The Artist at Douglas Golf Club: Peter Morris hands over the mower after 37 years

Ronan MacNamara
Ronan MacNamara

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Sitting in his front room, gazing out into the garden which sparkles with a white sheen under the watery morning sun as the latest cold snap engulfs Cork, it’s the first time in almost 40 years that Peter Morris is relieved he isn’t manning the course at Douglas Golf Club.

“Snow white and rock hard, it’s good to be retired when you see this weather,” quips Morris who recently retired from his position as course superintendent in Douglas after 37 years across two stints.

Indeed, the Morris family are steeped in Irish golf. His father maintained a handicap of 1 for 40 years while the 62-year-old has enjoyed a highly successful inter club career for Douglas as well as 39 years as one of the top course superintendents in the country, with two of those coming in Muskerry.

Morris now plays off a handicap of 2 after what he calls “a bad year” but he hopes to get back towards scratch this term.

Morris’ decision to park the John Deere grass-cutter for good was made when he began to feel his labour of love was becoming a bit too laborious as golf clubs continuously battle to maintain course conditions while adhering to sustainability guidelines.

“I got tired, because golf clubs have got very demanding. You come to a point where you think it’s time to go. I’m only a few weeks retired but when I sit down and see where green keeping is going I think I have made the right decision,” explains Morris.

“Climate change; we have to accept that it’s the biggest issue for golf courses and we are going to be handcuffed with chemicals going forward. We face regulations that mean we have no worm killer, the sight of birds pulling at the greens is so disheartening and we have no chemical control over it.”

Morris is adamant that golf courses are not the villains of the piece when it comes to using substances that harm the environment and feels golf clubs should be doing more to promote how they enhance the environment such as letting areas grow wild for bees and various insects to roam.

“It’s up to us to show that what we do does not harm to the environment and that we enhance it,” he said. “OK, it’s not natural to be cutting grass at 3mm but we are able to sustain it with minimal input. In my time I never heard a golf course poisoning a water source, damaging any underground water or anything. The chemicals we used are so small in the overall scheme at things.

“When I started out in green keeping, there was no organised college course anywhere in Ireland – not until 1982. Since then, anybody going into the industry has become very educated and they are aware of their responsibilities towards the environment.

“You also have to be cognisant with the chemicals you use because you have golfers out there that you don’t want to poison. We, as an industry, haven’t done enough to promote what we do. Golf courses let areas grow wild for the bees and different insects and things. We have to cop on and show that we are guardians of the environment.

“We let areas grow for the bees, we put up square boxes, bird boxes and at the same time Douglas is a very confined area. The areas we let grow wild had to be out of the main playing areas. The last thing we wanted was golfers losing balls in these wild spots that are too close to playing areas. If you are 30-40 yards offline you should lose a golf ball!

“We need to educate the golfers that there is a reason we are doing these things. I play in seniors events and you go to courses and you see that we are making the effort. In Douglas we have planted close to 200 hardwood trees which is huge on a parkland course. That was a very forward thinking decision because it’s about 20-years down the line when the tree grows into a size where it comes into the mind of a golfer where they have to find a way around it. We are all taking small steps.”

Morris is your typical outdoorsman and don’t think for one second that because he won’t be cutting the grass he won’t be out walking the fairways of Douglas Golf Club.

While there are obvious health benefits to being a greenkeeper, Morris is concerned about the age profile of most golf course staff, citing a struggle to get young people into the trade due to the preference for more money and perceived less work in the building sector.

“There’s no doubt about it, my family are steeped in golf. My father played off a 1-handicap for 40 years and he did five years as a superintendent at Douglas in the 80s. My number one thing was I wanted to be outdoors. When I started, the only way to get a promotion was to go in at the bottom and move up the ladder,” details Morris who has won Senior Scratch Cups, a Barton Shield, a Senior Cup and represented Connacht in the Senior Interprovincials.

“If you told me in 1982 that when I finished in 2023 I would see a degree course in turf management I would have laughed at you. The sad part of it is that it’s hard to get people to come into the industry because it’s difficult with legislation and dealing with the public.

“With building booming, people see you can make more money for less work. In my time in Douglas the only day of the year I could guarantee the greens wouldn’t be cut was Christmas Day. We would cut them every day that the weather allowed. Our hours are deemed to be antisocial as we try and make a headstart at 6am before the course fills at 8. If you go on a building site, you go in 8-5 and go home with no worries.

“We had the European Seniors Championship in Douglas last year and it was one of our best hosted events,” he says. “The hours we did for that tournament were mad. I did up to 80 hours that week myself. It’s very difficult to ask somebody to do that. You then come in on Monday and start from scratch again. The tournament finished on the Saturday and we were back top dressing greens at 6am the Monday morning.

“Everybody wants to play golf and see the riches that are to be had from it. But the number of greenskeepers is dropping off dramatically. It needs to change.”

Morris bowed out in style last year as he and his brilliant team had Douglas Golf Club in pristine condition for the hosting of the aforementioned European Senior Open Championships – the first time the male and female championships had come to Ireland.

Douglas Golf Club also hosted the Irish Seniors Amateur Open Championship, two Irish Ladies Open Championships, two Munster Ladies Championships, the Ladies Senior Cup finals, the Men’s Interprovincials, the Mixed Foursomes finals, two Munster Boys Championships and the Jimmy Bruen and Pierce Purcell finals during Morris’ career.

“I was part of a team who took great pride in what we did,” he reminisces. “It was fantastic recognition for us that Golf Ireland thought Douglas was at a standard to host a European Seniors for the first time in this country. The lads walked on air for the week leading up to it and when the tournament was on.

“I’ve seen pictures of places that have hosted tournaments, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see it here. Then you see the flags up during the week and think ‘this is what it’s all about.’ The lads put in an incredible effort and, as I said, in spite of Mother Nature not helping us, we got it to where we needed. I got a great kick later in the year when players who played in the European Seniors came up and said it was great to get to play Douglas and we did a great job. We did Golf Ireland proud in the way we presented the golf course and we did ourselves proud. That’s what we are there for.

“Someone said something to me when I started training and it’s stuck with me since. A pat on the back is only six inches from a kick in the arse!”

Although he bowed out on a high, the Irish weather in 2023 proved most problematic for Morris and his team, particularly the wet summer with July being the wettest month on record.

There’s always two sides to every coin, while it was a very rewarding year, it was his most challenging and another reason he is happy to step away.

“2023 was probably the harshest year I have ever had in green keeping. We had a wet January, a very dry February and March, a cold April then May and June were very warm and dry. Then we had more or less [constant] rain from the 1st of July throughout the rest of the year.

“We are dealing with a very fragile atmosphere and environment and we need everything to come together to get it right. But a lot of people watch television and they look at climates and where the golf ball travels forever in 30 degree temperatures and we have single figure temperatures here.”

Throughout Morris’ career, his singular focus was always on preparing the golf course for the members of Douglas Golf Club to enjoy. The 18 holes were his pride and joy for 37 years.

Almost four decades where he strived for perfection but admittedly and perhaps modestly, never got there. It’s a feeling he wants golf club members around the country to remember. We can’t all be Augusta!

“It kills me to listen to commentary in golf talking about the different grasses. The public member gets an ill-informed opinion on golf course condition. The one week I hate is the week of the Masters because they all praise Augusta. I know in my heart of hearts I would never achieve anything close to Augusta but the people think we can do it.

“I had a zoom call with an American superintendent three years ago about going down the organic route to cut out all the chemicals and the whole lot. He was at a course in Long Island with a starting budget of $1.5m. That ended the conversation. That’s where the unrealistic aims come in.

“The thing that helps me is high definition cameras. When I look at the Augusta greens I can see the imperfections, high definition has not been kind to Augusta. They have 12 months to prepare for one week in the year and they can manipulate everything.

“When I started in green keeping the opening of our eyes to golf course presentation came from Mount Juliet who came with bent greens and we saw the benefits. The climate we have in this country is conducive to just one grass, poa. For us to go down the route of sustainability, creeping bent is not for this country. The closest to perfection I have seen is Adare Manor.

“We need to get back to producing the golf course for the members enjoyment at a cost that they can afford. They paid my wages for 35 years so you constantly strive to get as close to perfection knowing you would not get there.”

2024 will be a year of new beginnings for Morris, but one thing is for sure, he might be swinging with a bit more freedom this season.

“It will be the first time I have stood on the tee for the captains prize not worried about something I didn’t do. That’s a nice way to look at things.”

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