Although he’s a Dub, Matt Sands could nearly be considered a Corkman given that he’s spent the best part of 30 years here. Matt is General Manager in Cork Golf Club and moved from Dublin in 1988 to take up the job. Matt isn’t the only person with long service in Cork, in fact it seems to be a feature with course superintendent Anthony Gillis having worked in Cork for over 50 years. Gerry Kenneally who runs the impressive restaurant has been attached to the Little Island club for 28 years while club professional Peter Hickey has been based in Cork for 22 years. Matt has seen plenty happen in that time. From major competitions like the Irish Close and the home internatioals, to the Pro Am and Munster Strokeplay which are annual showpiece events, Cork is generally a busy spot. Apart from the major competitions, there have been a few major projects that Matt has been involved with in the last three decades and he lists the clubhouse redevelopment (2002) and the course upgrade (2011-2012) as the biggest. “I came in during Centenary Year in 1998” said Matt, “and I was here in 2013 when were celebrated the 125th Anniversary. One of the biggest projects was the clubhouse redevelopment in 2002 and I was really involved in that. It ran on budget and on time – seven months – and we’re still getting compliments regularly on the clubhouse.” The other major development was changes to the course in 2011, another large scale project that delivered great results for the club.
While Matt is General Manager, he along with the 14 full time staff members also have the support of the Board of Management of the club which helps with the strategy and operational end of running a busy club. And according to Matt the Board of Management has been key to the continued success of the club. “We were the first club in Ireland to introduce a Board of Management structure in 1996 and that streamlined the whole job. The element of continuity has helped greatly when it came to major projects like the clubhouse and course redevelopments.” With a three-year term for the chairman and the heads of each portfolio, the Board can take a medium and longer term view when it comes to the planning and implementation of major projects. Prior to that all of the responsibilities fell to the Captain of the Day and his committee. Cork remains a members owned club and as such holds a special place in the local history of the game as one of the first city clubs. From the original course in Rathcooney, members moved to Little Island in 1897, initially building four holes close to the current 5th and 6th. While several new resorts have been developed over the past 15-20 years, Cork Golf Club has maintained its place in the hierarchy, thanks in part to their strong links to the legacy of course designer Dr Alister MacKenzie. The designer of Augusta National, Cypress Point and Lahinch did quite a bit of work in Munster. He had a hand in the early developments in Douglas and Muskerry, but his 1924 design in Little Island is largely unchanged. Although the original 6,220 yard par 78 design has been lengthened and modified, any alterations during the years have been carried out to incorporate the MacKenzie design features. The recent upgrade by Martin Hawtree in 2012 sought to reinforce the MacKenzie signature. While many have seen the major changes to the quality and profile of the bunkers, quite a bit of work took place on landscaping to reveal the original appearance of some of the key natural features like rock, gorse and water. The MacKenzie link is a valuable one for the club as Matt explained. “There are a certain amount of visitors that come specifically because it’s a MacKenzie course and we use it as a marketing tool” said Matt. “A lot of Americans who come would be ‘MacKenzie-ites’.” There are other marketing links too that they use: “We get a lot of good referrals from the Old Head and we’re also members of SWING. Overall the European and UK business is static but the US business is up this year. Society and corporate business has fallen, corporate business all but disappeared over the past ten years, and societies have suffered as many more golfers are now members of clubs.” But while the profile and nature of golfers and groups change, Cork has still thrived. Embarking on the ambitious course renovations in the middle of a golfing recession was evidence of that. The fact that Cork is still one of only a few clubs that can command a substantial entrance fee is proof that demand is there when the product is good and the standards are high.
“I can see many challenges being faced by golf as a whole” commented Matt. “Time pressure is a major problem with younger members. This may well lead to shorter competitions and variations on when competitions take place.” Although Cork is very much a traditional club, they are making some subtle changes to remain relevant in a changing golfing world. One example is the traditional Wednesday invitational fourball. That is now played as a 14 hole competition and it’s proving popular among members and guests. It’s a small example of why it’s almost a certainty that golf will continue to be played in Little Island well into the next century.