When Gerry Byrne landed the top greenkeeping job in the K Club, he knew he’d stumbled on a special place.
The son of a greenkeeper, Gerry worked under his father, Jim at Elm Park Golf Club as soon as he could, starting small through summer holidays in 1978 before following his dad to Hermitage to begin an apprenticeship in 1984.
They were great times for Byrne, learning his trade from his old man while attending college at the Botanic Gardens from 1986-88. Byrne then moved to Westmanstown where he helped grow-in the front nine and develop the back before finding more construction experience as Growing Superintendent at Luttrellstown Castle, where he spent four fantastic years from 1992.
The K Club position came up in the autumn of ’96; over 35 applicants from at home and abroad vying for a standout role in the industry.
“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Byrne admits.
“Even to this day I shudder to remember the interview process. It was pretty intense, even back then.
“One of the questions was ‘would I be able for the hot potato?’, and I just said, ‘I’ve got strong hands!’”
1996 was a transitional time for the now iconic K Club. Byrne inherited a golf course with drainage issues and struggling greens, but with the European Tour visiting every year for the Smurfit European Open, there was no time to sit still.
“We were always in tournament mode,” Byrne recalls. “We’d critique the course immediately after the tournament and make plans around how we can improve for the following year.
“But even then, we always had one eye on the Ryder Cup.”
Indeed, when Byrne arrived in 1996, the famous biennial contest between Europe and the USA was already planned to touch down in Ireland in 2005. And given the level of anticipation around the event’s arrival to the K Club, Byrne admits he thought the occasion would never come.
“It always felt like an eternity away,” he says.
“After 9/11 it was pushed out another year. So it went from ‘would we ever get to 2005?’ to ‘would we ever get to 2006?!’
“We’d have a European Open in the summer every year but we’d try and mature the course for that third week in September each year as well– a dress rehearsal, maturing it twice a year – knowing September is a tricky time.”
All the while the Straffan site pumped money into the golf course to bring it up to speed. €1.5million worth of trees transformed a pleasant resort course to a Tiger-proofed championship one. Byrne’s team built tee-boxes, dug extra bunkering and ultimately plugged the gap between the course’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The great thing during those years was we had the tour players visiting every year and they’d have their say and make their recommendations and we’d always listen to them,” Byrne says.
“Testimony to that was that winning scores started coming down from 21-under in 1997 to the 12 to 15-under range. We knew we were getting there in terms of the strength of the golf course.”
When 2006 finally arrived, Byrne and his team never felt more ready. The golfing gods had other ideas.
“We were preparing for a wet week and while it helped that we were preparing for 24 golfers inside the ropes, my focus was outside the ropes,” Byrne says.
“We embarked on a heavy sanding programme outside the ropes, and about 6,000 metres of drains. We felt we were prepared… and then seven inches of rain fell during that week.
“No matter how much sand and drainage you put in, when you have 40,000 people a day walking on grass, 250,000 for the week, it’s going to go to soup.”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Byrne reached out to the timber merchants of Leinster who assembled 16 articulated lorries loaded with bark mulch.
“I had 86 volunteers that week prepared to help present a golf course for the Ryder Cup,” Byrne says. “I don’t think 40 of them expected to be on bark mulch duty trying to keep patrons safe with 400 tons of mulch!
“They were long days but at the end of the week, we had 250,000 people through the gate, and one broken thumb.
“It was a result, an incredible effort from the team and the volunteers, but our Ryder Cup week didn’t end there. We had a clean-up job on our hands up to December 14th with a golf course that was half mud-bath, half bark mulch!”
With a successful Ryder Cup in the locker after Ian Woosnam’s men in blue romped home by a record margin, the sky was the limit for the K Club as the Celtic Tiger’s roar provided the soundtrack to a remarkable time on the island.
Little did Byrne realise the lows that would swiftly follow such epic highs; a global recession changing the golfing landscape forever.
After staging 11 European Opens and a Ryder Cup, it wasn’t until 2016 and Rory McIlroy’s marvellous fairway woods that the K Club felt that tournament buzz once more. And after a further few years of relative calm, a new era, heralded by the arrival of new owner, Michael Fetherston has given the K Club a new lease on life, and nobody more so than Byrne.
Tournament mode has returned, kicked off by a splendid hosting of the Irish Challenge on the Palmer South Course this past July.
“We’ve gone from a staff of 12 to 23 which means we can dedicate our teams to both courses, and Palmer South got an enormous amount of attention,” Byrne says.
“The joy of playing Palmer South is the greens. Getting those to a place where they become world class was our focus.
“The Challenge Tour guys recognised to a man that we probably delivered the best turned out course of their year, and particularly the greens.”
Next up is the return of the Horizon Irish Open in 2023 with further dates cemented for 2025 and 2027, as well as two more Irish Challenge visits in ’24 and ’26. In preparation for next year’s hosting of the Irish Open on Palmer North, a brainchild of Byrne initiated the unthinkable; that famous turf that’s provided the platform for so many of the game’s greats, ripped up and resodded in a trailblazing fairway overhaul.
“The drainage capacity had lessened, we were struggling in the winter months and the action needed,” Byrne explains.
“We knew the problem was in the top 60mm which would be a commonplace issue in Premiership football pitches. There’s a machine called the Koro Field Top Maker developed for football pitches to cultivate out and remove 2 inches of dying organic matter and go back to the original sand layer.
“I spoke to groundsmen in the UK and in Croke Park and I came up with the idea of doing our fairways with it.”
There was method to Byrne’s madness. Samples of his fairway issues matched the same problems the football pitches were having so, in September 2021, Byrne ran a trial on a problem area of the Palmer North, tasked with reopening that stretch of golf course in a six to eight week window.
“Michael Fetherston hit the first shot off them on the 19th of November, bone dry canopy versus the other half of the fairway holding water. He told me to go for it.
“I wasn’t quite putting my neck on the line because he was with me all the way but it was a massive vote of confidence because this had never been done before in golf history.”
Needing bone dry conditions to stand a chance, unlike the Ryder Cup in ’06, the golfing gods shone down on Byrne’s mission with 13,000 tonnes of material moved from Arnold Palmer’s famous fairways during the week of March 28th, 2022.
“You could not write the script of how lucky we were,” Byrne says.
“We had seed in the ground by April 1st, five working days. We took on four contractors and the last seed went into the ground at 3.16 on Friday afternoon! It was lashing rain by 4 o’clock.”
Nine and a half weeks later, on June 1, the Palmer North was reopened for business with Byrne promising members and visitors alike a playing experience only matched by Adare Manor in Ireland, and the likes of Augusta National elsewhere.
“We had a Turf Science live conference for golf course superintendents here recently,” Byrne says. “125 superintendents from all over the country walking the fairways and scratching their heads thinking they’d never seen something so good in all their lives.
“At the end of the day, I still see myself like my father, as a greenkeeper, and all we work towards is getting positive feedback from people who play on the ground that we prepare.
“Be it ‘jaysus, those greens were great today’, or ‘those fairways are incredible’, it’s that simple ‘well done’ that every greenkeeper in this country lives for.”
Twenty-five years later and that sense of pride never wanes.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been so long,” Byrne says. “I thought that Ryder Cup would never come and now I look back and that’s 16 years ago!
“You hear soundbites from people that it only feels like yesterday but I can genuinely say that it does only feel like yesterday that I drove in that gate.”
Byrne’s thirst for work has never been quenched but a quarter-Century on, it’s the fresh energy that Fetherston has injected into the Resort that he’s now relishing.
“Michael Fetherston brings an energy to this Resort which is palpable and you’ve just got to get on that train with Michael,” Byrne says.
“We have Paul Heery, a young CEO doing a great job. Conor Russell, our Director of Golf, who’s just a buzz. The whole management team – it’s great to see the direction we’re headed.”
For Byre’s part in the play, he says it’s a never-ending journey running a golf course. Always striving for perfection, never quite there. Except…
“I will say that we got it perfect on the Saturday before the Ryder Cup,” Byrne says.
“I remember I was asked if I was happy, and I thought just before that rain came, the golf course was absolutely perfect.
“So I’ve hit nirvana once in my life and I’ve been chasing it ever since. Who knows, it might be the Irish Open next year, it might be ’25 or ’27, but we’re going to keep going, and with Michael’s drive and support pushing us forward and providing that energy, what’s the point in stopping.
“I love this job and I love the K Club and I absolutely adore my incredible greenkeeping team. I’m very lucky to be here and I’m very excited to be back in tournament mode now for many years to come.”