Restoring the ground game at Ballybunion’s Old course

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Restoring the ground game at Ballybunion’s Old course
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

It is unusual for courses considered among the world’s true elite to undergo radical surgery. Tweaking around the corners yes; very little in nature is so perfect it cannot be improved. But when something is universally recognised as being one of the very best of its kind, why would you want to embark on a major construction project?

Ballybunion Golf Club in county Kerry, southwest Ireland, is recognised by pretty much every decent judge as one of earth’s finest golf venues. Enthusiastic promotion by the likes of Tom Watson in the 1980s brought Ballybunion to global prominence, and since then the club’s Old course has been a fixture at the highest levels of golf course rankings, often named among the world’s ten best. The accepted rota for travelling golfers visiting Ireland takes them to the southwest to play Ballybunion and nearby Lahinch, perhaps with relative newbies like Doonbeg, Waterville or Tralee in the mix as well. The vast number of dollars, euros and pounds brought to Ballybunion by golf tourism can clearly be seen in the bars and hotels of the town, and even more obviously by the golf clubhouse, considerably larger and grander than you might expect for a small town in the far southwest.

Even at this exalted level, though, golf courses have problems, and Ballybunion is no exception. The west of Ireland, as most will be aware, is notorious for its wet weather; this is not the kind of parched, half-starved environment in which fescue thrives. Combine the climate with the amount of foot traffic Ballybunion gets and the result is not too surprising: the Old course’s famous old greens became, for a long time, totally dominated by annual meadowgrass (poa annua). The surfaces were much softer than desirable, holding onto shots that would ideally be running over the classic contours of the Irish links.

The club could have spent numerous years undertaking a species transition programme of the kind that many courses have undergone, with heavy overseeding of desirable species and a maintenance regime designed, essentially, to starve the hungry and thirsty poa of water and nutrition. But despite many years of topdressing, the rootzone was far from optimal for encouraging fescue, so this approach would have no guarantee of success. 

Instead, Ballybunion members gave near-unanimous approval to a bold proposal by the club’s council to replace all eighteen of the Old course greens with a pure fescue surface and entirely new rootzone, in a single project to take place after the conclusion of 2015’s peak playing season. And in case that wasn’t challenging enough, 38 sand-faced bunkers would be revetted, 30,000 sq m of green surrounds would also be re-turfed with fescue and more significant design changes would be made to the seventh and eighth holes.

For such an ambitious project, the choice of contractor was critical. The club would require a team that could work to the highest possible standard, and with the energy, determination and high degree of preparation required to complete the project in a timeframe that would minimise disruption to the playing calendar.

Following an extensive tender process, the club enlisted Atlantic Golf Construction. The firm has a close connection with Ballybunion. Its principal Anthony Bennett was born and bred in the area and his father handled the construction work on the club’s second course, the Cashen, for Robert Trent Jones, Sr., back in the 1980s. But it was impressive planning and attention to detail in their proposal that won them the contract, having formulated a plan of action that would have the greens completed to an exacting standard and in a timeframe that was considerably shorter than alternative proposals.

Scottish architect Graeme Webster would oversee the work. Having been hired as the club’s architect in early 2014, Webster had already established a great reputation for creating new shape and contour that blended almost imperceptibly to what was already there. In April 2015, course manager John Bambury established huge, pure fescue turf nurseries either side of the club’s practice range. That turf would be used for the greens, and Tillers Turf would supply the surface for the surrounds. Meanwhile, Bennett was coordinating resources for his team to dig up all 18 of the Old course’s greens, core out the rootzone to an average depth of 900mm and replace with fresh dune sand mixed with a set amount of peat so they could control more effectively the level of nutrients in the rootzone. They would rebuild the greens – all eighteen of them, remember, on a course that is a fixture in rankings of the world’s top 20 – exactly to their previous contours, having digitally scanned the old greens before starting construction.

When GCA first visited in the summer, we were amazed by the scale and ambition of the project, and concerned about the possible consequences of deviation from the plan. However, a return visit upon completion of the project put such concerns at rest. Bennett says: “We knew this was a project that couldn’t afford to go wrong, which is why we created such a detailed and resilient plan.”

Beginning on 22 October, Atlantic Golf Construction sent two crews out to the course, each of which was targeted with completing two greens per week. An engineer was on hand with each crew to ensure that the precisely measured contours were being restored with zero tolerance as layers of rootzone were built up until the turf from the on-site nursery could be laid to exactly the same levels as the poa surfaces had previously occupied. At the same time, greenside bunkers were revetted and the turf supplied by Tillers was laid on the surrounds. Architect Webster and course manager Bambury were on site for the full duration of the project, ensuring that all work was completed to the precise standards required by the club.

In the first few weeks of the project, the weather was kind and, recognising this, Bennett’s team intensified their pace for their work to keep ahead of schedule. It’s a good job they did because the team were hit by four consecutive storms in the following weeks, challenging conditions that might have threatened the project if the team hadn’t been so well drilled.

“The guys from Atlantic were magnificent throughout,” says Webster. “It’s been great to work with a team where there are no weak links at all, right down to the fiftieth man. There was never a murmur of discontent and, along with general manager Vari McGreevy, course manager John Bambury, chairman Pat Harnett and the rest of the club officials, it’s been a wonderful collaboration.”

By 24 November, all eighteen greens had been completed, and Bennett’s team could turn their attention to smaller final details throughout the course as the putting surfaces began to bed in.

Visually, the course will look exactly as it did before, with a few notable exceptions.

On the seventh, Webster has moved the green to a much more dramatic position by the cliff edge, and dunes behind the green have been shaped to hide the previously incongruous straight lines of the eighth tee box. Additional shaping work has been completed to the right of the eighth green, so that the hole blends into the dunes more naturally. And on the fourteenth and fifteenth, the straight-line stone paths – that had detracted beauty from these back-to-back par three holes – have been replaced with grass paths that weave towards the greens, sitting much more comfortably in the landscape.

When the Old course reopens in April 2016, Ballybunion’s members and guests may at first glance wonder what’s changed. But it won’t be long before they realise that the target golf game that may have prevailed on the previous soft poa greens may be best replaced by a ground game that uses the wonderful contours of the course.

It is, of course, how the links game is meant to be played. The team at Ballybunion should be applauded for having the ambition and bravery to restore it in a single bold, sweeping project.

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture – Issue 43.

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