Time waits for no man, not even Matt Sands whose reign as Cork Golf Club Manager has met its end. The Dubliner turned Corkonian retires this summer after a hugely successful career. A real golf man, Sands was heavily involved with Donabate GC and Captained the club in 1987, but it was the following year that would prove most significant in his golfing journey at least when an advert for a job at Cork Golf Club caught his attention.
“When I got the job, I probably thought I’d be down here for a few years and make my way back to Dublin but I fell in love with the job, and Cork, and never really wanted to move back,” Sands says.
Indeed, not even a baptism of fire could put off the fresh faced Dubliner. He arrived midway through the club’s centenary year on May 31st and a month later, a function at the club invited every Captain and President from every corner of the country to Cork, leaving no doubt to the calibre of club Sands was now managing.
“I came into a really busy period and hit the ground running,” Sands recalls. “There was a lot happening but that set the tone for my entire spell at the club. There are a lot of highlights – we hosted a lot of major events. We had the National Finals the year I joined, two Irish Ladies Close events, Graeme McDowell won the Irish Youths in ’99, Shane Lowry won the Irish Close in 2007. The Ladies Home Internationals was another great event in 2012. The Munster Stroke Play. It’s a list we’re very proud of as a club.”
It wasn’t just the calibre of events that the fairways of Cork played host to but the improvements that Sands oversaw on site that continue to stand to the club to this day.
The catalyst for some of the most significant changes the club has undertaken in recent times was a bold decision by the members of Cork to turn to a Board of Management structure in 1995. It was a move sparked by a great friend of Sands’, Matt Fives who saw the system in action in England. With the idea soon planted in the minds of those back home in Cork, within six months it was adopted and in the constitution.
“I think it’s been the making of the club,” Sands says unequivocally. “It leads to continuity that enabled us to get big projects done. It made my job easier and the fact that most clubs have it now proves it’s a system that’s worked.”
None of those projects came bigger than a complete renovation and extension of Cork’s clubhouse after a two and a half million euro investment in 2001.
Completed in 2002, Sands says, “the exterior didn’t look much different but inside was totally transformed and it gave the place a huge lift.”
Ever-evolving, not even the magical designs of Alister MacKenzie proved impervious to change as the club sought the services of another legendary architect, Martin Hawtree to oversee major improvements on the golf course.
“That was another huge undertaking,” Sands recalls of the four year project. “We rebuilt all the tees, redesigned the bunkers, built a new green on 12 – it was major construction and disruption but the end result was more than worth it.”
Indeed, from his helm in the Rebel County, Sands has witnessed sweeping changes in the game of golf. The nineties ushered in a shift to the corporate market where green fees boomed well into the noughties before the global recession took the wind out of the industries boisterous sails.
“It was incredible to see that corporate market vanish,” Sands says. “We had to take drastic action at the time but one of my proudest moments is that although we took a huge amount of costs out of running the club, I don’t think the standard of customer service or course presentation ever suffered.”
Sprouts of recovery soon bloomed and prior to this year, golf was trending in the right direction after a spell of relative doom for the sport. However, as Sands steps aside and enters retirement, for all he experienced in the game to date, the unprecedented circumstances of his final year could never have been predicted.
The familiar soundtrack of American voices fawning over Cork’s surrounds are noticeably absent this year but remain an imperative part of Cork’s future.
“The American market was growing substantially for us all the time,” Sands reveals. “We were using the Alister MacKenzie dimension as a marketing tool and it was working very well. We’re associated members of ‘Swing’ and we work closely with the Old Head too but it’s unusual not to have them around.
“Thankfully we’re starting to get through the Covid too, though,” he adds, pointing to an insatiable appetite now rumbling for golf. “We’ve had great interest in membership, particularly from younger people from different sports that are still on hold.
“We’ve elected a few intermediate members and hopefully we can retain them as they’re the future of golf. I think most clubs have experienced great growth but the key now is holding onto a certain percentage of that. The game needs it.”
How the game evolves to meet the demands of the modern golfer will be crucial to its survival and although Sands looks upon the traditions of the game fondly, he’s seen patterns emerge during his time in Cork that means golf must adapt to attract a younger crowd.
“Tradition is the big thing in golf and that still remains but the big difference now is time; younger people are under pressure for time and I see that as an issue going forward,” he says.
“I introduced a Wednesday fourball here – 14 holes – and Wednesday now is probably our busiest day of the week because people can come down and spend three hours rather than five hours playing.
“The 18-hole round might prove to be a thing of the past the way things are going but in saying that, since the pandemic has come in, a lot of people have reassessed their lifestyles and we’ve noticed a huge increase in member participation here so it will be interesting to see how things evolve.”
Golf’s been inadvertently aided in its mission to attract a younger audience through the membership surge amid Covid-19 and now the responsibility falls on the powers that be to retain them, though such stresses will no longer fall on Sands’ head. Instead, he leaves behind a legacy of strong leadership, acknowledged with a multitude of awards during his managerial career. Most recently, Sands received the honour of the Golfer’s Guide to Ireland Club Manager of the Year in 2017 but before that he won the prestigious Irish Golf Tour Operators Association Golf Club Manager of the Year in 2001 while he became the first person to achieve an unprecedented double when elected as President of the Irish Association of Golf Club Secretaries in 2004 and then the President of the Irish Golf and Club Managers Association.
“The awards are obviously nice and I’ll remember them fondly,” says Sands. “I’ve been very involved in the Golf Club Managers Association over the years. It’s a great way of networking but more importantly it’s been a great way to make friends from all across the country and that’s something I’ll certainly miss and always cherish.”
Still, for Sands, the time is now to say goodbye.
“I feel it’s time to move on to the next phase of my life. I’m almost 68 now but hopefully I’ll have plenty of time and good health to enjoy what’s next. I was a very keen golfer and I haven’t played as much during my time here but it will be great to get out more regularly and spend extra time with the family.”
He reserves endless thanks for the staff who made his stint as Club Manager as smooth and successful as it proved.
“We’ve a history here at Cork Golf Club of long service members of staff,” he says. “Anthony Gillet was a greenkeeper here for 54 years who recently retired and Superintendent Simon O’Hara has been doing a super job since taking over and no doubt he’ll be here for a long time to come.
“Peter Hickey’s been here since 1995. I suppose it reflects so well on the environment of Cork Golf Club that none of us want to leave! But in all seriousness, I’ve enjoyed every bit of my time in Cork, especially working with the members and staff who have been nothing but accommodating since I arrived in ’88.
“I fell in love with the place then and I still love it now. I’ll spend the rest of my life here. We’re settled in Cork and we’ll never move out of it.”
From every one of us here at Irish Golfer, Matt, it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you and we wish you every bit of good health and happiness in your retirement.