By Brian Keogh
It’s been ten years now since Tommy Horton lifted the AIB Irish Seniors Open at St Margarets.
But how golf has changed since the European Seniors Tour’s most prolific winner triumphed by two shots from Noel Ratcliffe at the testing Pat Ruddy design in north Dublin.
Just a few weeks before Horton clinched the 13th of his 23 senior victories, Tiger Woods romped to his first major title with an amazing 12 strokes to spare in the Masters at Augusta National.
It was the precursor to a summer when Ernie Els would deny Colin Montgomerie the US Open, Justin Leonard would streak past Darren Clarke in the Open at Troon and Davis Love would win break his major duck in the US PGA Championship at Winged Foot.
Since then, Woods has gone on to dominate the game while Love, Els and Leonard have suffered more than their share of disappointments.
But the senior game has also progressed nicely and this year’s AIB Irish Seniors Open at Palmerstown House promises to be just as thrilling as the 10th edition at Fota Island, when Sam Torrance came through to defeat America's Jerry Bruner, Chile's Guillermo Encina and Australia's Stewart Ginn on the second hole of a four-man play-off.
Played in sparkling sunshine, a six under par total was good enough to make a thrilling sudden death showdown, but it remains to be seen if the game’s senior statesmen can better that mark over the testing PGA National Ireland course.
The 800-acre estate and former stud farm near Naas in Co Kildare is the pride and joy of Citywest’s Jim Mansfield, who has spared no expense in making it one of the jewels in the Irish golfing crown.
The course hosted the Irish Professional Championship in 2005, when Padraig Harrington triumphed in a play-off and declared that there wasn’t a weak hole on the course, to the delight of the designer.
The €23 million Palmerstown House project, which was O’Connor Jnr’s 30th course design, measures an intimidating 7,400 yards off the back tees as it winds its way thousands of mature trees and some 150,000 new trees and shrubs.
O’Connor Jnr revealed that Mansfield has invested €3 million in trees and shrubbery alone, having purchased the estate of IR£10 million four years ago.
Originally the course was to be co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and the late Payne Stewart but O’Connor was retained by Mansfield after the tragic death of Stewart in a plane crash in 1999.
In keeping with the quality of such a five-star venue, a record prize fund has been amassed for an event that is backed by AIB in association with Greenstar and Fáilte Ireland and will be played over the Bank Holiday weekend from June 1-3.
Former Ryder Cup skipper Torrance will be the main attraction in a championship that has attracted a top class field including Gordon J Brand, Eamonn Darcy, Ross Drummond, Stewart Ginn, Carl Mason and two-time AIB Irish Seniors Open winner Noel Ratcliffe of Australia.
A latin touch will be provided by the Spanish duo of Juan Quiros and José Rivero while Italy’s most decorated golfer, Costantino Rocca, has also entered.
Torrance completed a memorable double last year, having won the Irish Open on The European Tour in 1981 and 1995. The Scot hit a brave 150 yard approach to within 14 feet of the flag on the second extra hole and duly rolled home his eagle putt to win a four-man play-off.
The move back to the Dublin area is the first since 2001 when Japan's Seiji Ebihara claimed victory at Powerscourt Golf Club in Wicklow, in 2001. And Andy Stubbs, the Managing Director of the European Seniors Tour, hopes that the move closer to the capital will prove to be a successful one after the massive popularity of the event in Cork last year.
"Over the past decade the AIB Irish Seniors Open has established itself as one of the key tournaments on our schedule,” he said. “And we are delighted to be able to bring it back to the many thousands of golf fans in and around Ireland's capital, especially in a year when the Irish Open on The European Tour is switching to Limerick.
"The PGA National Ireland will pose a fresh challenge to the majority of our players but knowing Christy as we all do, we are certain to find a tough test and a beautiful layout rolled into one."
O'Connor described his work at Palmerstown House as one of the easiest design jobs he had ever undertaken due to the quality of the land. Thousands of mature trees punctuate the course and its many lakes and streams mean that water can be found on 13 of its 18 holes.
Chris Patey, Director of Golf at Palmerstown House, said: "Everyone associated with PGA National Ireland is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Europe's leading senior golfers next June and preparations are already underway for what I am certain will be a memorable few days of high quality golf.”
The course itself is one of the best ‘new’ designs in the country and O’Connor Jnr regards it as one of the easiest jobs he has ever had to do,
“You could not get a more generous man than Jim Mansfield. He has been fantastic to work for and one of the greatest shocks I have ever had was when he brought me here for the first time," O’Connor recalled. “It has to be one of best sites in the world and reminds me of going through the gates of Augusta and up Magnolia Drive at the Masters.
“The estate, with all the great racing thoroughbreds that have been produced here, is so steeped in history. It was probably one of the easiest jobs I have had to do. Beautiful mature trees, the lakes and all the bridges that were used as the entrance into the estate are incorporated into the golf course. It is a fantastic spectacle.”
O’Connor Jnr moved over one million cubic feet of earth to build a course which is designed to test the best in the game.
At 560 yards, the par five 16th is one of the feature holes, requiring a difficult lay up or a long second shot to a narrow green which is protected on three sides by water.
The Galwayman singles out the dogleg, 427-yard seventh hole as one of his favourites, no doubt in anticipation of the surprise that awaits you once you reach the small contoured green with its myriad slopes and levels.
The par threes, especially the 198-yard third and 205-yard eighth, are no pushover either. Both are protected by water and Harrington found them a major test during his Irish Professional Championship victory in 2005.
“The third is a very, very dangerous hole," Harrington said. “With the right to left wind we had, anything hitting the left half of the green is going head towards that water very quickly.
“The other par three, the eighth, has a very narrow green if you are playing in a strong wind. It was a two or a three iron for me with wind out of the right and water on the right. It’s just a tough hole.”