Like a loving father, Christy O’Connor Jnr had nothing but words of praise for every course stamped with his imprimatur. But even though listeners smiled knowingly when the late Galwayman waxed lyrical about his golfing creations, he has been proved right.
Not only have his courses stood the test of time, they are now woven seamlessly into fabric of Irish golfing life and as much loved and cherished as the more established names.
Concra Wood Golf and Country Club, situated on the shores of Lough Muckno near Castleblayney in Co Monaghan, is one such example and arguably amongst the top three when it comes to the 19 Irish courses O’Connor Jnr designed, co-designed or re-designed during his distinguished career.
Created with expert help from his late uncle, the great Christy O’Connor Snr, it’s a spectacular parkland course measuring more than 7,300 yards from the championship markers with lake views from every tee and Lough Mucknoo itself coming into play on 11 of the 18 holes.
“Stunning,” Junior said on a scorching October afternoon in Portugal back in 2007 when the course was being completed. “Jeez, I could never describe it. An Irish budget is not good enough, but it has turned out fabulous.
“A couple of million more would have permitted us to put in more features like waterfalls and the like or to drain the fairways 100 percent but it’s still a really special place. We are going to do huge business from the North and it’s less than an hour and a half away with the new motorway.”
O’Connor Jnr was quite right about the course which is now ranked as one of the top 35 parkland designs in the country in any poll you care to consult.
The drainage is now perfect and its proximity to the M1 motorway, as he predicted, means that golfers in Belfast or Dublin are little more than an hour away way from a course that may one day be considered as a suitable venue for an Irish Open.
That day may be distant one for now with Portstewart set to host next year and many other long-established destinations, including Portmarnock, keen to return to the rota of venues that host Irish professional golf’s blue riband championship.
For now, Concra Wood is happy to have put its name on the map three successive stagings of Europro Tour events from 2012 to 2014 but with the Confederation of Golf in Ireland keen to promote the Irish Challenge, held for the past two years at another O’Connor Jnr design in Mount Wolseley, tour golf may eventually return to this idyllic part of Co Monaghan.
Sit in the club’s impressive restaurant, aptly named The View for the mouth-watering views it offers of the course, Lough Muckno and the distant Monaghan drumlins, and you will soon be itching to get out and test yourself on one of Ireland’s truly great new courses.
“It really was the worst case of timing,” joked club professional Conor McKenna of the opening at the height of the economic collapse, eight years ago. “But we’ve come through the tough times and we’ve got a brilliant product in a great location, 15 minutes from the motorway and only an hour from Dublin or Belfast.
“We had 14,500 visitor rounds this year, which is just slightly down on our peak year of 16,500 rounds just two years ago. We’re just very proud of what we have achieved and we are only getting better.”
The professionals who tee it up in those Europro Tour events from 2012 to 2014 were blown away by the quality of a course that is easily playable but still very challenging at 6,300 yards for society golfers from the new white tees.
Former European Tour winner Simon Thornton still holds the course record — a four under par 68 carded in a PGA Sprint event in 2010 — and he was hugely impressed by the quality of the challenge.
“Concra Wood is one of the best courses in the country – full stop. It is absolutely fantastic,” said Thornton.
“The players will have to find the fairways off the tee. The fairways are not very wide but at the same time, there are bail-out areas. It is important to know where you cannot hit it off the tee.
“The second shots are not overly difficult but there is often no point in hitting driver all the time. Sometimes you are going to have to lay back and hit full shots into the greens which are superb putting surfaces.”
The creation of Concra Wood is the final stage in the evolution of Castleblayney Golf Club, which was founded as a nine-hole course, opposite the entrance to Concra Wood in 1905.
The course closed in 1949 but it was reborn in the grounds of Hope Castle in 1985 before moving to its current location in 2008 and expanding to 18 holes.
The idea for a new 18 hole course began in early 2000 when some members of Castleblayney Golf Club approached Coillte, the Irish Forestry Commission, with a view to securing 240 acres of woodland beside Lough Muckno for a new golf course.
The estate was purchased through the sale of shares in the development before O'Connor Jnr was asked to collaborate with his uncle Christy Snr in bringing to life a tract of land that was wild and rugged but full of potential.
“The first time I saw the site it was a bit of a mess,” recalled O'Connor Jnr. “There were a lot of tree stumps and ditches covered with briars, but the views were extraordinary. It's one of the finest natural sites I've seen and presented a great opportunity to create a course with such magnificent lake views.”
The views are certainly spectacular, stretching across the Monaghan Drumlins to the Cooley and Mourne Mountains to the east, and the Slieve Gullion and Mullyash Mountains to the north. And all the while you are surrounded by the lake and its scattering of islands, including Black Island, Otter Island, Crane Island and White Island.
The shape and flow of the golf course is perfectly complemented by the drumlins that roll across the countryside and the scenery is so spectacular that a return visit is almost guaranteed.
Lough Muckno is visited several times during the round and it’s a constant threat. You first come across it on the stretch from the fourth to the sixth and again from the 12th and 16th.
The signature hole is the par-five fourth hole, where the fairway veers sharply to the right at the landing area then runs along the side of the lough before dipping wickedly down to the left to a shoreside green perched just above the waterline.
Sky Sports commentator and former PGA Tour professional John E Morgan reduced it to two might swipes of a two iron in a pre-tournament practice round.
“He was the best golfer I had ever seen,” club professional McKenna, a daily commuter from Armagh, said of Morgan’s approach to six feet at the signature hole.
“He only missed two greens, finding bunkers on both holes. But he holed one bunker shot and hit the other one to a few inches.
“When he hit a high draw with a two iron from 234 yards to six feet at the fourth, I tipped him heavily with the members and of course, he hurt his elbow and missed the cut. But he loved the course.”
There are just 400 members there right now but with distance membership at the club for 2017 now available for €550 for golfers living outside a 60km radius from the club that number may well rise sooner rather than later.
“Concra has the potential to hold a big event and the scenery was sensational,” said European Tour player Gareth Maybin.
If you like to fish, it may be the perfect course for you. It’s certainly hugely popular with visitors with the French, Germans and Swedes all visiting in big numbers.
Lough Muckno’s 425 hectares is world-renowned with anglers and several of Ireland’s International team members regularly fish was is described by the club as “the best, most prolific and most accessible [fishing] venue by far that this country has to offer.”
This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's weekly Tee to Green golf supplement on 24 November 2016