I visited Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club in early July. This club is situated in the town of Bunclody, a town that is on the Carlow Wexford border. Driving up the almost 1 mile tree lined avenue, with the odd beech tree growing in the middle of the road, you are led to a completely different world when you arrive at the clubhouse.
The course is set on 330 acres of wonderful parkland that was once part of the Newtownbarry Estate. Of the 330 acres, 150 acres comprise of woodland. Building a golf course in Bunclody was the brainchild of thirteen local businessmen. They hired course designer, Jeff Howes, who had previously worked with Jack Nicklaus, to design an 18 hole course. Construction began in 2007 with the official opening taking place in March 2009. The greens were built to USGA specifications and sown using Penn A4/G6 creeping bentgrass. As well as the 18 hole course there are two chipping greens and a golf academy. Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club is consistantly listed in Golf Digest’s ‘Top 100 Golf Courses in Ireland’ and it hosted the Irish PGA Championship in 2019.
An aerial view of the course showing holes 11 (left), 1 (centre) and 2 (right) Photo courtesy of Mark Byrne
The River Slaney flows alongside the eastern side of the course, giving a visually appealling aspect to many of the holes. Part of the course is located on an old racecourse that was on the estate. The land here has good natural drainage as there is gravel underneath. Other parts of the course, however, is situated on heavy soil so lots of drains had to be installed there during construction. The drainage system is quite intense with drains placed every 4 – 5 metres apart in some places. There are collector drains located on some of the fairways. Drainage work is ongoing and sand slitting is often carried out where needed.
A view of the 17th green from the top of the elevator with the River Slaney flowing beside it
One of the most unusual features of the course is the mechanical lift that is located to the right of the 17th green. The idea of building a lift here was not to create an attractive feature but, instead it came from one of the thirteen businessmen who had a bad leg, suffered from an accident years earlier. There is a large elevation difference between the 17th green and the 18th tee so the lift, installed during course construction, provides practical relief for golfers who find walking up steep slopes difficult. You would think that you were walking into a hotel lift. It brings you up five floors to a metal bridge that leads to the 18th tee.
The elevator, which brings golfers from the 17th green to the 18th tee
I was met by the course manager, Mark Byrne (with his dog Bella). It was a hot day with clear blue skies. The mature trees around the course created much welcome shade. Mark kindly brought me around the magnificant championship course. It was very generous of him to give up his time to me as he is an extremely busy man. The course was hosting a big golf society that day and he had a meeting to attend in the afternoon. Despite his busy schedule, Mark made me feel very welcome. I didn’t get the sense of being rushed during my two hours with him.
Course manager, Mark Byrne with his dog Bella
Mark began his greenkeeping career as a schoolboy when he spent his summer holidays working at Enniscorthy Golf Club. After completing his Leaving Certificate he studied horticulture at Blanchardstown IT, specialising in sportsturf. He obtained his Diploma in 2004 and then worked full time at Enniscorthy Golf Club. In 2007, an opportunity arose to work at a newly constructed golf course in Bunclody. This was Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club and he has been there ever since. Mark was fortunate to have started working there during the construction and grow-in. He is familiar with the positioning of drains and irrigation pipework that are located around the course. He was appointed Course Manager in 2017.
Five full time staff maintain this championship course, which includes Mark, with an extra three staff hired in during the growing season. The staff are kept busy as the course is maintained to a very high standard.
The greenkeeping staff from left: Robert St. Ledger, Billy Murphy (mechanic), Mark Byrne (course manager), John McGrath (assistant), Josh Black, Ivan Walker, Simon Black. Missing from photo is Brian O’Neill
An elaborate Toro Site Pro irrigation system, costing €1.1 million back in 2007, was installed throughout the course where sprinklers were placed on fairways, tees, approaches and greens. These demand a large amount of water during hot dry spells. Because of this, water is sourced using wells, which is stored in an open lake and forms a feature on the 3rd hole on the course. Two pumps are used which, between them, are capable of pumping 120,000 litres of water per hour.
The specially built lake, on the 3rd hole, which is used to store the irrigation water
As mentioned already, when the course was constructed the greens were sown with Penn A4/G6 creeping bentgrass. Today Mark uses Crystal BlueLinks creeping bentgrass when he overseeds the greens in Spring and Autumn.
The agronomist Mark uses is Trevor Norris from Turfgrass Consultancy. Between them they work out a maintenance schedule for the year. Mark takes soil samples during August. This gives him an idea on the nutritional status of the greens and he will plan accordingly as to what fertilisers he will use before he begins his Autumn aeration programme. Applications of 4:3:4 or 6:2:10 granular fertilisers is usually applied to the greens after coring and liquid feed is given every 10 -14 days during the growing season. Sanding is also regularly carried out on the greens during the growing season where 500kg is applied to each green per application. An annual application of sand is given to the fairways. Iron is also applied to the greens in the form of chelated iron but sulphate of iron is used on the fairways.
Simon Black mowing one of the fairways
Mark is a great believer of the Growing Degree Days (GDD) system and uses this method to calculate the best time to apply growth regulators and fungicides. Topdressing greens during mild periods of the winter months can be carefully calculated using this system as well.
Fungicides are applied when needed. Mark is following the Integrated Pest Management programme (IPM) which gives him an indication of what fungicides to use and when. The amount of fungicides available to groundsmen is getting more limited each year. The growth regulator, Primo Max, is applied to all the mown areas of the course, except the rough. Mark uses a mixing tank, which allows him to increase or decrease fertilisers such as nitrogen.
Wetting agents are applied every month but, during dry periods, this can increase to fortnightly applications.
Most of the machinery repairs are done in house by mechanic Billy Murphy. Billy has been working in Bunclody since 2007, the same year that Mark started. The two-storey maintenance facility is very impressive where Billy has his own workshop to carry out all the necessary repairs.
Mechanic, Billy Murphy, busy sharpening a bottom blade
Life during lockdown
During the lockdown, work on the course carried on as normal, as was the case all over Ireland. The usual precautions of wearing masks, sanitising equipment after use, keeping 2 metres apart and even eating separately during tea and lunch breaks were observed. Thankfully, non of the groundstaff got infected and, by now, all the staff have at least received their first vaccination.
Having the course closed during those times had its advantages. For example the greens did not have to be mown first thing in the morning, spraying could be done in the afternoon, branches that were cut from trees could be left on the ground for that bit longer before being removed so as to allow more important work to be done. Not having golfers around enabled Mark and his team to verti drain fairways, and get bunkers edged and resanded. Even the area around the first tee box was able to be drained undisturbed. But the biggest advantage of having an empty golf course was that Mark was able to complete his aeration programme by the end of February in 2020 and 2021. This would normally take until the end of April to complete.
The par three 14th hole
With 150 acres of land devoted to woodland and a major river flowing past the course one would expect an abundance of wildlife. This is indeed the case as deer, pheasants, otters stoats, foxes, pine martins, and red squirrel are often seen. Even woodpeckers have been heard knocking on the tree trunks during springtime.
There are a wide variety of trees growing throughout and around the course. many of these, such as oak and scotts pine naturally self seed so there is no need for a tree planting programme. The mature oak tree that is growing in the middle of the 15th fairway was on deaths door a few years ago. “We thought we were going to lose it”, said Mark. “I decided to get it pruned and have some of the dead branches removed. I don’t know how but it wasn’t long before new growth began to appear and the oak is now thriving”.
The 15th hole showing the mature oak tree, brought back to life, growing in the middle of the fairway
It was a great privilege to have been shown around the course by Mark. He and his staff are fortunate to be working in such beautiful surroundings.