Memories flood through Avoca's evocative vale
Woodenbridge's battle against the elements is worth winning, writes Dermot Gilleece
On the walkway towards the first tee at Woodenbridge, it's not difficult to imagine competitive nerves being eased by the soothing babble of the Avoca River. Beauty of sight and sound come at a price in these parts, however, as the club's members experienced recently when an angry torrent burst the river-bank, wreaking destruction across fairways, tees and greens.
This latest flooding is the fourth in living memory, the most notorious being Hurricane Charley which devastated the area in August 1986. Then there were the storms of 2000, when construction of the new clubhouse was disrupted for three weeks after building materials had been washed away.
Though the course has recovered remarkably from the storms of January 16, reconstructive work at a cost of €200,000 still has to be faced to greens at the short eighth and the long 15th. But I saw no doleful faces nor despairing wringing of hands. As club captain John Harkin put it: "Our aim is simply to make our defences better this time around."
The two damaged greens are expected to be back in play some time before the club's Festival of Golf from June 29 to July 4. This, incidentally, will include music and entertainment aimed at involving the local community.
Conscious of Woodenbridge as a special place in the world of golf, I felt a surge of excitement on going back there last week. I was reminded of Jack Nicklaus and his great affection for the Old Course at St Andrews, "because of where it is." The same could apply to this charming, 6,329-yard, par 71 layout in the Vale of Avoca.
In playing the course, which was extended to 18 holes in 1994 to a design by Patrick Merrigan, it became clear that significant changes had also been made to established holes over the years. As in the 187-yard fourth, which measured only 110 yards back in 1926 when the club's honorary secretary, JS Potter, had a hole-in-one while using his right arm only. His left arm had been seriously damaged while fighting in World War I.
It is also likely that Enda Finan will need more than a wedge if he is to repeat his ace of 2008 at the 116-yard eighth. Playing off six, Finan actually recorded two holes in one in that amazing round, using a four-iron to ace the 191-yard 11th. With the new eighth green now set to be re-positioned back and right of its original location, the hole will be longer by up to 15 yards.
"I really like our par threes," said Bob Moran, the club's most distinguished player, who, at 72, displays enduring skills off a five handicap. "I remember when Hurricane Charley struck, 140,000 tonnes of sand were swept onto the course and you could just see the top of the flag on the first green over the floods."
I couldn't resist reminding him of the extraordinary event which led to his partnering the great Philomena Garvey to victory in the Milltown Mixed Foursomes in 1968. Tom Craddock was to have been Garvey's partner but on the eve of battle, fate intervened. Having completed his final round in the East of Ireland at Baltray, Craddock had walked only a few yards out of the gate in the middle of the old 18th fairway when he was struck on the head by a golf ball from Moran, then a member of Castle GC.
When Craddock arrived home from hospital that evening, his concerned assailant was there waiting for him. "Is there anything I can do for you, Tom?" he pleaded. "Yes," Craddock replied. "You can ask Phil Garvey if she'll play with you instead of me in the Milltown Mixed." Garvey agreed to the blind date and they proceeded to win this celebrated event two years in a row.
Meanwhile, the Woodenbridge launch of the JB Carr Diamond Trophy in 1996 cemented a close relationship with the illustrious champion from Sutton. This included a friendship with Fr Jerry O'Brien, who prides himself on having a laugh so loud and distinctive that it would embarrass a donkey.
Fr Jerry was there during my visit and we shared memories of the great man. Like the way Carr arranged for him to meet Ed Slevin, a board member of Pine Valley, and Sir Ronnie Hampel from Augusta National, at Portmarnock GC. The trio got on so well that the priest was invited to play Augusta before heading to Pine Valley, where he stayed in the famous Dormie House. From there, they took him to Merion.
On returning home, Fr Jerry rang Carr to tell him how he had got on. "Jesus, Joe," he enthused, "it was better than a pilgrimage to Rome."
Dissolving into his characteristic laugh at the memory of those events, he went on to talk seriously about the challenge of his home place. "Three valleys converge at the point where the Avoca and Aughrim rivers meet (behind the 11th green), creating a series of vortices with tricky winds swirling in all directions."
As evening closed in and I headed down the dramatic, long 18th, there was a sudden awareness of being flanked on either side by sheer tree-covered hills, like enormous sylvan drapes. A red kite hovered overhead, prompting the thought that yes, periodic flooding was a price worth paying.