FOR nearly 30 years, golf has been a feature in Lee Valley, thanks to the vision of a few people back in the early 1990s.
Back then, golf courses were all the fashion. A Bord Fáilte grant and an increasing number of golfers meant that new courses were being developed across Cork.
The par 72 course was an instant hit with golfers. Members soon signed up, and the course was also a popular venue for green fees, societies and golf classics. Pitched on a hill in Clashnure in Ovens, the undulating course provided many challenges.
Testing par threes, a variety of par fours, and some long par fives set the scene for anybody looking to play the championship layout. In the early days, you could see the 14th tee from the clubhouse, but the trees have now grown, and add to the challenge of the original layout.
Jerry and Peg Keohane, along with other investors, were involved in the original development of the course from 1990 to 1993, and for the first few years after the opening.
After a break of a six years, the Keohanes bought the Clashnure course in 1999, and have driven its development over the past 20 years. Many Cork golfers will know Jerry, and they probably consider him as the driving force behind Lee Valley. But Jerry says he owes a lot to the original course designer, Christy O’Connor Jnr.
O’Connor was the original architect, and it’s a testament to his design that very little has changed in the 28 years that the course has been open.
“There was one man who inspired me, and I learned a huge amount from him in two and a half years” explained Jerry. “He was the most amazing man I ever met, Christy O’Connor Jnr.”
In a time before Google Maps or 3D modelling, Christy was a traditionalist, walking the land to judge the layout, Jerry says: “He just had a simple drawing, a layout of the course, and nothing else. He walked each fairway when he came down every week, sometimes twice a week.”
“I’d be watching him and you’d ask yourself ‘what’s he’s doing?’ He had some paint and he’d go around and mark out the greens and the bunkers, and I was amazed by the man. He had no drawings or detailed plans, his imagination was just amazing. And if you look out on the course now it’s a credit to him.
"If you went back the road a half a mile in 1990 and looked up at the side of this hill, you had two hills on each side of the road. You’d ask yourself how could you build a golf course there? He was just amazing, and I learned a lot from him.”
Those learnings would be put to good use when Jerry and his family purchased Lee Valley in 1999 after some time away from the development. Jerry was of the view that the course had deteriorated, and he set about fixing it.
“When I started again in 1999, I bought a mini digger. I started on the first tee box and reshaped it and put in sleepers, and I worked my way around the course from there” he says.
“We put in over 18,000 trees, and I take a lot of pride in what I did.”
The new 16th tee box is an example of the work that has been undertaken, and it’s the fifth major tee box renovation in the last few years. Any regular in Lee Valley will no doubt have seen Jerry on a machine working on the course. From cutting to shaping, or simply filling divots each evening, Jerry continues to plan improvements.
To be fair, the entire Keohane family have been a driving force behind the Lee Valley for much of its existence. While Jerry and Peg are still at the head of the family, the next generation — Paul and David — are now running the show, while the third generation of Keohanes are also emerging in the proud family business.
Upgrades in machinery and inputs over the past five years have dramatically improved the plying conditions for members and visitors alike.
Permanent winter tees have been installed on the par threes, and substantial upgrade works took place on several tee boxes.
Many of the bunkers have been upgraded, but the key improvement has been in drainage. Although the course is on a hill, it suffered from soft ground over the winter months.
Sustained drainage works and sanding over the past five years now mean the course is very playable all year around, with crisp fairways benefiting golfers in the summer months.
The most recent upgrade has been to the bunkers, with new riveted faces being installed in several key positions.
The riveted faces are more common on links courses, where layers of turf would have been used to build the bunker face. A new artificial turf replacement has meant that the traditional links face is becoming a popular feature of parkland courses.
The riveting gives the bunker a far sharper definition as well as maintaining the shape for far longer.
The greenside bunker on the ninth hole was one of the first to be upgraded, and since then has proved to be a popular spot for many golfers.