It’s been over three months since our roving reporter, Bernie McGuire sent me copy from his native Australia entitled ‘Purcell battles the smoke haze but loses sight on Sydney greens’. The article detailed Portmarnock rookie Conor Purcell’s second outing in the pro ranks at the Australian Open; a tournament played under the shadow of the then infant Australian bushfires as players battled toxic conditions at the Australian Club.
At the time it didn’t register as anything out of the ordinary – bushfires are common happenings Down Under. Little did any of us realise that the backdrop to that golf tournament would prove to be just the start of the world’s most devastating forest fires of all time. Since Purcell and co tackled the fairways of Sydney in early December, more than 30 people have died, along with more than a billion animals and over 11 million hectares have burned (about the size of South Korea).
I spent Christmas with my girlfriend’s family in rural Victoria. Their town, Mount Beauty, a quaint tourist village, population 2,300, sits in the Alpine Valley surrounded by forest and was given an evacuation notice shortly after we’d left. The tourists fled in their droves – up to 17,000 from there and the neighbouring town of Bright. Thankfully, the blaze heading in their direction was steered elsewhere when a storm triggered a wind change. That same fire burned through 26 kilometres of land in just 13 hours to give you an idea of just how vulnerable people are to these forces of nature.
Still, our timing was fortunate. Smoke was the only minor inconvenience for our three weeks spent in the Valley, and I even got a game of golf in. Mount Beauty boasts a beautiful country parkland course littered with kangaroos and swooping magpies, though the latter happily aren’t at their most menacing at this time of year.
I learned the challenges posed by summer conditions for rural courses in Australia are constant, fires or not. Grass is scarce on the fairways; blades that do exist are often singed bare like our stunning links courses in the summer of 2017 when images of Ballybunion boomed around the world like something out of the Sahara Desert.
I was taken out by a local member and friend, John Sullivan – he must’ve let the O’ slip somewhere along the way. He explained that the greens (that were green!) swallow 50,000 litres of water each day just to remain playable while the fairways, due to costs, are left to dry out until autumn eases their pain.
Like any good golf course in rural Australia, Mount Beauty relies on the support of its volunteers. There’s no full-time staff – just the dedication of a few golf nuts happy to keep their grass mown and bunkers raked so they can get their fix of our great game. It’s the kind of golf experience I’m passionate about, so far removed from elitist traditions that continue to hold the sport back from attracting the new audience it so desperately needs.
You’d think the situation in Australia had resolved itself given how the media’s gone quiet of late. I guess the same news is boring, but many fires still burn and temperatures are still soaring. On the way home, when I checked the weather forecast for Kildare and it was rain as far as the eye could see, I thought how unfair it is that something we lament so regularly on this island can’t be shared with those who need it.
By the time we landed, a fire had broken out on Rock Pool Road which runs parallel to Mount Beauty GC. It quickly got out of control, but maybe the golfing gods were listening when 80ml of rain fell to extinguish the flames. Since then, many fires have been replaced by flooding and though such extremes present different challenges, at least the fires could be finally declared ‘contained’ by the state of New South Wales on February 13.
Ireland’s ties with Australia, on the fairways at least, have been strengthened beyond my hit for the ‘Family Title’ at Mount Beauty GC in recent years. Conor Purcell’s win at the Australian Amateur last January inspired Holywood’s Tom McKibbin to attempt the same feat this year and he very nearly pulled it off in Brisbane. I’d expect many more Irish amateurs seeking competitive golf in warmer climates to embark on a mission to Australia every January off the back of the pair’s success, but that’s nothing new for Irish people.
Our relationship with Australia was forged long before the recent migration of young people pushed away by this country. We were amongst the 162,000 convicts shipped to the Southern Hemisphere between 1788-1868. Not among them was Redmond Barry who shipped himself; a Trinity College graduate who sentenced notorious outlaw, Ned Kelly to hang. It’s known that more than 6,000 Irish born men and women served in the Australian army in WWI, while it was Corkonian Daniel Mannix who spearheaded the campaign to abolish conscription in Australia during that same war.
Given our bonds with Australia, both new and old, we shouldn’t forget the suffering they’re going through today. The country is encouraging our tourism and when the fires stop, maybe that bucket list trip to test yourself on the sand-belt courses of Royal Melbourne et al might provide the cash injection the country will undoubtedly need after its losses are counted. If that’s too far-fetched a dream, at least consider the next time we’re criticising the poor conditioning of a golf course in Ireland that, if nothing else, the grass is green.
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