K Club turns the corner

 

The therapeutic sound of the waterfall by the fifth green isn't responsible for curing all the ills, but it seems that way. Finally, and rather inevitably, given the financial clout and expertise available, The K Club has come of age.

Six years ago, during the Irish PGA, when some of Ireland's top players squelched along the fairways in shoes that bore a greater resemblance to farmers' wellington boots than golfing attire, the newly-opened course hit its lowest point. This week, as the £1.5 million Smurfit European Open, the richest tournament ever to be staged in Ireland, is held for a fourth year in what is now its spiritual home, things could hardly be better.

"Tee to green, I don't think the players will find a better venue on the tour all season," says Gerry Byrne, the course superintendent, "they'll certainly find it almost as good as Loch Lomond, which is now the benchmark for all tournament venues."

Down Straffan way, wary smiles have replaced worried frowns. The remedial drainage work on the fairways conducted in 1993 and 1994 - and the TLC lavished by the greenstaff - has brought about a near-miraculous improvement. Indeed, looking down from the balcony over the 18th hole, the vibrant green colours would put the Kelly green so beloved of American visitors in the shade. The rewards of such visible quality and beauty are manifest in the facts and figures. Paul Crowe, the Director of Golf, relates a tale of business and golfing success. For instance, it is impossible to get a teetime for any Friday in 1999 - "we're sold out," he says - and, for the first six months of this year, 14,670 rounds of golf were played there.

"I believe staging the European Open has influenced public awareness," admits Crowe, "because people love to play courses that the professionals have played. But the general condition all year round has helped greatly and led to a lot of repeat business. For that, you have to give a lot of credit to Gerry (Byrne) and his staff."

Byrne arrived at The K Club just 18 months ago, leaving Luttrellstown Castle to take on the job of bringing the course's conditioning up to the desired level. "It was a big, big decision for me to make," recalls Byrne. "I knew it would be a big job and I made no bones about it and, at the time, told them it wouldn't be this year or the year after that they'd see the improvements but in three or four years time. However, I believe I've managed to bring the process forward by six months to a year and, certainly tee to green, I couldn't be happier." The fairways are, indeed, quite superb. The drainage work carried out in 1993 and 1994 has been followed up with an intensive, ongoing programme that includes three very heavy dressings of sand and two verti-cuttings every year to keep out trailing grasses. "We're very conscious of the environment and only apply fertilisers that are required," says Byrne of fairways which are uniformly green and prompt him to add: "I'd consider The K Club now to be the green Augusta of Europe, certainly of Ireland."

The players this week will find a difference to the course they played in last year's tournament which was won for a second straight year by Per-Ulrik Johansson. Crowe insists that the course "has not been tricked up, just improved" but nine of the fairways have been narrowed: the second is in by 10 yards on the left; the fourth by five yards; the sixth by 15 to 17 yards; the seventh by five yards; the eighth by 10 yards on the right; the tenth by five yards on the right; the 11th by three yards on either side; the landing area on the 13th by five yards; the 14th on the right by five yards, and the 18th by five yards over the bunker on the dog-leg. Also, the height of the semirough has been raised to 35mm (1 1/2 inches) as have the bands around the green.

"It's nothing like you'd find at the US Open," says Crowe, with Byrne agreeing that the fairways are "still generous" and that "there is still a lot of scope left for toughening up the course." Nevertheless, it is part of a policy of the new tournament director David Garland of the PGA European Tour to make it tougher than it was last year. "David was quite insistent about setting up the course for a real championship," adds Crowe.

Indeed, the narrowed fairways aren't the only changes. After last year's tournament, Crowe, Byrne and Dr Michael Smurfit himself decided on a programme that saw 230 substantial trees transplanted, a large number of them strong, semimature trees that have enhanced the dog-legs. "A definite improvement," remarks Crowe. Some of the trees took workmen two days to plant but the success has prompted them to go again with another programme of planting next November.

The biggest aesthetic improvement can be seen by the fifth green. There wasn't much change left out of £100,000 for the construction of the waterfall which was originally intended to "take away the blandness" of the short hole. With a burn running down the left-hand side from the waterfall back towards the teebox, the bonus for those associated with the project, which was completed in February, is that it is also in play.

The rough is also thicker, "quite penal," admits Byrne, while he describes the tee-boxes as "spectacular," due to the fact they're only used for this tournament.

Pin positions are also likely to be more difficult. Byrne admits that they were limited in the choice of flag locations last year due to the condition of the greens but, this time, he expects players to find a significant improvement. "I don't expect them to be jumping up and down telling us how great they are, but I do expect players to be going up to Paul (Crowe) and saying that there's been a massive improvement and that we're going in the right direction."

Byrne changed the fertilisation on his arrival and brought in dried sand for top dressing which "is less disruptive on the members." The programme of aeration and overseeding has enabled him (and his greenkeeping staff) to bring them on considerably. "Last year, I reckon maybe four of the greens were just okay. I know they were an extreme issue, but I don't expect them to be an issue this time. I believe we've 12 of them up to European class and the other six are coming along and will be acceptable. Next year, the really big improvements will be noted.

"What we've set out to achieve this year is a trueness and consistency in the greens. We could have them up to 10 on the stimpmetre, or even 9.5 would be acceptable to the PGA. But it is trueness I'm more concerned about."

However, the PGA European Tour's agronomist, Richard Stillwell has been quite vocal in his reports on the improvements that have taken place. And, in recent days, one of course designer Arnold Palmer's men, Jim Ellison, has flown in to assess the course's maintenance, while Eddie Connaughton, the club's consultant agronomist, has also assisted in the improvement.

This week, 33 greenstaff (including 10 seasonal greenkeepers) will ensure that The K Club is in pristine condition for the European Open. "We'll run on adrenalin, on a high for the days of the tournament," says Byrne, " and on Monday we'll all be depressed." Over the four days of competition, they will work split shifts from 5.30a.m. to 9.00a.m. and then from 6.00p.m. to 9.30p.m. with Byrne and his deputies Pat Webb and Richard Ferraris surveying all to make sure that everything runs smoothly.

And a winning score? "Put it this way," says Crowe, "I don't think anyone will set a new course record. Per-Ulrik was in a pure zone when he won last year. Maybe 12 under par could win this time round, or four shots less if the wind blows for the four days."

The winner? "Johansson," says Crowe. "Lee Westwood," opines Byrne. We'll wait and see.