Two of the game’s greatest exponents gave Mount Juliet praise that would become both a blessing and a curse. Either way, a revitalized resort is ready for the gallery-filled return for this year’s Horizon Irish Open, which begins on June 30th.
When Nick Faldo scored a hat-trick of Irish Open wins there in 1993, he could hardly believe the course had only been open two years. “These are the best greens I’ve played on in Europe this year,” he enthused.
Nine years later, after a stunning win at the American Express Championship, Tiger Woods said Mount Juliet’s greens were “absolutely clean” and “so perfect” for his shooting hand. praise indeed.
So what was the downside? It happened after the death of the resort’s founder and owner, Dr. Tim Mahony, June 2008. Uncertainty about the future has resulted in tightening purses and an inability to maintain the stunning standards of previous years.
Interestingly, Martin Lehane has seen it all during his 30 years of work there. A Thomastown native, he started out in 1992 as an assistant mechanic looking after the maintenance machines and has since progressed to becoming a course instructor.
When asked that he was eagerly awaiting public recognition of his work, he replied: “I think more of my homeland, where nothing should go wrong. This year is especially important because the masses will be back and a new investor, Horizon, is at the helm. So I’m preparing for a few sleepless nights and worrying that we’re going to get through this.”
Shane Lowry, who will be one of the leading contenders for this year’s title, has every reason to be extremely grateful for the way events at Mount Juliet have unfolded. His triumph at the Irish Open in 2009 might never have happened had preparations gone as planned.
In October 2008 Mount Juliet was asked by the European Tour to host the 2009 event. Regrettably, they claimed that due to existing commitments this would not be possible at the proposed time of the year.
Despite this, the tour persisted and Mount Juliet still declined.
Aidan O’Hara, then Superintendent of the Greens, told me: ‘There are probably only three or four venues in the country that could host an event like this in the short term and although we are one of them you want to be better informed. For example, a lot of work has to be done on preparing the bunker.”
In the 11th hour the Tour turned to Co Louth GC and the result was Lowry celebrating a famous win there as an amateur after a play-off with English pro Robert Rock.
With O’Hara at the helm, Mount Juliet will be remembered as the first Irish venue to attempt to eliminate meadow grass (poa annua) entirely from its greens. It was an enormously expensive undertaking, but with complete trust in O’Hara, Dr. Mahony provided.
All 18 greens were re-grassed with revolutionary new Penn A4 turf from their own nursery in preparation for the American Express event. “I want Tiger Woods and the other top players here to walk away thinking they just played the best greens in the world,” O’Hara said.
He further claimed that, to put it simply, they could be mowed much tighter than the old greens. “We should be able to get really serious speeds of 14 or more on the simpmeter, which is what they were raving about at Muirfield Village. But the tour guides have requested speeds between 11.0 and 11.5 for the American Express, so we will cap it at 11.5.”
Lehane smiled at the memory. “It didn’t seem to matter that all the greens were closed and temporary greens had been in use for 12 months,” he said. “A lot of money has been spent. Tim Mahony wanted the best and he was willing to pay for it.
“I and other Greens staff met Tiger this week but he wouldn’t speak to us. Our paths crossed when he was practicing in the short third from the tee. To protect the tees from being chopped up by the pros, Aidan had them wrapped in chicken wire, leaving players just about a square meter to tee off.
“Tiger wasn’t impressed. And as a sort of one-man protest, he insisted on taking a direct line across the chicken wire when walking off the tee. The result was that he became entangled in it and luckily was able to free himself without help. From our point of view it was a nightmare to have to pull all the wires again before the first lap.”
On a visit to Mount Juliet last week, I met Lehane in the company of Joe Bedford, one of the country’s leading agronomists and director of Paul McGinley Golf Course Design.
“What’s great about Martin is his ability to focus on every aspect of the job,” Bedford said. “He can fertilize, he can spray and he can do drainage work. I work with him as a consultant and we maintain regular contact. The course has changed from the state it was in when I first came here in 2014.”
Back then, Tetrarch Capital bought Mount Juliet for reportedly €15 million and has since spent almost as much on construction and renovation. After completing the relevant training, Lehane took over the management of the course in June 2015.
Ever since the course officially opened in July 1991, with an exhibition match between Jack Nicklaus and Christy O’Connor Snr, it has been difficult to meet anyone local who does not claim to have met and actually spoken to the bear. Interestingly, Lehane is not one of them. He admitted they had never spoken to each other.
“I think a measure of the design work he’s done here is that there hasn’t been a need for a change in 31 years,” he said. “And that’s not bad considering the dramatic developments in gaming equipment during this time.
“As for the greens, I am pleased that they are in very good condition now as they were at last year’s event. I would estimate that about 60 to 70 percent of American Express’s greens survived. And it does so with a business-like approach to maintenance costs.
“And yes, feedback is important. But you can’t hang on to the players’ words hoping they’ll say something compliment like Tiger did. While it can tell you where you are in relation to your course preparation, you need to filter it somehow. There’s always anger from people who are just having a bad day.”
As a local, is he aware of flying the flag? “Absolutely. We have to produce the venue to the best standard we can. That’s always the goal. We have 10 Greens staff at the moment, but that number will increase as the event gets closer.”
In unusually mild weather in late September 2002, over 120,000 fans flocked to Mount Juliet for four days of American Express, which were dominated by sunshine. “These fans were very knowledgeable,” noted the winner. “They didn’t applaud just because the boys got the ball in the air.”
With a return to such circumstances for this flagship game here, the organizers could imagine themselves as unknowing beneficiaries of Make-A-Wish Ireland, the official charity of the Horizon Irish Open.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/golf/irish-open/enduring-design-still-flying-the-flag-41650666.html Enduring design that still flies the flag