Garden of earthly delights where floods are par for the course

 

Woodenbridge Golf Club couldn't have insured against it and still can't. Nor can it ensure that the catastrophe that befell the picturesque parkland course over a 48-hour period last November will not occur again. They are slaves to nature's whims.

On November 5th and 6th 2000, two days of torrential rain - four inches fell in the space of 24 hours - coupled with a high tide in Arklow conspired to dramatically increase the level of water in the two rivers which border the course. The Aughrim and the Avonmore rivers swelled dangerously until finally bursting their banks in several places and laying waste to the course.

The water engulfed the course to devastating effect, with all bar the elevated fourth green immersed in three-to-four feet of water: Woodenbridge golf course resembled a lake.

It was not the first time that the course had been engulfed by water; pictures adorn the walls of the new clubhouse recording the effects of Hurricane Charlie in 1986.

The true magnitude of the damage of last year was revealed when the waters subsided on Wednesday, November 7th. Yet, from that low point, to the reopening of the golf course on St Patrick's Day, the club and the course have recovered gloriously. The final chapter was the opening of the par five 18th hole, of which much of the fairway was a building site during the construction of the new clubhouse.

In just 129 days, John Clarkin, one of the top agronomists in the country, and his team removed the debris, reconstructed greens, fairways and tee boxes - not to mention ministering to the various flora and fauna that had been hit by the flooding. There was also the small matter of rebuilding and re-sanding 90 bunkers that had been ruined.

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the task that faced Clarkin, but the pictures help to provide substance to the images. It was Richard Stapleton, the chairman of the Golf Committee at Woodenbridge that prevailed upon Clarkin to come and survey the wreckage on Wednesday, November 7th, and write a damage report.

Stapleton admitted: "The road from Avoca to Woodenbridge was completed flooded and that is set on higher land than the golf course, so you can only imagine how bad the scene was here. There was water everywhere."

An indication may be gleaned from the sight of the greens' staff who waded out to the machinery shed to find every bit completely submerged.

Clarkin smiles when he recalls the brief offered to him. "I had to have the golf course open for the start of the season on March 17th," a remit he accomplished.

The immediate priority was to remove the silt from the grass as quickly as possible; otherwise the grass would have quickly died beneath it. It (the silt) was two feet deep in places.

"We had to use heavy machinery even though it was damaging the course underneath because speed was of the essence: only afterwards did we set about repairing the damage caused by the machinery. An e.g.m. of the club was called and it was agreed to introduce a certain amount of new members and to increase on a phased basis the subscription rates over three years to claw back the £350,000 it would cost to repair the damage.

This was quite apart from two members' levies that helped finance the magnificent £1.85 million clubhouse. The members headed for Arklow golf club for succour, who opened the fairways and clubhouse to their Woodenbridge counterparts while the reclaiming of the latter venue was being undertaken.

While work had to be completed on every hole on the golf course, the most severely affected were the eighth, 14th, 15th and 17th holes. As Clarkin explains: "On the eighth green there was a 10-foot gorge cut through where the river came straight across rather than following the bend. The only things that were left were the irrigation lines.

"Four-foot boulders, the rock armoury, that weigh tonnes, were simply washed away and never found. We had to completely replace the subsoil and raise, by three feet, the riverbank to create more of a barrier. The bridge, which links the eighth tee with the eighth green, was struck by a 45-foot tree that had been uprooted and swept away by the flood.

"Peter Byrne, the course supervisor, waded out with a chainsaw and when he had cut away part of the tree, the bridge sprang back six inches. The water had risen right up to the walkway of the bridge, which is about 15 to 18 feet from the riverbed.

"At the 15th green, the water hit the back of it in a waterfall effect and ripped most of the sods out. We found parts of the green 450 metres down the fairway along with root zone sand.

"The reconstruction work on the 14th was similar to the 15th. We added a new tee box on the 13th and repaired a particularly badly damaged 17th tee. We replaced all 90 bunkers, put in new drainage plus a new type of USGA spec sand, making Woodenbridge one of the first courses in Ireland to use this sand."

Clarkin described how some fairways resembled riverbeds with the number of stones deposited after the moving debris ripped the turf off, in a fashion similar to the peeling of an orange.

All damaged fairways were re-sodded from sods taken from the practice area. while the sods for the greens came in from off site.

There was a dramatic turnaround in terms of time from the moment the builders completed the clubhouse to the re-sodding and opening of the 18th fairway - two months from building site to a fairway open for play. The new putting green, two-and-a-half times the size of the old one, was laid and ready for play within six weeks.

The turnaround in appearance has been quite remarkable but there is the nagging concern that the whole catastrophe could happen again.

Stapleton conceded: "The chances of it happening again are very real. It is impossible to stop the flow of water. We brought in two expert hydrologists and they both agreed that nothing could have prevented what happened. In fact they pointed out that but for the quality of the rock armoury that was in place at the time, we could have lost everything."

Stapleton confirmed that the club has set aside funds for the day when it occurs again. There are other strategies, namely to convert the remaining seven greens that are not USGA specification, but for now the members are simply happy to be playing golf again on this beautiful piece of Wicklow parkland.