Lough Erne is one of the jewels in the crown in terms of golfing resorts in Northern Ireland and offers some of the most idyllic views in the country. Chris McCullough went along to meet Course Superintendent Sean Reilly to discover how things are progressing under new, American ownership
The Lough Erne five star golf resort extends to 600 acres and sits in the heart of County Fermanagh, which is famous for its many lakes, and offers not one but two courses for both professional and amateur golfers.
The Faldo Championship Golf Course is by far the best known of the two courses and, as you can guess, was designed by six time major winner Nick Faldo.
The resort has been chosen as a venue to host a future Irish Open Golf Championship thanks to the popularity and respect the course has earned amongst top golfing professionals over the years.
The resort itself is also famous for having hosted the G8 summit of world leaders back in 2013, when snipers lay in wait in the sand dunes keeping an eye on then UK Prime Minister David Cameron's meetings with presidents Obama and Putin and the others.
At that time, the resort was undergoing a period of financial uncertainty and was up for sale by the administrators. However, in August 2014, the resort was snapped up by US billionaire Tony Saliba and his associates, who have invested heavily in the business and are now taking a very much hands on approach to running it.
A resort this size takes a lot of looking after and, for the past nine years, the man with all the responsibility is Golf Course Superintendent, Sean Reilly. Prior to taking up the position at Lough Erne, Sean had worked in Scotland at the Loch Lomond golf course.
He said: "After studying horticulture at college, I decided to get involved in this side of the industry. I previously worked at the Loch Lomond golf course for five years."
"Before entering the industry, I completed a diploma in horticulture at the National Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin."
"I guess there was one man who encouraged me into looking after golf courses and that was a friend of mine who I worked with called Pat Adams. Sadly, Pat is no longer with us, but he loved the profession and gave me a lot of advice and a lot of great times."
In his capacity as golf course superintendent, Sean is responsible for all the budgets associated with maintaining and enhancing the courses at Lough Erne.
Speaking about the Faldo course itself, Sean said: "It is a parkland course and one which has many holes designed around Lough Erne. This undoubtedly adds to the beauty and characteristics of the course."
"In total, we have a 600 acre site here housing the two golf courses, the Faldo course being the primary course and the Castle Hume golf course. The Faldo course is 7,167 yards and a Par 72."
"Incidentally, the 600 acres is not only split between the two golf courses, but some acres are devoted to grounds for the hotel, a driving range academy and sixty-five holiday homes."
"I have a staff of seven and we are all very busy," said Sean. "Some extra hands to help us in the peak periods would be more than welcome.
Working in the team now are; James Harkness, deputy course manager who is 36 years old and has worked here for the past six years. Joe Keohane, our mechanic, is 52, and has been here seven years. He is a brilliant member of staff and has kept our machines running like clockwork."
"Emmett Sweeney is only 23, but has been with us eight years and is a very highly skilled machinery operator and spray technician. Cathal McNamee has been with us for nine years and is 41 years old and Padraig Owens, who carries out a lot of our digger work, is 29 and has been here two years."
"Reece Killen is relatively new to the team and is 25. He carries out most of our maintenance duties. Sean McGeough is a craft worker by trade and has been responsible for many of the renovation projects work on site. He has been here two years and is 42 years old."
"Then we have 36-year-old John Casserly who is our main spray technician. He has a great knowledge of turfgrass having studied at Myerscough College and worked at Harbour Town."
On the course, the fairways and first cut of rough are all sand based with a full specification drainage system. The course was constructed by SOL golf, with Oliver Sutton and Ollie Sweeney carrying out the specifications to Sir Nick Faldo requirements.
Sean said: "All of the greens and tees are constructed to USGA specification, built with HS Masters sand from Irwin's Aggregates, who are local to this area. We lightly topdress every one to two weeks, along with regular aeration."
"The weather heavily affects the site here as parts of the course are in dense woodland and other areas are wide open with no shelter at all, so we have major shade issues with a severe lack of light and air flow on five greens. We have to treat these five holes slightly different to the remainder of the course."
"We have twelve bays of covered driving range, an open grass tee, a chipping green area, practice bunker area and a large mini-Himalayan style putting area."
Sean runs a very efficient maintenance programme at the Lough Erne golf resort and everyone chips in to achieve their goals. His programme includes cutting the greens at 4-5.5mm with a Jacobsen GP400. They are all aerated once per month with a Toro ProCore.
The tees are cut at 8-13mm with a John Deere 220A and are aerated once a month with a Wiedenmann GX18 Terra Spike.
Fairways are cut to 10-15mm with a Baroness 2700 and are aerated three to four times per year using a John Deere 5100M and Wiedenmann GX18 Terra Spike. Approaches are cut to 85mm with a John Deere 2653B. Roughs are maintained at 50mm and also aerated three to four times a year with a John Deere 8800A.
The topdressing of greens and tees is carried out lightly every one or two weeks with a John Deere 4720 and Dakota topdressing machine. The topdressing of fairways and roughs is carried out using a John Deere 5100M and the Dakota.
Sean added: "We try and keep weed and pest control to a bare minimum as we have strict guidelines and regulations on site here. We are basically surrounded by water on three sides of the site, so buffer zones, weather patterns, machinery and sprayer calibrations are all key aspects to our site management."
"We generally like all our staff to be able to carry out most tasks, so we would start staff out with learning the basic principles, before moving them onto bigger equipment or different tasks. It's great to be able to rely on any staff member to carry out any task whether it is bunker maintenance or spraying. It also gives them great satisfaction with job rotation."
"Presentation is very high on our agenda, as we get a lot of high end guests and visitors to the resort, so the site has to be presentable all year round."
Communication between Sean's team and the members and owners of the resort is of vital importance. "I have a daily brief with the golf operations team and weekly meetings with our director of golf. We also have course walks with the owners of the resort when they are on site."
"Then we always receive constant feedback from club members who play on a regular basis. They always like to add their personal touch."
On top of managing the work on the courses, Sean has also areas of woodland and wetlands to manage, which present their own set of challenges. "We have a lot of woodland and wetland areas to maintain. The woodland areas are starting to get more attention, as we are trying to increase more indigenous tree species, make more daylight for the course and try and increase woodland flowering like bluebells, woodland sedge and also maintain habitats for our wildlife," said Sean.
"We have a lot of red squirrels, Pine martens, otters, foxes, deer, badgers, native Irish hares and bats all over the grounds. Then we have birds such as kingfishers, tree creepers, buzzards and the occasional sighting of a woodpecker."
"The wetland areas and along the lough shoreline are also key areas for wildlife. Here we have a lot of swans, coots, crested grebes, moorhens, various duck species and a selection of songbirds and warblers."
"We work closely alongside the RSPB, the Northern Ireland Forestry Service, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Waterways Ireland, plus we also get advice from the Fermanagh Red Squirrel Society."
Sean and his team consider training to be of vital importance in their roles and health and safety is paramount. "It's a high priority for the whole team," Sean states. "Staff must wear the relevant PPE safety gear at all times. Our mechanic, Joe, is very particular with regards to machinery safety, and all the basic rules apply."
"All staff that start with us on site are given training, beginning with Health and Safety, and followed by all the relevant courses for all the machinery."
"We have staff trained in First Aid and we regularly run courses to keep their knowledge and training updated. The First Aid box is checked once a month by me."
The Lough Erne Resort has recently taken delivery of a range of new John Deere equipment to help them improve efficiency and reduce costs on site.
The usual method of purchasing machinery is with hire purchase or lease and always from the local trusted machinery dealer.
In the case of the new John Deere machines, all negotiations were carried out with Ricky Neill, who is the groundcare sales manager with Lisburn-based John Deere dealership, Johnston Gilpin & Co Ltd.
Sean said: "We always try and find the best machines for the job or most suitable for the site. We also have to take our mechanic's opinion on a lot of machines, as they need to be reliable and easily serviced, especially when it comes to things like grinding units. The only problem with this is that we have to always have different selections of oils and filters in our storeroom."
The latest intake of equipment saw Sean and his team purchase a John Deere 5100M 100 horsepower tractor, two John Deere 8800A terrain cut five gang rotary mowers, a John Deere 2030A Progator utility 4x4 vehicle with John Deere HD200 sprayer on board, a John Deere 1200A self-propelled bunker rake and a John Deere 2653A precision cut tee mower.
Sean added: "We have been using John Deere rough mowers for a number of years here and found them to be well suited to our terrain. The new JD8800A mowers are very efficient and leave a good finish, as does the JD2653A tees mower, which is nice and compact yet extremely manoeuvrable."
"The tractor will be used on a topdresser most of the time and the utility vehicle with attached sprayer will form a super partnership in applying fertiliser and spraying for weeds."
As the Lough Erne resort is set in an area with diverse environmental structures in place, Sean and his team must devise a plan to minimise the use of herbicides. "We are an environmentally sensitive site, so we try and limit the use of all herbicides and fungicides. The general rule is that if any products come with a 'hazardous to the environment' warning on it, we keep away from them."
Since the construction of the site, there has always been an environmental policy in place at Lough Erne. "We try and work within these guidelines or with local groups to carry out safe and environmentally safe procedures here. We gather information from a number of local groups and use this in our plan of works when dealing with the environmental aspects of the site."
"Although we don't actually plant wildflowers here, we have a number of areas where we allow them to establish. We also have bird boxes and bat boxes in position as well."
"If, for any reason, a tree is cut down, or it falls down, we try to leave it on site as a habitat log pile to encourage mammals and invertebrates to take up residence there," said Sean.
What's in the shed?
John Deere tractors x 3 (4700, 4720, 5100m)
John Deere rough mowers x 2 (8800, 8800A)
John Deere approach mower 2653B
John Deere progator with HD200 sprayer
John Deere 6 x 4 Gator x 7
Dakota 410 Topdresser
Dakota 414 Topdresser
Wiedenmann GX18 Terra Spike
Jacobsen GP400 x 3
Ransomes Parkway 3