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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

New owner. New ideas. New moves. Welcome to The K Club

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Let’s talk about change. Let’s talk about new ownership, new management, new visions and new investment. Welcome to the K Club. 

We can talk about reaffirming reputations, cementing legacies and securing the future, but perhaps that should be ‘new’ reputations, ‘new’ legacies and a ‘new’ future. When the K Club was purchased by Michael Fetherston in early 2020, a new chapter for Ireland’s most famous golf resort began… and things are moving on apace.  

New ownership inevitably brings revitalisation. Look at any resort purchased in Ireland (or elsewhere), and you’ll see that same trend. It’s not only desirable, it is essential. New owners want to stamp their mark and with investment, that is easy enough to achieve. Something that’s more difficult to achieve and implement, however, is a new attitude.  

With so many accolades earned and worn with pride, the K Club has a serious reputation; and with two courses hosting major international events, there’s no one in this country who isn’t familiar with the Palmer North and Palmer South courses… as they are now called. The resort has long been known for its premier positioning and five-star status, and that carried with it a certain hubris which proved alluring… but not to everyone. It felt out of reach, an aspiration too far, a green fee tipping the bank balance in the wrong direction. There was that feeling that you had to ‘fit in’ and behave appropriately. Other clubs carry this air, too, so the K Club was not alone. Ask anyone about their experiences at Muirfield and you’d think you were stepping back a century. 

Open arms, open doors… all are welcome. That is the new attitude here. Come and enjoy, bring the family, relax, have fun. This is key to the resort’s rebranding and new raison d’etre. On social media, the hashtag for the K Club is #TimetoPlay. If you want to see the attitude shift for yourself, check out the video at the bottom of this article. It is, shall we say, unexpected and certainly not something you’d have encountered under previous ownership. 

You’ll discover a new ethos of teamwork, too, perhaps best illustrated by the bright white railings running alongside the driveway and separating the road from the North (Ryder Cup) course. Up to 70 members of staff spent a day painting the railings and gates that stretch from the entrance to beyond the hotel. That is no short distance (one kilometre: I measured it) and reflects new levels of team spirit. It also shows a renewed focus on detail and getting the small things right.  

Let’s Get Physical 

The clubhouse is the most obvious physical change. Now called the Palmer Clubhouse, it has been remodelled over the first six months of 2021, and presents a more muted, relaxing air. I’m sure an interior designer would tell you that the colours are ‘calming’ and ‘confident’, but to me it feels like the volume has been turned down and the warmth turned up.  

The front flowerbed has changed. Out goes the ‘K’ of flowers and in comes a fountain (see photo). This arrival area will also benefit from a bag-drop option in the future. It’s a meet-and-greet that will whisk your clubs away to wherever you want them to go: putting green, driving range or 1st tee. I suggest you arrive early and take advantage of the practice facilities: someone’s got to hit the 50,000 brand-new TaylorMade practice balls.  

The outdoor terrace on the first floor is a large area which has been covered with three sections of roof which can be retracted when the weather gets into the swing of things. The sides are fully panelled with glass to offer lots of views… and these can be rolled down as the roof is retracted. It’s a neat trick and it makes the vistas of the 18th all the more impressive. The terrace has tables, sofas (arranged around fire pits) and counters, so there’s a wide range of seating options available. It was busy on my recent visit and with the sun out, was it any wonder. 

The terrace and indoor dining area are relaxed and casual. Anyone is welcome. You don’t need to play or stay here, just roll up, walk in and be welcomed for a meal or a drink. The staff are young and lively and it oozes comfort.  

I’m not saying that it wasn’t comfortable or welcoming before, it’s more that the K Club of today is more accessible than ever. Of course, it will always remain a premier golfing destination but under new ownership the goal is to lure any and every golfer to experience the courses and enjoy the facilities. Staying at the splendid 5-star hotel might push you beyond your spending limit but that doesn’t mean you can’t take on Arnold Palmer’s two layouts.    

There is of course a members’ area – membership has its privileges after all – but there are function rooms at the far end which can be hired by anyone for meetings or weddings. 

A final note on the Palmer: I know some golfers rarely enter the clubhouse bar and restaurant at their home club – they have their reasons – but the Palmer experience includes food on a different level. It’s why Head Chef Andy Nolan – of The Shelbourne Hotel fame – was hired.  

On offer is a new all-day dining option serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll find fish & chips and burgers, as you’d expect, but more refined options are available, too. Prices reflect the status of five star – and Andy Nolan’s reputation – but there’s a snack bar on the ground terrace where golfers can elect to get a quick bite if they prefer.   

Get to the Golf 

Before I get to the golf, let me say that if you’ve been considering a visit to play here – on either course – then it’s time to stop procrastinating. This is a relaxing, attractive and ‘big’ golf experience, whichever course you choose, and there’s definitely an element of bragging rights that comes with a visit to the K Club.   

The resort has a summer series of events, with entry fees of €90 (North) and €60 (South), so you can’t say the opportunity hasn’t presented itself!   

The golf facilities have of course been upgraded. New electric PowaKaddy trolleys are accompanied by new Riksha pull trolleys – the ones with the big wheels – and how about those 50,000 TaylorMade balls for the resort’s driving ranges? Neat pyramids of balls are arranged on the tee boxes at both ends of the North’s range (one end is for hotel guests, via those newly painted railings and gates) and it adds a certain punch to proceedings.  

A more entertaining addition is a new artificial putting green – costing €25,000 – on the ground level terrace. It measures roughly 60 x 20 feet and is very much a fun feature. Walk off 18, settle down around one of the terrace tables for some food or a beer and be sure to bring your putter. Challenge your playing partners or a nearby table of golfers to a match, and keep the golf alive for a little longer. 

Of course, these are not the only changes. The 550 acre estate has numerous lakes and ponds, as well as the brooding River Liffey which divides the two courses and presents a serious threat on three of the North’s most famous holes. The lakes have been cleaned up and reshaped, flowerbeds have been introduced, vegetation has been cut back (notably on the North’s 1st to reveal the nest of standing stones known as the Five Fingers), bark mulch added and vistas opened up. You may not even notice such details and certainly not if you haven’t been here in several years, but such things quickly add up.  

The North course has returned to its original routing, starting with the par-5 close to the driving range, and it is on this 1st hole that you will find the only design change to the two courses. The bunker in the middle of the 1st fairway has been removed to make the opening drive both more appealing and less punishing. It’s a clever move. 

Elsewhere, there is a smartness to both courses that lifts them up. This comes thanks to a doubling of the greenkeeping team and the arrival of six new Jacobsen hybrid machines, including green mowers, green irons and utility vehicles. The crisp, smart mowing lines and bunker edging are immediately noticeable and every small change made adds to a larger, more appealing picture. Stand on the Palmer clubhouse terrace or from the spot on 18 where Rory hit his magnificent 5 wood, and tell me the conditioning doesn’t whet the appetite. 

Not for the first time I’ve heard golfers saying they would favour a round on the South course over the North. It is a dilemma having two courses that are designed so differently… a good one, but a dilemma nonetheless. Many will be attracted by the Ryder Cup reputation of the North, but the South is a different beast and is, in my opinion, a more stern challenge.  

For a long time I was not a fan of the South. My assessment has mellowed. The huge investment in drainage over recent years as well as the added maturity has helped, but it’s hard not to warm to a course when the greens are so exceptional. On my recent visit I found them to be perfect. Strongly shaped, firm and slick, it was almost impossible to spot my pitch-marks.  

It is shapely, with lots of swerve – including the greens and bunkers – and 500 newly planted trees help to cement the course’s parkland credentials (they have moved away from trying to label it as something it wasn’t and are now focused on embracing it as an out and out parkland). The resort has also pledged to plant 500 trees every year for the next three years. 

One final thought regarding change. The resort is back on the hunt to host future major golf events so while there has been a definite change in attitude, among other things, there is absolutely no change in ambition.   

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