Woodenbridge - A natural phenomenon in the Garden of Ireland

Woodenbridge - A natural phenomenon in the Garden of Ireland
Woodenbridge Golf Club

Woodenbridge Golf Club

Joe Carr liked to describe Woodenbridge as the Augusta of Ireland, and while comparisons are odious, the first Irishman to play in the Masters Tournament was better placed than most to appreciate the Co Wicklow gem's unique ambience.

Set in a gloriously wooded vale where the Avoca and the Aughrim rivers meet,  Carr was not the first to realise that this was exceptional golfing terrain — an oasis of natural beauty and an area of Ireland that's an inspiration, not just golfers, but poets too.

Thomas Moore's song The Meeting of the Waters referred to the place where the Avon Mor and Avon Beag meet further along the Vale of Avoca.

But the lyrics of his 1807 classic still capture something of the essence of terrain that remains an idyllic destination for golfers seeking a few hours respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life:

"There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet
Oh the last rays of feeling and life must depart
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart

"Sweet vale of Avoca! How calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace"

Woodenbridge Golf Club

Woodenbridge Golf Club

Few people know the club as well as former Honorary Secretary and secretary manager Henry Crummy, a Sligo native who moved from Cloonloo near the Roscommon-Sligo border to Woodenbridge in 1962 and has witnessed over half a century of activity at Ireland's third oldest club.

"First of all, we strive to be the best, look after our members and strike up a good relationship with visitors and make them want to come back to Woodenbridge because they've enjoyed their experience," Henry said of the ethos of the club founded by Colonel Bayly in 1884. "That's it in a nutshell. 

"We have always been regarded as a very social club and I'd like to think that we provide all the facilities you would require for a nice day out, apart from a golf course that's highly maintained."

Like many clubs, Woodenbridge lost some 200 members during the most recent economic downturn. But most have been replaced by new blood, many of whom hail from the towns and villages nearby.

Thanks to wise economic planning, the club will be completely debt free in two years' time, and while natural disaster is always a threat in the form of flooding, the club continues to go from strength to strength with its privileged location making it one of the most scenic in Ireland.

"We were a nine-hole club for over 100 years, but we decided to make it an 18 hole course in 1992 and it was achieved and opened two years later," Henry said. "We were privileged to have the help of Patrick Merrigan, who died a few years ago, and he was wonderful.

"He's designed some beautiful courses all over Ireland, such as Slieve Russell, Tulfarris, Faithlegg and the Old Head of Kinsale. But the job he did for us is remarkable in that you would not be able to discern between the old and the new nines. 

"It knitted so well together that within a year or two of completing the job, it would have been very difficult to tell them apart. It's a fantastic achievement.

"He had a wonderful eye for detail, and if a plan he had drawn up on paper was not going to work, he had no problem saying so."

Golf course architect Ronan Branigan worked extensively with Merrigan, remarking on the late designer's death that "he really got into the bones of a project; nothing was done on a whim."

That love of detail is evident at Woodenbridge, and while the club has suffered more than its fair share of natural disasters over the past 50 years, it's a small price to pay for such wonderful golfing terrain.

Any reluctance among the membership to move from nine holes to 18 under Merrigan's guidance quickly faded. It was a case, not just of taking advantage of an opportunity to purchase land and extend the course, but to accommodate the growing number of members and visitors.

"It was a great family club, but it was always busy, so we were delighted to make that move," Crummy explained. 

Building a clubhouse to match the new course was the next challenge, and Woodenbridge did that in 2000, building a new €1.5m facility, bringing the total sum invested in the course and buildings to over €2 million.

The golf course remains the club's pride and joy with Merrigan's clever use of water making it a thought-provoking and challenging for golfers of all levels.

It's all a far cry from the early days of 1884 when the first officially documented game of golf took place when Col. E.A.R. Bayly invited  Sir Stanley Cochran of Woodbrook House to field "a team of gentlemen" for a round.

The club joined the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1899 and was redesigned in 1915 by Tom Travers, the then renowned Dun Laoghaire professional.

It remained a nine-hole course until 1994 when Merrigan created a new, par 71, 18-hole course to great acclaim.

Storms have wreaked havoc on the course over the years, particularly in 1965, 1986 and 2000, when €350,000 of damage was caused.

More damage was inflicted in recent winters but despite it all, Woodenbridge thrives, and the club remains on course to become completely debt-free in 2020.

"The first big disaster was 1965 when the bridge was swept away," Henry explained. "Then Hurricane Charlie ripped us apart in 1986, and half the new clubhouse we were building was washed away. After 2000, when there was another major disaster, we had more damage in 2010 and again in 2016. 

"But when Patrick Merrigan was designing the new course, he allowed for the potential flooding of the course by contouring the fairways to take an influx of water and allow it to get away quickly.

"When the River Avoca floods and the waters come down from Glendalough, a high tide in Arklow can back up, and we are the only place the water can go. We have done everything in our power to protect ourselves, but Mother Nature remains number one."

In Woodenbridge, Mother Nature has proved to be a blessing, creating a small paradise for lovers of the game  — a place to lose themselves in splendid isolation, free from the hustle bustle of the world for a few hours of golfing bliss.

Factfile - Woodenbridge Golf Club

Address: Woodenbridge, Vale of Avoca, Arklow, Co. Wicklow

Email: reception@woodenbridge.ie

Tel: 0402 35202

Website: www.woodenbridge.ie

Green fees: Midweek, €50, early €30, twilight €30.  Weekend/ Bank holiday €60, early €30, twilight €30. 

Society rates: 20 or less, midweek €40, weekend €45. 20+, midweek €35, weekend €40.

Buggy hire: Yes, €30

Club hire: Yes, €30

Electric trolley: Yes, €10

Range balls: No

Signature Hole: 18th, 553 yards, (455 for Ladies), Par-5

A carry of 160 yards over the River Avoca is required to make the fairway from the white tees.  The river then runs all the way up the left-hand side of a hole featuring nine well-placed bunkers, three of them in the landing zone. With three more bunkers in the lay-up area and three more protecting the two-tiered green, a par is always a good score here at this potential card wrecker.

PGA Professional Craig Lewis says:

"A straight tee shot between the bunkers is required and while longer hitters can reach in two, an equally straight second shot is needed. The play for most golfers is to lay up short of the pathway running through the course, leaving you around 100 yards to well guarded, two-tiered green. Aim for the centre of the green with your third as shots heading  left can easily run off the slope, out of bounds."

Membership: Open. Please contact the club for current rates.

Nearby clubs: Macreddin, Coolattin, Arklow.

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent’s weekly golf supplement, Tee to Green, on 13 September 2018. If you think your club should be featured in Tee to Green in 2019, please contact me here