The great golf course architect Tom Simpson might have to temper his famously withering view of golf club committees were he to make a return visit to Carlow Golf Club, 80 years after he redesigned the classic course we know today.
“A Committee,” Simpson wrote in 1945, “has been defined as a body of people who individually have no authority, and who collectively decide to do one of three things: to do nothing, to have another meeting as soon as possible, or to appoint a sub-committee.”
Happily, for lovers of great golf and judicious design, the relevant committee at Carlow came up trumps recently by approving and carrying out a major renovation of the bunkering on a course that is regarded as one of Simpson’s great redesigns.
Founded in 1899, Carlow moved to its current Deerpark home in 1922, when Cecil Barcroft laid out the bones of the current course, later adjusted by the great J.H. Taylor and Fred Hawtree.
Fortunately for the future of golf in Carlow, the club took advantage of Simpson’s trips to Ireland to work on Ballybunion, Kilkenny and County Louth in the late 1930s and was commissioned to revamp the course in 1937.
The total cost ran to just over £492 of which just £50 went to the somewhat eccentric architect, who like to turn up in a Rolls Royce driven by his assistant Molly Gourlay.
As it turned out, the £50 was money very well-spent, just like the recent outlay of €45,000 to rebuild 83 bunkers — 47 on the Deerpark Course and 37 on the new, nine-hole Oakpark Course designed by Jeff Howes in 2002.
Combining Carlow’s rolling hills, its natural sandy soil and its spectacular vistas with Simpson’s classic design principles turned out to be a stroke of genius by a club that has long been regarded as one of the finest parkland courses in the country.
When Andrew Gilbert arrived in Carlow from Cheltenham to take over from Christy O’Connor Jnr as club professional during the long, hot summer of 1976, he was stunned by the quality of a course that has hosted the Irish Amateur Close Championship three times and this year will welcome men’s Interprovincials from July 3-5.
“The course was so natural and well designed it reminded me of Sunningdale or Walton Heath,” Carlow’s longest-serving professional wrote in the club’s centenary history. “It has changed very little over the years.”
It has changed little since Gilbert wrote those words in 1999, though the newly revamped bunkers have injected new life into a course that is as much a test of mental strength and strategic thinking as it is a test of ball-striking.
“The architect who relies on bunkers for his effects is a bad architect,” Simpson once wrote. “In all golf course construction, the aim should be simplicity of design and the avoidance of unnecessary bunkers.”
New Zealander Greg Turner, a former European Tour player turned designer and critic, visited the course a few years ago and was blown away by its quality of what he now regards as his favourite Irish inland course.
“I was especially fond of your group of par-three holes, with number six perhaps being my favourite,” he wrote. “There were a number of times during the round when I was reminded of Gleneagles in Scotland although I have no hesitation in saying that the course at Carlow is superior.
“Being a student of golf course architecture, it’s always interesting to see how, in spite of such enormous changes in the golf balls and clubs, great architecture can stand the test of time.
“Your course is a fine example – proof positive that interesting greens along with firm undulating fairways will always captivate.
“When you combine those qualities with such pleasant heathland surroundings you have a course to savour!”
Few who have played Carlow, where risks must be taken from the tee to find the ideal line to the green, would disagree with Turner’s assessment or Simpson’s view on bunkering.
“The last time the bunkers were done was in 1992, but they had lost consistency over time and we took a decision to redo the bunkers on both courses,” club captain Moling Lennon said of the recent work.
“All the sand was removed and more than 1,000 tonnes of new sand was used to replace it by our head greenkeeper Tony Pender and his five-man crew, who did a tremendous job.
“Not only did they re-do all the drainage, but they also replaced all the sand and rebuilt the bunkers that needed major repair. It’s been a great success.”
The purchase of new machinery has also helped Carlow immensely, and the manicured course drew rave reviews during last weekend’s Carlow Ladies Senior Scratch Cup which saw Lisburn’s Paula Grant claim her first victory of the year with a score of 144.
No doubt the men will find Carlow as good a test when they visit this demanding par-70 examination for the Senior Men’s Interprovincials in early July.
Indeed, Carlow is also likely to be a leading contender to host the AIG All Ireland Cups and Shields should the GUI go ahead with plans to move the event from Carton House from next year, when the Kildare venue hosts the World Amateur Team Championships.
“With the work of committees from the recession onwards, we have worked hard to maintain the course to the best of our ability, to hang on to our current members and to attract as many new members as we can,” said club captain Lennon.
With more than 1,000 members at the height of the boom, numbers dropped to just under 900 when the recession hit.
"We have 957 in all categories now — our members are very loyal — and thanks to the CGI's ‘Get into Golf Programme’, we have had 25 new ladies join the club this year,” added the captain.
The decision to drop the joining age for juveniles from ten to eight has also proved to be an inspired move, breathing new life into the club with the youngsters flocking to the Oakpark nine to learn the game almost undisturbed
“While they might not be totally ‘au fait’ with golf when they begin, they go out to the Oakpark Course and fall in love with the game there,” Lennon explained. “There is a wonderful buzz around the golf club all year round now.”
All going well, the famous Midland Scratch Cup, which boasts Joe Carr (six times), Mark Gannon (five), Peter McEvoy (four) and Pádraig Harrington (two) among its former winners, will attract a bumper field for a 36-hole test on 2 September.
While he created such great courses as Puerta de Hierro in Madrid and Golf de Chantilly in Paris, Simpson’s talent was his ability to take a rough diamond and polish it to priceless, shining brilliance.
In Carlow, he certainly left a gem behind.
Carlow Golf Club
- Address: Deerpark, Carlow
- Tel: +353 59 913 1695
- Web: www.carlowgolfclub.ie
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Deerpark Course - Mon-Thurs. €30; Fri. €40; Sat €50.
- Oakpark Course - €10/€15 (9 holes/18 holes).
- Groups under 20, Mon-Thurs, €30; Fri. €40; Sat. €50.
- Groups of 20 or more: Thurs. €30; Fri. €35; Sat. €40.
- Buggy hire: Yes, €30. (€15 for 9 holes)
- Club hire: Yes, €20
- Electric trolleys: Yes, €12.
Signature hole — 16th, 404 m, Par 4
Sweeping from a high tee to a wide fairway in the valley below, the picturesque, index two 16th requires an accurate tee shot to avoid trees left and rough right before taking on a tough second to the elevated green
Finding the 16th fairway is crucial if you are hoping to make a par-four here. If you do that, you have a testing second, often with a fairway wood, to an elevated green that banks from the left towards the putting surface. Miss right and sand awaits.
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- The Heath
This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's Tee to Green golf supplement in March 2017