Off the course, 2021 has been a nightmare for golf courses with no play in the first three months of the year. On the course, the closure given owners and managers a chance to get lots of work done, and that’s certainly been the case in Lee Valley where there have been plenty of changes. With the staff covering the normal tasks of cutting a lot quicker when there’s no golfers on the course, the team have been able to get at some of the jobs that a lower down the priority list, as well as those tricky jobs that mean closing holes for days or weeks. New bunkers, new tee boxes, drainage work and clearing the rough were all on the long list in Lee Valley and when the course does re-open, members and guests will be pleased with the outcome. The Keohane family have been hands-on for the last twenty years and David Keohane, and near the top of their list was a big job to renovate the bunkers on the course.
We’ve always listened to our members and visitors to find out their most significant issues with the course” explained David Keohane. “Bunkers were the recurring theme of where we needed to make improvements. Lee Valley was constructed on good soils, but our earth has a significant stone content and over time stones will make their way into the bunker either through the bunker’s base or sides, so we needed a product to battle this problem. Jerry met Huw Morgan from Ecobunker on one of his promotional trips to Wales and we trialled it on our 16th bunker. It involved sealing the base and walls of the bunker with astroturf. This process is patented by Ecobunker, and it has been installed in bunkers all over the world. This bunker construction method is both expensive and labour-intensive, but in the long run, it should save us money on the sand, and also aesthetically, it looks good.”
The layered astroturf walls add to the visual effect of the hazard, and while giving course staff a very safe and stable edge to the bunker. The programme started in 2019, and the enforced closure in over the last 13 months have allowed the team to accelerate their plans. Sixteen bunkers are now complete with nine finished since November, including two new bunkers on the 3rd and the 18th.
The work didn’t stop there, with several other upgrades included in the spring programme of work. “We also have four new tee boxes redeveloped, with our 3rd/10th Championship tee, 18th men’s, 18th ladies, and our 15th forward tee box’s all getting reshaped with over five hundred square meters of sod being added. We also removed a few trees and large bushes to open up greens and bunkers that were obscured, from the course. Our yearly sanding program has continued and we spread over three hundred tons of sand on the course last week alone. Off the fairways we have tidied up a lot of ditches that had become overgrown and extensive drainage has been added to our 1st and 14th holes.” Members are being kept up to date with regular emails and everyone can see the daily posts on social media detailing the work that’s taking place. There has been huge engagement with the updates, with many tuning in for the daily pictures and videos.
David and his brother Paul are the second generation of Keohane’s to hold the reins at the Ovens course, and the venture is very much a family business with Jerry and Peg still involved, and the third generation starting to lend a hand where they can. Like almost every hospitality business, 2020 was a year of disruption for the Keohane’s. “We had great plans for the course at the start of 2020, and then we were hit with Covid 19 news, so we had to shelve any significant capital investment due to the uncertainty of whether we would open or not” said David. “Throughout that first lockdown, we kept all our greenkeepers employed, and we also went to work on the course. Working on the course was what probably kept us sane throughout that first lockdown.
Golf is no doubt the dominant part of the Lee Valley offering, but the bar and restaurant are an important part for golfers and non-golfers, but unlike the course staff, there was bad news for the bar staff as David added. “I still remember the day that I had to close our clubhouse and tell all of my loyal team that we were closing with no knowledge of an opening date, I’m working at Lee Valley for eighteen years, and I have never felt so bad as I did that day. We employ twenty-five people there, and we are renowned for our food and service. Our bar and restaurant would be an integral part of our business where it heavily contributes to our bottom line, so its forced closure has been very challenging for us. Having a great golf course is the primary motivation for a golfer to play Lee Valley, but I often hear how golfers love coming to the Lee Valley as the bar’s atmosphere and food are great after their round.” While the venue is closed, the improvement work is also continuing indoors. The restaurant has been refurbished and the work has now started on the bar. While it’s unclear when Lee Valley will be open for food and drink, the premises and the outdoor terrace will be ready to entertain customers once restrictions are lifted.
And when play does return, the team will have a good idea of what’s in store for the start of the 2021 season. “When the season kicked off in 2020, tee times were fully booked from first light until eight at night. The course was in pristine condition, and I remember one member saying that he felt bad taking a divot on the course as the fairways were perfect. At that point, it was about repairing the course from all the wear and tear it was going through. Our team of Greenkeepers, lead by head greenkeeper James Mulcahy were at the top of their game throughout a challenging period.”
2021 is likely to be similar but two new machines will help the team. A new rough mower arrived recently and a new fairway mower is currently on the way from UK, underpinning the ongoing investment in the course.
Membership demand was robust last year. We closed membership in mid-summer as we wanted to allow our existing members to access the available playing times. Even though we had strong membership demand, this was offset by societies, corporates, and classics cancelling their events. Many companies were not permitting their employees to meet as a group, and golf classics did not have the necessary time to organise an event. It is a similar story for 2021, where societies, corporate and classics are all waiting to see when restrictions will be lifted. We would be hopeful about starting our Monday Open singles once Golf Ireland gives the ok.
Driven by limited access to green fees and tee times, 2020 turned out to be a great year for golf membership. Nationally there were over 20,000 new golf club members, and every club in Cork benefitted from the uplift. There’s an expectation that 2021 will see more demand for membership, but Lee Valley are taking a cautious approach. “At the moment we are taking a minimal number of new members. Once we get an indication of when we can open and at what intervals golfers will be allowed to tee off, we will review that decision. I do think the demand for a golf membership in 2021 will be strong, particularly for golf courses that have invested in their course.” And David is keen to add that the members are central to the Lee Valley proposition. “We have a great relationship with our members, and I always take on board what they feel is necessary for investment on the course. We are passionate about the golf course, which is reflected in how we present our course week on week. Our members here want to see the course be up there as one of the best, and without great members, you can’t have a great golf course.”
Although he retired a few years ago, there’s still a regular driving the fairways in Lee Valley. Jerry Keohane was involved in the original development of the course in 1990 and still keeps a watchful eye over the course. While Christy O’Connor designed the course, it’s fair to say it was Jerry who matured it over the course of the last 25 years. While Paul and David and now in charge, Jerry is an important sounding board. “Jerry is still as active as ever on the course. Any decisions on new bunkers, tee boxes, planting, or machinery all go through him first. You can’t replicate the knowledge he has built up over his time in the industry. He has excellent attention to detail, and he keeps us all on our toes. Christy’s design is at the heart of the course, but Jerry has improved that design with his own stamp over the years. Hospitality is at the heart of who Jerry and Peg are, with both being in the industry for over 50 years, and they were heartbroken to see an empty clubhouse and golf course. The entire Keohane family can’t wait to welcome all our customers back to the Lee Valley.”