Clever links between land and water

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Philip Reidvisits a course where the members have combined modest resources with imaginative design to turn what was an admittedly bland layout into a greener, more varied and more attractive challenge

THE NIP-'N'-TUCK surgery has been completed, and what was once akin to an ugly duckling has morphed into something much more fetching to the eye. It's an accomplishment of which Roger Jones, the designer, is proud; and the members of Balcarrick Golf Club, quite rightly, are prouder still.

After all, it was their pockets and patience while work was ongoing that enabled the course to be transformed. They have been suitably rewarded.

Originally opened for play in 1992, this course - one of six in the Donabate area of north county Dublin - had, through no fault of its own, become a tad jaded and dated.

"It was a bit bland, and too open," recounts club captain Gerry Mulholland. "We knew it needed improvement, so that it would become more than an open field."

Rather than dither and accept their lot, Balcarrick's membership decided to take the bull by the horn and seek to renovate the course.

They were impressed by what had occurred at Craddockstown, where Jones had undertaken a similar task, and so the search for the man to renovate and improve Ballcarrick led them to the Welshman, who grew up playing golf with the likes of Ian Woosnam before settling in Ireland and working on projects that included the Ring of Kerry and, currently, one in conjunction with Paul McGinley at Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow.

The challenge for any golf-course designer, when presented with an open canvas, is to create a work of art. When the designer is moving in to work on an existing course, the challenge can be even greater.

Those involved in Balcarrick knew the limitations of their course; but when Jones saw it he also saw the potential to change the aesthetics and make the challenge a better and more enjoyable one.

"You know," he says, "going in to work on an existing course is as much fun as starting with a greenfield site. You're working with very genuine people, most of whom live and breathe for the club, and you got the buzz that they have about what was happening."

He adds: "And, unlike when you're working on a completely new development, where there are no members during the project work, at an existing golf club you're getting the feedback from members because they're actually playing the course and see what is going on around them."

The only stipulation put to Jones was that the work should be conducted while the course (albeit a restricted one) remained open for play, with no work at weekends. And, emphasising the close-knit nature of golf, other clubs in the area allowed Balcarrick members to play for reduced green fees while work was being done.

One of the first suggestions made by Jones was to slightly alter the layout. From the first time he arrived at the course to make his presentation to the members, he believed the opening and finishing holes were all wrong.

In his mind, he saw what was the 17th as the sort of hole that could make a statement about what lay ahead and that the 16th - a reasonably tough, slightly doglegged par four - was actually perfect as a finishing hole. So, the 17th has become the new-look first hole; and the 16th is now the 18th.

"In fairness, the club had identified many of the problems. Like, over the years, bunkers had been added that didn't actually come into play and, also, visitors would arrive at the course and wouldn't know what direction to head," says Jones. "They knew themselves too that certain members were using other fairways to play the course."

What Jones endeavoured to do was to present a more meaningful - and safer - challenge, but also to give the Balcarrick members "a traditional course - there was no point in Americanising it".

Such a statement is made at the very first hole. Although not overly long, at just 237 metres off the back tee, this par four instructs that you will have to think your way around the course; a driver won't be the automatic tool of trade.

The land at Balcarrick is relatively flat and near the sea, so is not entirely suitable for tree growing.

"I felt it had no identity, to be honest," confesses Jones.

"It was not links. And it was not parkland, because of the impact of the estuary and the sea air. It was caught in the middle, caught nowhere."

So, Jones - in conjunction with the head greenkeeper, Martin Sheridan, who managed to keep the course in remarkably good playing condition throughout all of the improvements - introduced golden prairie grasses to provide definition and character.

The grasses are tall and wispy, while thousands of shrubs were also introduced and many of the water areas were made larger and reeds were introduced to encourage a greener environment.

The arrival of ducks and swans to the course already bears testament to the success of that strategy.

Anyway, the first hole is a microcosm of what has happened. All down the right, there is a pond (yes, with reeds) that, sneakily, works its way around the back of the green.

Anyone tempted to drive the green has more than just a contoured putting area to find; the penalty for being long or right is a severe one.

The safer option is to use an iron off the tee, to set up a short iron approach into the green.

The greens, which had matured wonderfully well under Sheridan's guidance, required no reconstruction.

However, 18 new tee complexes were constructed, while there has been significant work on bunkering and a number of new fairways have been realigned.

The work was done by Dar Golf Construction.

Probably the most impressive work was done on what is now the 14th hole. Quite rightly, it is also the index one.

Under the old layout, many members had attempted to short-cut the par four - which now measures 382 metres - by driving down the preceding fairway in an attempt to get a better angle in to the green. Not only was it unsafe, but it belittled the hole. What Jones did was to move the fairway some 15 metres to the right, bringing it closer to the out-of-bounds fence down the right.

The aesthetics on the approach shot typify Jones's attitude about creating what he calls "a link between water, the sea and the estuary".

A large pond, with a beach bunker, has been built down the right-hand side. It looks for all the world as if it has always been there.

In this new world of credit crunching and tighter finances, what Balcarrick have done, without breaking the bank, is to transform their course and make it a far more challenging and enjoyable experience.

As Jones put it, "they had a nice budget, and it was the maximum for them. Every golf-course designer would like to do more, but that is not living in the real world . . . and I believe what they have got now will add to their revenue in green fees."

The upshot for members is that their course has improved no end. No wonder they walk on to that first tee with a new spring in their step, and a cautious mind for what lies ahead. Their patience has been well rewarded.

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