Whichever way you look at it, you have to tip your hat to Fingal County Council. Covering 448 square kilometres ,the council is home to two public 18-hole golf courses… and two more different courses you’d be hard pushed to find. Corballis leads the way with a sparkling par 66 links near Donabate. It shares the same stretch of dunes as The Island. Elmgreen, just off the M50’s N3 interchange, is a young parkland offering a lot more than a round of golf.
Yes, Fingal Council deserves a special thank you for making the game so much more accessible to the golfers and the generations we’re so desperately trying to attract into the sport. In 2016, it took the big step of handing over the management of the two courses to Carr Golf, one of Ireland’s leading golf club management and maintenance specialists. Following research, one of the first things Carr did was to invest €1 million in the two clubs. Courses, machinery, facilities, clubhouses… all received a share of the spoils over the past 18 months and the differences are telling.
“The greens are better than I’ve ever played on,” said Pat, a regular at Corballis, who I met on a recent frosty morning visit, “and I’ve been playing here for over ten years.”
That’s the sort of endorsement every club wants to hear but the purpose of Carr Golf’s efforts are very different for each course.
At Corballis there is a major push towards the international market. It is easy to say that American golfers are the core international links audience but this overlooks the growing Scandinavian and German markets, where golfers are looking for value for money. And not every American golfer is on the bucket list grand tour. Corballis has always been a low key links and the ‘public’ persona it carries has put off many a visitor. That is a crying shame because the course you play today has everything a golfer could ask of links golf. Quirkiness, blind shots, unpredictability, small and tight greens, and massive amounts of fun. The links is also exceedingly difficult if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. You might look at the par 66 and its seven par threes and think you’ll stroll off with a great score but that is a long way from the truth.
When Corballis added four Ron Kirby-designed holes in 2009, it amplified its reputation considerably. The dunes to the south which are home to these new additions are far more shapely than those to the north, where three holes were removed. As a result the front nine have bucket loads of intrigue: on several holes you could deposit a ball on the beach, which stretches north and south, and on the five long holes you rarely need your driver… something that applies for much of the round. Of the 11 long holes five measure under 300 metres from the back tees and not even the 470 metre par five 12th demands driver. Yes, you can use it, but as elsewhere on this links it may end up doing more harm than good. You need to be clever.
Let’s talk about the Index 1 3rd hole. At 420 metres it is the best links hole here… and it is so good it would not be out of place at Waterville
or Royal Portrush. It is a left-to-right dogleg and you must be on the fairway to have a shot at the green. If not, you’re in the dunes where your ball and your feet are at very different levels. The fairway swaggers through these steep dunes and the green is pinched by them as they shoulder their way across the entrance. It is the perfect links challenge of brain and brawn.
But the 3rd is not the only exceptional offering because the four new holes (two par threes, two very short par fours) are worthy of recognition, as is the terrific 11th. The card reads 247 metres and Index 14 but, if you aren’t familiar with the hole, it’s a blind up, over and around-to-the-right kind of hole. Go for it in your dreams but in daylight play a simple iron to the ridge so you can open up the approach.
The bunkering is treacherous and the slopes off the sides of the green are vicious. Heroics are rarely rewarded.
And since we’re on the subject of greens the reason for their vast improvement can be attributed to a concerted agronomy programme and three dedicated greenkeepers, with a fourth added in peak season. This is in contrast to the previous tally of two greenkeepers who were also responsible for other grassed areas of council lands. It’s a significant shift, one enhanced by the new machinery and course investment, and while Corballis will never be rated as highly as its immediate neighbour (The Island is ranked 8th in Irish Golfer’s Top 100 courses) it is reaching new markets on the back of the Carr Golf name and expertise.
Carr Golf’s interest in overseas golfers is hardly surprising: they are a lucrative market and they are on the increase here in Donabate. As the company attracts these audiences it has identified a smart way to negotiate the increased green fees (€35-€45, versus GUI €25-€35) while also giving visitors a fighting chance – after all, there are at least six holes which will bamboozle a first time visitor. To that end, international visitors will receive a comprehensive and complimentary course guide (by Clere Golf) worth €10. There’s also an interesting alternative where, for €150, overseas visitors will have unlimited access to the course for a week. This includes the guide and a Corballis branded shirt.
I have been banging on about the merits of Corballis for years. It is the perfect training ground to discover what links golf is all about without costing you an arm and a leg. It’s as good an introduction as you could ask for, highlighting how hugely enjoyable and rewarding links golf is, but also how challenging and unpredictable it can be.
Finally, a safety message is required because there are issues of concern when playing here. Despite the new holes space remains an issue: to reach the 10th tee you must cross the 8th fairway, while the par five 12th cuts across the par three 1st. Fairways are shared twice: on the 15th and 16th and on the 14th and 18th. Players therefore need to exercise caution. Such things can also lead to longer rounds which, on a short course, is a disappointment. But some things are unavoidable and removing those three holes across the road, near the Waterside House Hotel, has improved things immeasurably.
The purpose of Carr Golf’s efforts at Elmgreen is at the other end of the scales. With its driving range, pitch & putt, refurbished clubhouse and gentle parkland course the goal is to attract three key audiences: ladies, juniors/students, and new golfers. That’s not to say members, general green fees and societies aren’t important – society bookings are already up on last year – but Carr Golf have seen the many opportunities offered by Elmgreen and they are exploring each one. This is about a facility which is open to everyone and there has been a reimagining in how to use Elmgreen’s facilities.
Every Wednesday, from 6pm to 9pm, Elmgreen runs a different and complementary initiative on their Driving Range. It might be lessons with Graham Sweeney (the young PGA Pro), a flightscope session, a longest drive competition, or custom-fitting evenings. Members and visitors can book in to take advantage. Such things draw people in and when they see the scale of what’s on offer here they are much more likely to return… or join.
March membership saw an offer where existing members and those who joined that month could bring a child (it didn’t even have to be their own) who would be given free membership for the year. Why? To grow junior membership of course and further initiatives will be steered in that direction.
There’s a new restaurant and bar, new locker rooms and upgraded shop. Add to that the improved maintenance and reshaped bunkers and it’s no surprise that society bookings have improved… nor that by mid-March, 48 new members had joined in 2018, taking overall membership to around 500.
Elmgreen is a gentle parkland of straightforward design. There are nice holes here, slipping across a quiet hillside, and it is an accessible course with wide swathes of fairway and playable rough. Nothing tricky – apart from a tree or two – and why would there be when the emphasis is on welcoming golfers of all abilities. Lines of trees divide holes but some of those trees deserve a mention: the two framing the entrance to the 10th green have received a whack or two in their time; and the 8th remains the signature hole with trees squeezing the fairway and another pair also fronting the green.
It is what you might call a ‘gentle knock’. Carr Golf will be enhancing the quality of the greens to improve the overall presentation in the coming months and the course and its facilities remain an invaluable asset for Irish golfers. Green fees range from €22.50-€30.
There are new membership packages and green fee deals at both clubs but joint membership is also being offered. The idea is a novel one, not unlike the recent efforts between Corrstown and Forrest Little. You can join Corballis as a full member for €699, or Elmgreen for €850, and this entitles you to play at the other course for free… just not in that club’s member competitions. What’s not to like about that when the courses are 30 minutes apart.
Operations and maintenance, agronomics, daily operations, member communications, sales and marketing – these all fall under the remit of Carr Golf, with one simple objective: to work with the clubs and the members to help bring Corballis and Elmgreen to a new level. Clearly that goal is already being achieved.