For this edition of TurfPro I travelled to County Wicklow (a county known as The Garden of Ireland) to a beautiful golf course that is nestled in a tree lined valley with two rivers flowing in and around the course.
This course is Woodenbridge and it was once described as Ireland’s Augusta. It is indeed a beautiful course. It brings back fond memories to me as I used to play rounds of golf there when I was involved with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Ireland. Back in those days it was usually early November when I would play the course with my greenkeeping coleagues. At that time of the year it was spectacular as the trees, which included oak, silver birch and mountain ash, displayed their vivid autumn colours. We would then retreat back to the clubhouse for the meal and prizegiving. What wonderful memories.
The clubhouse enjoys panoramic views across much of the course
Woodenbridge is a very old club. It was established in 1884 as a nine hole course and is layed out on the flood planes of the rivers Aughrim and Avoca. The old nine holes were known as the links. It remained a nine-hole course until 1994 when the late Paddy Merrigan was commissioned to design the additional nine-hole layout and extend Woodenbridge to a Par 71, 18-hole course. The new holes were blended seamlessly and agelessly into the fabled original nine holes. The new nine holes were officially opened on the 3rd of June 1995. Merrigan subsequently upgraded the old nine holes in a most sensitive manner, keeping with the essence of this historic and beautiful place. There is also a driving range and practice green, which are located beside the car park. An interesting fact is that the first head greenkeeper back in 1884 was Paddy Doran, who is the great grandfather of the present head greenkeeper, Michael Doran.
The par three 4th hole
The club has approximately 650 members including Lena Tice, who is a former international cricket and current international hockey player and was part of the Irish hockey Olympic team in this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. To get the clubhouse and golf course you have to park your car in the car park. You then walk across the Dublin/Wexford railway line before walking on the steel bridge that crosses the River Avoca. When you do this you get to see the impressive clubhouse which gives you wonderful views across the course.
Before you get to the clubhouse you have to cross the railway line by foot
I met head greenkeeper Michael Doran at the maintenance facilty where he was setting the blades of one of the surrounds mowers (Michael is also the mechanic at Woodenbridge). We had a great chat together, catching up on old times. Michael has been working at Woodenbridge for twenty one years. He originally worked in the nearby copper mines, as his father did before him. It was a tough life and he soon left to work for a local agricultural contractor which, in a strange way, opened the door for him to work at Woodenbridge golf club. “I used do a lot of spraying for farmers and I would sometimes do some spraying for the club. In 2000 I decided to change jobs and started working at Woodenbridge as a greenkeeper”, said Michael. He became Head Greenkeeper in 2010.
Head greenkeeper Michael Doran. His great grandfather was the club’s first head greenkeeper back in 1884
Michael is a practical man and has a great sense of where he works. Even though he has no formal qualifications, his knowledge of the land is immense and it is put to good use at Woodenbridge. “Being qualified in your profession has advantages but when it comes to greenkeeping you need to know about the soil under your feet. That’s something you don’t learn in college”, said Michael. There are five full time staff looking after the course. No seasonal workers are taken on.
The greenkeeping staff from left: Michael Doran, Paddy Delaney, Gavin Short, Chris Doyle, Michael O’Toole
I got the use of one of the golf buggies where I was able to wander around the course with my camera, visiting the green where I made that twenty foot putt and the tee box where I drove three consecutive golf balls into the River Avoca. It was so difficult to pick specific locations to photograph as all the holes throughout the course were beautiful with the greens in great condition.
One of the bridge crossings over the River Avoca, a river that has consumed many golf balls over the years
The Rivers Aughrim and Avoca are an integral part of the course. The river Aughrim enters the Avoca at the 8th hole. The rivers feature on no fewer than ten of the holes, each providing unique challenges for players of all handicaps. However, river levels can rise, especially after heavy rain and, on at least four occasions (1965, 1986, 2001, 2010), the rivers burst their banks. The last such event, in 2010, caused a lot of damage. Two greens, the 8th and 15th, were washed away and had to be relocated and rebuilt; twenty five bunkers had to be rebuilt; large trees that were washed down from upstream were deposited onto the course; silt and gravel from the riverbed had been deposited on six fairways; the irrigation pipework damaged and a lot more.
Michael told me that the water levels were 2ft high in the maintenance facilty, submerging all the mowers. “We had to bring our machines up to the old railway station house, which is located beside the car park, to save them from further damage”, said Michael. In the 2010 floods up to one hundred members of the club volunteered to help with the clean up. Nearby Blainroe Golf Club even offered two of its greenkeeping staff to help as well. With the recent warnings on climate change, the threat of future floods is never too far away. The club is well prepared for such eventualities.
The flood damage from January 2010
Despite the course being built on a floodplain, the land is very well drained. You don’t have to dig down too deep to find gravel underneath. All the greens are sand based and built to USGA specifications.
The fairways are topdressed every spring, while the greens are sanded quite regularly throughout the growing season (the club got delivery of a new greens topdresser last June). Getting the sand delivered to the course is a challenge – for the lorry driver. Because the articulated vehicle cannot cross the railway line it is diverted to the other side of the course where it has to drive along a twisty laneway for several miles before reaching the course. The sand is dumped at two locations, making it easier for transporting around the course.
Greenkeeper Michael O’Toole edges one of the irrigation sprinkler heads
Every January the greens are verti drained. They are hollow cored in the spring and autumn, during which time they are overseeded with ‘Shark’ creeping bentgrass. Michael applies a granular fertiliser to the greens in spring and then uses liquid feed every 10 days during the growing season. He micro tines the greens every month. The greens and tees are supplied with an automatic irrigation system.
Two oak trees in the greenside bunker of the 14th green
Many of the trees are as old, if not older, than the club itself. There is a stone post that commemorates a speech given by Irish MP John Redmond, under a nearby oak tree in 1914, encouraging the Wicklow Sections of the Irish Volunteers to join the British forces to fight in World War I. Having so many trees on the course brings its own challenges with leaves having to be gathered up from autumn to early winter. Falling branches are also a risk so the older trees need to be regularly monitered for safety. But all this extra work is worth it as the trees add a wonderful visual aspect to the course.
The view of the 18th green from the balcony of the clubhouse
It was a pleasure to have revisited Woodenbridge Golf Club. I’m sure Paddy Doran would be proud and impressed with how his great grandson, Michael, along with Woodenbridge’s loyal greenkeeping staff, have maintained the course.