Tom Watson famously said of the Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club in south-west Ireland: “It is a course you will always enjoy and never tire of playing. I know I never will. Ballybunion is a course on which many golf architects should live and play before they build golf courses. I consider it a true test of golf.”
The Old Course at Ballybunion – ranked by 2016Golf.com at #17 in the Top 100 golf courses in the world – has been subject to a complete renovation of the greens and surrounds under the stewardship of course manager John Bambury, together with course architect Graeme Webster and construction firm Atlantic Golf Construction, which was achieved in under 16 weeks.
This was designed to replace the old poa annua surfaces with 100 per cent fine fescue greens, which were mapped and reconstructed to appear exactly the same as they were before. At the same time course manager John Bambury, who arrived in October 2014 from Trump International Aberdeen, reviewed the equipment at both the Old and Cashen courses, much of which was at the end of its usable life.
“Really I was coming back to my roots, as my father use to live just 15 minutes away from Ballybunion and it was the first golf course I ever set foot on as a child,” says John. “In my job interview I said the course needed to reclaim its top 10 position in the world, and we’ve developed plans to achieve this over time, with the full approval of the membership.
“A key element of this was the reconstruction project, and we have also reinvested in the machinery fleet after conducting the usual tender process. As a result, John Deere and dealer Seamus Weldon of Killarney were selected as the preferred supplier to Ballybunion for 10 years.
“I wanted to get the club onto a sustainable fleet management and replacement programme, and you can’t really do that properly over five years, particularly with the initial need to replace a lot of the older machines. We know what the expenditure will be over this extended period, and this helps the club to budget accordingly.
“It’s a comprehensive fleet and we have chosen all the key machines John Deere has to offer the golf course.” These include the new A Model fairway, rough and surrounds mowers, walk-behind and ride-on greens mowers including hybrid electric triplex machines, Gator utility vehicles, compact and utility tractors from 35 to 75hp and amenity turf sprayers.
“There were a number of reasons for the choice,” says John. “Obviously the quality of the equipment, which is a given, but primarily the local dealer service and support is a very important part of the equation. I’ve always maintained this doesn’t end the day the kit is delivered, and we know we can call Mike Weldon at the dealership if a problem arises and he’ll get it sorted, which is absolutely vital.
“One of the other big focuses of the reconstruction project was the replanting and regeneration of the dunes, and as part of this we planted and hydroseeded 10,000m² of marram grasses last winter. There were also a lot of hard core pathways on the course, which are not as pleasing as grass, so we’ve been replacing and installing 4m wide grass pathways across the course as we go. The John Deere 7200A PrecisionCut triplex mower is perfect for cutting these, and works very well in this environment.
“The 7500A fairway mowers also really work a treat. We keep cutting heights to between 8 and 10mm, and with four-wheel drive and a special conversion to run on smooth tyres, these machines work very well on our undulating terrain. It’s a very challenging environment for mowing, especially when the fescue grass is dry, but they work particularly well in these conditions without marking.
“The new TechControl feature is great too – the operators know a lot more about it than I do, but it helps produce a consistently high quality finish and maximises productivity across the course in all conditions.”
Ballybunion is a very busy golf course, with the biggest membership in Ireland plus high levels of overseas visitors during the playing season, so good time management of the course maintenance operation is critical. “The 7500A mowers have proved to be able to cover a great deal of the surface area quickly,” says John. “We have around 600 acres of grounds to manage across both 18-hole courses, so this ability is crucial.
“The course is well known for its history and landscape – management decisions are therefore based on what will be the lasting legacy, not what might seem the best short-term solution. We need to deliver the goal of quality all the time, and that’s always our main focus.”