Saturday 19 October 2019

Majestic Headfort ticks all the boxes for golf lovers

A splendid course and majestic setting awaits as the Challenge Tour descends next week

‘The finest piece of land’: Headfort is a venue worthy of any golfing occasion
‘The finest piece of land’: Headfort is a venue worthy of any golfing occasion

Brian Keogh

When the cream of the Challenge Tour descends on Headfort next week for the €200,000 Stone Irish Challenge they will be staying with a unique Irish family.

The Christy O'Connor Jnr designed New Course that will play host to the event is not yet 20 years old but it is already regarded as one of the country's very best parkland tests.

But there is far more to Headfort, which sits on the edge of historic Kells, than its 7,200-yard championship course or the beloved Old Course, which offers a less demanding but no less enjoyable 6,500-yard examination of your game.

Headfort is not just a golf club, it's a golfer's club with a team of highly qualified PGA professionals and a 1,100-strong membership that knows its golf.

Just ask Emmet Staunton (49), who grew up playing the course and returned there in March to take up a new role as Operations Manager.

A qualified professional who cut his teeth at Castleknock Golf Club and eventually became Director of Golf but when the resort was sold, he was keen to return home to his first love

"It's welcoming, it's friendly, it's a members club, and it has a fantastic golf course that was designed to host an event like this," Emmet explained.

"When Christy O'Connor Jnr designed the New Course, it was with events like this in mind."

Headfort hopes to host more events of this ilk as time goes on and has already pencilled the 2022 Irish Amateur Close Championship into the diary.

"It's a championship golf course which doesn't take away from the Old Course, which is shorter, narrower and treelined with smaller greens - easier for the top-level player because of its length but still a lovely test of golf," Emmet explained.

"The Old Course has some fabulous holes, such as the index one fifth (394 metres), which is a right to left dogleg with a left to right camber on the fairway - a fierce hole back in my youth in the 1980s and early 90s with the older equipment and balls.

"You simply have to find the fairway, which is a common test on the Old Course, where trees call for a lot of accuracy."

It's where Staunton learned the game with a posse of some 30 players who played of five or less, many of whom ended up working in golf.

"I'm from Navan, so I grew up playing with Damien McGrane, Liam Bowler (now at Wexford Golf Club), Jussi Pitkänen, Gordon Smyth (Slieve Russell) and Pat Dempsey," he explained.

"Then we had other fine players like Brian Casey and Rory McNamara, who are far younger than me. It was a nice core group."

The Challenge Tour event is a one-off for now, but the course will undoubtedly stand up to the European Tour's future stars with 75mm rough and traditional autumn conditions sure to test them.

Headfort was established in 1928, and it is arguably one of Ireland's most beautiful 36-hole complexes with its mature specimen trees and myriad water features.

It began life as a nine-hole club on parkland leased from the Headfort Estate and was then affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1930, celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2005.

The old greens were maintained by a local vet, Val Kelly, and his horse before the four-legged friend was sold and the club invested in a tractor.

In 1956, the course was extended to 18 holes, and in 1987, the members bought the course outright from Canadian Bill Kruger, who owned the Headfort Estate at the time.

In 1998, the members bought adjoining land that stretches down to and beyond the River Blackwater, a tributary of the River Boyne, where there are two islands boasting Lord Headfort's Asiatic tree collection.

The old manor house remains a thing of beauty, constructed in the 1760s to the designs of the Dublin-based architect George Semple for Sir Thomas Taylour, later 1st Earl of Bective.

The interiors, designed by the pioneering neo-Classical architect Robert Adam, are world-renowned.

O'Connor Jnr was commissioned to design the second course which opened to the members in 2000 to great acclaim given its clever use of the magnificent terrain.

"It's the finest piece of land I have worked with and could host the Irish Open without any trouble", O'Connor Jnr said at the time.

An Irish Open might be a bridge too far, but Headfort remains a hugely challenging test for most golfers.

"The par threes as a group provide a great test, and as a group, they are visually stunning," Emmet said. "The fourth hole over water, the seventh also played over water into an amphitheatre of trees; the 11th over water to a green on a small island with Headfort House in the background. Then there's 17th over the river.

"Probably the toughest hole for amateurs is the 18th with the river a threat off the right. The 10th hole is probably the feature hole with a demanding tee shot over the water and an approach of around 150 yards to the sloping green."

With two courses and the nearby Headfort Arms Hotel a valuable partner and the perfect base, Headfort is a hugely popular venue for golf societies or small groups who want a weekend away.

It's also close to Dublin and Belfast, making the club easily accessible.

It's open to new members too, and as a family club, it's now offering Intermediate membership for Under 35s for €779 as well as family, junior and cadet memberships.

The Challenge Tour will run two clinics for juniors during next week's event and with some 200 ladies at the club, 700 men and more than 100 juniors, there's something for everyone there.

The club is immensely proud of senior international Maria O'Reilly and its PGA staff led by head professional Brendan McGovern and fellow professionals Darren Moore and Joe Dillon, who is a regular tournament player at home and abroad.

Touring professionals who grew up at the club such as former internationals, Brian Casey and Rory McNamara, are also greatly admired.

With two quality golf course, three professionals, practice areas (including a new short game area near the clubhouse), a vibrant town and the N3 motorway nearby, it will be a popular tour stop next week and an excellent showcase for Irish golf and Co Meath.

Factfile

Green fees: Midweek, Old Course €45; New €50. Weekend, Old €50; New €55.

Society rates: Summer Midweek, Old €35; New €40. Weekend Old €45; New €50. Winter Society Midweek, Old €20; New €25. Saturday, Old €25, New €30.

Buggy hire: Yes, €30

Club hire: Yes, €30

Electric trolleys: Yes, €15

Range Balls: No

Signature hole: 10th Hole New Course, 378 metres (412 yards), Par 4

A demanding left to right dogleg over water to a tree-lined fairway with a small angled green.

Professional Brendan McGovern's tip:

This hole demands a precise tee shot over water onto the left hand side of the fairway to give you the best approach into the green. A good tee shot leaves a birdie opportunity, miss the fairway and the hole shows its teeth.

Membership: Full Membership €1,269; Intermediate (Under 35) €779.

Nearby clubs: Royal Tara, Co. Meath, Co. Louth, Laytown & Bettystown.

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