The drive to Hollywood Lakes quickly leaves the world of city living and hustle and bustle behind. This is far removed from the Los Angeles of Pretty Woman, and the tranquil setting of Ballyboughal lies just 15 minutes north of Dublin Airport. Here, the quiet, narrow roads with only trees, hedgerows and fields for company, are a cathartic reintroduction to peace and relaxation.
The change of pace is startling yet charming and as you turn into the gates of the golf club, you have been well and truly immersed in the countryside.
Perhaps that is one of Hollywood Lakes’ greatest assets. The course, designed by Mel Flanagan – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for courses like Rathcore, Blarney, Dunmurry Springs – in 1992 may take centre stage but the golf club in its entirety occupies a valuable focal point for a wider community.
This is GAA country but as neither of the local clubs possesses large scale catering and bar facilities, it is Hollywood Lakes that finds itself hosting a wide range of events for the local community. Anniversaries and 21st birthday parties are just as common as communions and funerals.
The club’s restaurant seats 150 and with floor-to-ceiling windows offering views across the countryside, it is little wonder that it proves so popular. It is helped of course by a reputation for excellent food. Some 30 per cent of visitors at the weekend are non-golfers and such figures are a positive for a members’ club in this day and age. Diversification is the name of the game and you only have to visit Hollywood Lakes’ restaurant for the Sunday lunch roast to appreciate what kind of service the club provides to the local population.
Ten years after designing the course, Mel Flanagan returned to upgrade various elements. He provided additional strategic bunkering and some 50,000 trees were planted. Now, 17 years later, alongside the natural water features on 10 holes, these trees really anchor the course in place and give it its structure. They embrace holes as the course slides across a gentle but persistent hillside. There are few climbs (7, 11) but you are rarely on level ground. It works so effectively and other than two tame holes (9 and 12) there is so much more shape to the land than you’d expect. Such changes give the terrain and holes an ever-changing look and a unique character.
There are some strong holes here and the course starts as it means to go on with the 1st dropping quickly before whipping left and out of sight to a green protected by water. At 329 yards (middle tees) it’s a short opener but the temptation to go with power on your very first shot can land you in too much trouble with all those trees… and it’s simply not necessary. The par–72 course measures 6,391 yards (middle tees), of which the par-five 14th accounts for 583, so it is not long. Only two par fours are over 400 yards (404 and 407) and apart from the monster 14th, the par fives are generous: the two on the front nine measure 470 yards and are indices 16 and 18. Most golfers will welcome the birdie – and better – opportunities these represent.
For those golfers who assess a golf course by the quality of the par threes, Hollywood Lakes doesn’t disappoint. The 4th is the course’s signature hole but the two uphill short holes (6 and 11) are more attractive than the elevation suggests. The 11th hits into an embankment of curvaceous mounding with the flag visible but swamped by an ocean of green banks. It is a sweet shot and you will likely under-club. The 17th is the fourth of the short holes and from a raised tee it is another charming shot to a green that leans towards you and is cleverly angled between two bunkers.
As for the 129 yard 4th, it plays over a pretty pond, rises above a stone-faced bank to a putting surface set against a tree backdrop. Add in a tricky, two-tiered green and it is easy to see why it is the hole that will live longest in the memory.
The other core ingredient and one so often focused on by visiting golfers (and members too) is the greens. Their shapes, their size, their conditioning. How often do you hear a course assessed by the quality of its putting surfaces?
The sand-based greens here have some sweet shapes and are far more complex than you might imagine for a modest parkland. The tiers are present often enough that you need to be brave on approach shots… but they are also subtle enough that you won’t feel hard done by if a ball slips away across the slope.
Combined with the slopes and the doglegs (only the 1st and the 8th will truly vex you), and the ponds and ditches, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that this course needs to be played a few times to appreciate fully its charms and its challenges. Playing it once and being over ambitious is a big mistake. Big. Huge.
There are many positives here. The course was originally developed by the Kelly family in the 1990s, and then sold to the members. It was purchased back by Tom Kelly during the recession and it is he who has now agreed to invest over €1 million in the club over the next five years. This includes a significant capital injection programme over the coming 12 months to renovate the clubhouse, improve the course quality and create a sustainable business for the future.
At the end of 2018, Carr Golf was brought on board to manage the club’s operations and course maintenance for a term of at least five years. Carr will oversee a significant investment programme in both the clubhouse and the course. (See side panel)
“The club today has roughly half the members it did a decade ago, so we want to bring it back to those days and re-introduce local and regional golfers to this beautiful course,” says Stephen Nelson, Carr Golf’s Head of Marketing.
Long-term members at Hollywood Lakes consider it a real ‘members’ club’. This is one of the club’s key selling points, alongside its greens and its views stretching from Lambay Island to the Wicklow Mountains, and membership numbers once so affected by the recession are now finding some growth.
Nor is it a surprise that societies flock here. Location and views and restaurant aside, the golf course promises an ideal layout and challenge, and the fees are excellent value for money. North Dublin, South Louth and East Meath form the main catchment area, but this is by no means exclusive.
The course is now getting the kind of increased bookings from visitors that keeps the Pro shop and catering services happy. Visitor rounds have increased three-fold since 2015. The numbers are still comparatively low compared to courses in more urban Dublin city areas but it emphasises the importance of value and quality. Carr Golf recently introduced dynamic pricing which is helping to attract more golfers.
“Green fee rates, whether purchased online or over the phone, are automatically flexed based on the demand patterns on any given day,” Nelson explains. “It enables visitors to take advantage of lower green fees when the course is quiet, with a higher rate charged during peak demand periods.”
“Ensuring the financial sustainability of any golf club in a cluttered Irish market,” says Nelson, “requires an unwavering implementation of the basics – to provide an outstanding product on the course and an engaging and welcoming experience off it. Innovation comes in the back office, with a data driven approach to both marketing and course maintenance.”
The Making of a Five-Year Plan
Carr Golf was initially commissioned by the landowner in June 2018 to undertake a comprehensive independent review of Hollywood Lakes’ operations, including an assessment of course standards and presentation. The report, which included detailed insight from member focus groups, identified the key elements required to deliver a five-year strategic plan which would improve the experience at Hollywood Lakes.
Last October, the relationship was solidified when Carr Golf was appointed on a five-year contract to oversee a significant investment programme to improve the clubhouse facilities and course standards. Existing club employees were retained with Carr wholly managing the golf and greenkeeping operations. Substantial investment has already been made with new greens, tees, fairway and rough mowers purchased.
The club’s set-up remains largely the same, although it now benefits from Carr Golf’s centralised sales and marketing engine, group purchasing power and a training programme for the greenkeeping team.
“The focus over the next two to three years is to drive course standards and presentation and implement a strategy to build and retain membership,” says Stephen Nelson. “In the immediate term, this involves a clubhouse and facilities facelift, and the implementation of a robust agronomic plan.”
The agronomic plan will improve the presentation of the golf course, definition and the performance of all surfaces, especially the greens. This is already making a difference and a late April visit showed just how good the greens are. A ‘Growth Potential Model’ is also being employed to ensure a cost effective nutritional programme.
Elsewhere on the course, various accessories and furniture have been introduced: the new tee box signs are both striking and informative and add an air of authority. The irrigation system will be upgraded while a tree management and pathway programme are planned for later in the year.
Off the course, Carr Golf is activating a commercial strategy to help attract new members, retain the club’s loyal membership and encourage more society and casual golfers to the course.
This is all helping to re-establish Hollywood Lakes as a popular choice and a professionally presented course in the Leinster region.