagh towards Miltown Malbay, so eliminating the notorious Blake's Corner in Ennistymon. Park-and-ride will operate from Moy village, close by the former home of the great John Burke, who was 11 times a South of Ireland champion.

Such details offer the reassurance that when all the tournament paraphernalia has departed the scene, Lahinch will resume its treasured role as a place of timeless appeal on the Irish golfing scene.

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