Ashfield Golf Club is Northern Ireland's most southerly club, being just a few miles from the border with the Republic and midway between Belfast and Dublin.
This year, it celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary and Alan Mahon, editor of Greenside magazine, went along to meet with Donal Murtagh, who is both the course superintendent and the leaseholder of the club
Located just inside the borders of Northern Ireland, Ashfield Golf Club was officially opened by championship golfer, Fred Daly MBE, in September 1990, after over two years work designing the layout by Frank Ainsworth (formerly of Malone and Hilton Templepatrick golf clubs) and converting the land from an arable farm set up by James and Elizabeth Quinn.
The course has seen continuous improvements over the years, with thousands of trees planted from a wide variety of species, new lakes added, maturing greens and larger tee boxes, all aimed at enhancing the challenge and the enjoyment.
Standing at the high elevations of the course, you can see the rolling hills and countryside of County Armagh and, on clear days, you can see County Louth, Monaghan and Down. Ashfield Golf Club is only a few miles inside Northern Ireland - so close that local shops will accept both euros and sterling.
The Course Superintendent is Donal Murtagh. In fact, he has more than one title as he is also the leaseholder of the golf course. Donal, born and reared in nearby Crossmaglen, originally wanted to be an electrician and got work in an electronics factory. He was made redundant in 1991 and decided to take up the game of golf, now that he had plenty of spare time. He thoroughly enjoyed the sport and thought that working on a golf course would be very appealing.
A chance opportunity, involving a 'Back To Work' scheme, turned up in 1992 at the newly constructed golf course near Crossmaglen, called Ashfield. He started working there on a three day week and thoroughly enjoyed it. He attended Greenmount College on a day release course to learn more about the greenkeeping profession. A full time vacancy arose at Nuremore Hotel Golf Club, which Donal applied for and secured but, after a year, he got full time work back at Ashfield. His time at Ashfield was brief and, again, after one year, he was packing his bags and off to Rossmore Golf Club where he got the top job as Course Manager. Five years later, he became Course Manager at Mannon Castle where he remained for thirteen years.
In the meantime, life at Ashfield was changing. In 2012, the owner of the club, James Quinn, retired from looking after the course. Most of his children were working and living abroad and had no interest in returning home. He therefore decided to lease out the course and clubhouse. James thought that Donal would be an ideal person to take on the lease, since he was already familiar with the set up of the course and club. He contacted Donal and asked him if he would be interested. After a lot of thought, Donal decided to take up the offer and, with agreeable negotiations, became the leaseholder. "It was a great opportunity for me to be my own boss and to be able to run and maintain a golf club the way I wanted to," said Donal.
The course covers approximately ninety acres of land. Donal has two full time members of staff working for him - brother Sean and John Adair. He also takes on one part-timer, Paul McGeaney, in the summer.
Being the leaseholder of the club brings additional pressures. "Since taking on the lease, I have become more aware of budgeting and financial planning. We have a small membership base at Ashfield, so the money put aside for course maintenance is low, but this is part of the challenge and I'm really loving my time here."
Indeed, the membership is just under 200 members, but there has been a steady rise in numbers lately and if, as some analysts are predicting, we come out of the recession, then more members will join. The members are very happy with the course and have seen huge improvements since Donal came back in 2012, and this can only be a good thing when trying to attract new members.
"When I came back in 2012, a five gang trailed mower was used to mow the fairways, tees and surrounds - all at the same height of cut. The only difference in grass height was on the greens and out of play rough areas," said Donal. "I bought in new mowing equipment in order to introduce more definition to those parts of the course."
The trees that were planted twenty five years ago have grown a lot. Some that are growing near the greens are starting to cause problems as their roots are growing under the putting surface, causing the turf to dry out more rapidly. Donal has started to dig trenches around the perimeter of the affected greens so that he can cut away the roots, thereby preventing them from spreading further into the green.
The irrigation on the course is a basic manual system, confined to the greens only. The greens are sand based so, in dry weather, have to be carefully monitored to prevent them getting scorched. Grass on the greens is mostly poa annua.
The course is very free draining and is rarely closed during wet weather, even in the winter. This is a great advantage as members from other clubs nearby, who are less fortunate, can visit Ashfield for a round of golf, bringing in much needed revenue.
Donal's fertiliser programme consists of applying granular fertiliser three times every year - a spring and late summer application of 14:3:6 and a winter feed using 6:5:10. During the growing season, he applies the old reliable Sulphate of Iron in liquid form, mixed in with some liquid feed. It seems to work well as the greens were in excellent condition when I visited the course. There is no budget for fungicides or growth regulators.
Sand topdressing is put out on the greens and tees, usually in March. "I would like to apply sand more often, but it is very expensive. If and when we get a bigger membership base, I hope to be able to apply sand at more regular intervals," confirmed Donal.
And, to finish, a story from the dark side: When Donal started out at Ashfield Golf Club in the 1990s, Northern Ireland was still experiencing 'The Troubles'. Donal told me of several incidents when bullets would fly overhead. One particular story stands out, as he recalls: "I remember working on the course one day when I heard a loud banging noise. I looked around and saw, in the distance, a lorry with IRA men on it. They were pointing and shooting at a British army helicopter flying overhead. The troops in the helicopter were returning fire back at the snipers, so I ran for cover."
"In the meantime, one of the greenstaff was mowing fairways using a trailing gang mower. When he heard the loud noise he assumed that something had got caught up in the cylinders, but couldn't figure out the exact problem. He kept mowing, constantly looking back at the gang unit trying to work out where the noise was coming from, totally unaware of the shoot out directly overhead."
"All that is in the past now, and Northern Ireland seems to be in a happier place now, thank God."
I really enjoyed my visit to Ashfield Golf Club. It is a hidden jewel, and the trees that were planted twenty five years ago are starting to mature wonderfully. You will not be disappointed after a visit there.
This article was written by Alan Mahon, Editor of Greenside magazine, the official publication of the GCSAI.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 220B pedestrian mower
Toro Greensmower 3250
Jacobsen Greensking 4 x 2
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D
Hayter 524 fairway mower
Saxon triplex mounds mower
Ransomes trailing 5-gang mower
Kubota 2D28 rotary rough mower
Kubota L4200 tractor
Massey Ferguson 135 tractor
Yanmar 3.5 tonne mini digger
Cushman Turf truxter
Ultra Spreader greens topdresser
Hardi 300 litre sprayer for greens
Hardi 800 litre sprayer for fairways
Greencare hollow corer
Ryan 16" sodcutter
Wiedenmann Leaf Blower