After 54 years, Anthony Gillis is finally handing over the keys at Cork Golf Club. The Head Greenkeeper is retiring this month after a lifetime on the famous Alister MacKenzie course in Little Island. After starting in a temporary role in 1965, Gillis became a full time green keeper soon after and in 1968 he became assistant greenkeeper. That started the labour of love for the Little Island native who lives no more than 300 yards from the Club. Having grown up on the other side of Island, not far from the eastern side of the course, he has memories of coming in over the quarry and chipping and playing “four-quarters” on the sixth green. Working under Francis Devane, Anthony quickly learned his trade and he went on to take over the head greenkeeper in the early 1970’s. After working with famous agronomist James Arthur in the 1970’s, Gillis went on to study in Bingley, Elmwood College and the National Botanic Gardens, giving him a formal background in greenkeeping which complimented his own passion and knowledge for the job. A lot has changed in six decades and Anthony doesn’t miss the hard physical work that was involved back in his early days. “The work isn’t as hard now, not with the machinery” explained Anthony. “That time when we were top dressing greens you’d have a fellow in front pulling the machine with a rope, and another fellow behind holding the handle. Now you can sit up on a machine and you’d have the 18 greens done in two hours.” The machinery has made a big difference to the greenkeeping job compared to 1965. “There was a bit of a tractor, it was a David Brown I think with the engine at the back of it and just a bar going out to the front axle, it was a desperate looking thing. We had a gang mower behind it. We had hand machines when I started and later in 1965 we got pedestrian mowers that had an engine but you had to push them. We had three of them for the greens and one for the tees. We now have two great Toro triplex greens machines and five tractors.” Those greens mowers were Ransomes Auto Certes and the tees mower was a Ransomes Matador, and while the engine powered the blades, it was us up the greenkeepers to push, pull and turn the heavy machines. That was the start of automation and while the physical nature of the job has changed, so too has the workload. “It’s completely different, the workload is very different and the volume has increased three or four fold. That time we used to cut greens Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They weren’t cut at all on weekends. We got a new fleet of Toro machinery around ten years ago and we’re now in the process of replacing them. We have replaced a few and there will be two more replaced this year. And a lot of the machines are computerised now.” The days of Ransomes and David Brown have gone and now the club has over 60 machines in its extensive inventory.
As well as working on the course, Anthony was a handy golfer, he won a senior scratch cup in his home club in Fermoy as well as half a dozen junior scratch cups. Having started in the old nine hole course in Fermoy he moved with the club to the current base in Corrin, and he got down to one on a few occasions. It’s ten years since Anthony has played a competitive round, that was in Waterville when he played with Matt Sands and Peter Hickey, his long standing colleagues in Cork. Long service is a feature in Cork, and Anthony’s son Charlie is the third generation of his family to work in the club after his father and grandmother. Such is the length of his service, Anthony has outlasted some of the trees he planted in his first year in Cork, and he recalled the story when the club celebrated his 50 years back in 2014. “One of my first jobs was planting trees, mainly Scotts Pine. I now find myself cutting some of these trees down. It’s a funny feeling seeing the trees you put in the ground as saplings, now being felled as mature trees”
Anthony has seen plenty of change on the course, he remembers when there were no trees between the first and fourteenth, when he described the course as wide open. He’s worked with designer Martin Hawtree and DAR Golf Construction on the various upgrades that has taken place, and he thinks that the bunker upgrade project was one of the most important projects. While that design work reinforced the MacKenzie vision, the extensive contours weren’t immediately welcomed by everyone. That said, when the design and construction was completed, Anthony and he team worked to ensure the new bunkers would be a long term success. “The bunkers are working well now. When they were changed we had to hand cut around a lot of them but we changed some of the contours. We also raised the base in some of them which made it a little bit easiest to get out of.” That ability to find the right solution for both the course and the members has stood Gillis in good stead for over half a century.
Over 120 years in Little Island
Although Cork Golf Club is 130 years old, their current base in Little island has been their home for the past 121 years. The site was a working quarry, providing the club with free draining limestone land, and it had it’s own dock which is still visible today from the fifth green. On that small piece of land, the club started out with four holes along the bank of estuary, and within three years this was extended to nine holes under the guidance of Cork’s first professional David Brown. When four-time British Open winner Harry Vardon visited for an exhibition match in 1909, he consulted on a plan to extend the course on newly acquired lands. The new holes along with new clubhouse was completed by 1911. The third stage of development in Little Island happened after World War one, under the guidance of the word famous Dr Alister MacKenzie. The Englishman was considered the most creative golf architect in Britain and subsequently created such masterpieces as Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. MacKenzie proposed three entirely new holes, created new greens and installed sand filled bunkers. The design incorporated his signature undulating greens, large and free-form bunkers and substantial contouring. When completed in the summer of 1925 the course measured 6,200 yards and that layout bears a very close resemblance to the course in play today. The new layout received widespread publicity and favourable comment when the club hosted professional tournaments in 1925 and 1926 followed by the Irish Professional Open in 1932 and the Irish Amateur Close Championship the following year.
Following on the pattern of continual improvement, the course was but continually upgraded and modernized, using prominent golf architects such as Frank Pennick who was well-known for his work in Portugal and Dave Thomas associated with the Belfry in England. Even the renowned American architect Robert Trent Jones Snr. was involved at one stage on a proposal for a new green. Over time the course was lengthened and a large tree planting programme in the 1960’s changed the appearance of the course. In 2010 Martin Hawtree was engaged to manage a major overhaul of the course. The work was carried out by DAR Golf Construction and the project involved the re-modelling of over 50 tees to USGA standards and a substantial amount of re-landscaping. The most dramatic change was to the bunkers, where the design brief was to closely reflect the MacKenzie concept. The dramatic contours are a signature of MacKenzie courses, and can be clearly identified on 16 of the 18 holes. The work was completed in 2013 and ensures that Cork remains to the forefront of top courses in Munster and among the top parkland courses in Ireland.