Golf business teed up for expansion

Small Business Future ProofJohn Clarkin, owner/director, Turfgrass, Co Wicklow

Golfer Greg Norman with Turfgrass owner and director John Clarkin.

Golfer Greg Norman with Turfgrass owner and director John Clarkin.

 

There were plenty of people watching the US Open at Chambers Bay in Washington in June with avid interest, but while most were focusing on who had the best swing, one person was more concerned about the state of the grass than anything else.

Having been asked to advise on the most appropriate grass types to produce a course that would play firm and fast, Dubliner John Clarkin was anxious everything would work out well.

Given that Chambers Bay was built on a sandy canvas of an abandoned rock quarry along the shore of Washington State’s Puget Sound, creating such a good playing environment was no easy task. But having worked on more than 100 golf projects throughout Europe, the Caribbean and North and South America over the past 18 years, Mr Clarkin and his colleagues at Turfgrass know what they’re doing.

Established in 1997 by Clarkin at the age of 25, Turfgrass is a Co Wicklow-based golf course development and consultancy company that specialises in agronomy, private and commercial putting greens, personnel recruitment and facility management.

The firm’s client list reads like a golfer’s wish list of top courses. It includes Golf Club de Genève in Switzerland, which hosts the Rolex Trophy, Golf Club St Leon-Rot in Germany, which hosted the 2015 Solheim Cup last weekend, and the ultra-exclusive Vidauban Golf Club in St Tropez, France.

As if that was not enough, Turfgrass has also built and manages private golf academies for clients such as Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington. In fact, it was Harrington who pushed Clarkin towards the career he is in, albeit in a way he couldn’t have possibly envisaged.

“Golf was very much in our family and I played a lot of it when younger and had ambitions to become a pro until I found myself up against Pádraig Harrington in a competition and realised that, while I was good, I was never going to make it professionally. I still wanted to stay involved though and decided to do green-keeping instead,” said Clarkin.

Starting off as an apprentice greenkeeper at Grange Golf Club in 1989, where he did a City and Guilds course in turfgrass science, Clarkin went on to study the subject in greater depth at Penn State in Pennsylvania. Returning home to Ireland, he became director of golf operations at Powerscourt for three years before setting out on his own.

“I was always going to set up my own business. Right from the age of 17, after that game with Pádraig, I knew I wanted to be an agronomist and was determined to make it. Mind you, I had it in my head that I’d have my own company on the go when I reached 35 but got to it 10 years ahead of schedule,” he said.

Clarkin’s timing in terms of setting up the business was spot on as the economy started to blossom soon after and the company, which originally focused on agronomy – the science behind greenkeeping – quickly started branching out.

“We ended up helping Christy O’Connor with some of his courses and it went mad after that. Before long we were working abroad on golf courses across the world and the company grew by leaps and bounds,” he said.

Having been asked to create a private putting green for Harrington, this soon became another lucrative sideline for the firm, with many leading professionals and some not so good but very rich amateurs all seeking their own driving ranges.

As with all businesses, the company was affected by the recession, but came through it relatively unscathed.

“The recession led us to tighten things up and, while we still focused on Ireland – working with the likes of Nama which had taken in a lot of courses – we also found other avenues opening up, both here and abroad. We ended up doing a lot of feasibility studies for clients and also worked at finding investors for people who were looking to sell courses.

“We were also called in by a lot of golf clubs which needed help to maintain good-quality courses on tight budgets and so were relying on our expertise,” he added.

Turfgrass, which employs 10 people, is currently working on a number of big projects in new regions such as Brazil and Africa. It is also continuing to serve existing clients, many of whom are in the process of redeveloping older courses.

“We are doing a lot of project management right now in this area right now. It’s a big thing in Europe currently because technology has moved on and so people are hitting balls further and as a result courses that are 20 to 30 years old need to be remodelled to take account of this,” he said.

“Africa is a big area of growth for us right as well. We’re being kept busy and I’m confident that we’ll have more than enough work to keep us on track for the foreseeable future.”

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