"Our Tour professionals tend to have more finesse to their game than the men, and their accuracy is generally better"
Julian Mooney, Greenkeeping Consultant, Ladies European Tour
Killeen Castle is one of Ireland's oldest and finest, whose 12th century Norman edifice, set amid a 600-acre estate, has witnessed drama, intrigue and battle over its 800-year history.
Until the late 1990s, the castle mouldered in disrepair, a pale shadow of its former glory but, since coming under new ownership, a multi-million pound transformation has returned the huge stone pile to its original four-square spendour.
Not only that, the estate is now home to an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course - one of the Bear's finest projects by all accounts - and Europe's only Dave Pelz Scoring Game School.
Soon, the castle will open its doors once more in a new life as a luxury hotel and spa to create, what many are calling, a truly memorable golfing and leisure destination - one to befit its location in County Meath, alongside a veritable treasure trove of golfing delights.
Killeen's proudest moment to date came in December 2006 at The National Museum in Dublin, when the executive director of the Ladies European Tour (LET) announced that The 2011 Solheim Cup - women's golf's premier tournament - would be staged at Killeen Castle, cementing its status as one of the leading courses in Ireland and, indeed, Europe.
Sited in the village of Dunsany, just north of Dunshaughlin, Killeen stands in the heart of Royal Meath, ancient home to the high kings of Ireland. The castle's chequered past dates back to 1181, when it was built by Hugh de Lacy as part of the strategic castle defence system for north Leinster.
From 1403 until the 1950s, the castle was the seat of the Plunkett family, Earls of Fingall, among the oldest of the great Anglo-Irish families. In the early nineteenth century, the 8th and 9th Earls commissioned revered architects, Francis Johnson, and later James Sheil, to modernise the castle, fashioning the design for the building that stands so proudly today.
The castle was sold by the 12th and last Earl of Fingall in 1951, and the estate was run by the new owners as a stud farm. In 1981 Killeen Castle fell victim to fire and lay in ruins until 1997 when Snowbury Ltd purchased the castle and its grounds under a mission to create the magnificent golfing estate seen today.
The 300-acre Nicklaus design takes full advantage of the castle, and is fashioned to reveal a view back to the venue's crowning centrepiece at every hole, whilst the architect's characteristically undulating bunkers pepper the course.
The castle itself has undergone a £13m investment to restore its outer structure. No fewer than forty stonemasons were brought in over the two-year project to complete the labour of love, which involved pointing and cleaning much of the existing stonework (still bearing the pock marks of battle) ready for the planned hotel and spa development within.
As a forerunner to the next biennial transatlantic team competition, Killeen played host to AIB Ladies Irish Open, an event that would allow the venue to sharpen its readiness for the Solheim Cup next year.
Building enduring relationships with the likes of the Ladies European Tour, which organises the Open and the Solheim Cup, and with other key partners, is crucial to the lasting success of Killeen in a fiercely competitive era for golf, and at a time when Ireland earnestly needs to maximise its tourism offering to overseas visitors.
The quality of the course is, arguably, the true test of any golf venue's pedigree and Killeen has a head start with its Nicklaus signature holes. But, establishing strong links with a raft of partners gives top-flight courses, such as Killeen, the armoury to advance in the battle to attract lucrative tournaments that will, in turn, lure the world's elite golfers to pit their sporting prowess against their peers.
Killeen was quick to see the importance of maintenance in its big picture, especially so given the climate here - a location in turn buffeted by gales and driving rain, then rolling mists and glorious sun.
Harrogate Week marked the beginning of the next chapter, when machinery manufacturer John Deere announced that it would extend its original patron agreement with the LET for another two years, and would be designated the Tour's official supplier of golf course machinery.
Killeen had purchased new John Deere machinery from local dealer Dublin Grass Machinery when it opened four years ago, so this was a logical progression, coming on the heels of the preferred supplier status.
The relationship between the two has proved a partnership of minds, as Howard Storey, product manager for John Deere Golf in Europe and the Middle East, confirms.
"The Ladies European Tour has always over delivered on their promises, going the extra mile - a quality rare in business these days," well illustrated in Harrogate when the LET brought along two of its most prized possessions to sign the deal - Solheim Cup ladies captain Alison Nicholas and the glorious crystal trophy itself.
"They could have just sent a spokesperson, like many would have done but, instead, showed their willingness to work with us as a partner, not merely another supplier."
Howard insisted on an early start the morning after I arrive - 5.00am and just in time to catch Killeen's greenkeeping team setting forth to check the course before the ladies stride out for a 7.30am tee off.
The sun's yet to rise, but that doesn't stop the course revealing some of its beauty in the gathering light of what feels like an unseasonably nippy dawn. "The sun rising over the castle is a scene not to be missed," he promises.
We alight from the Gator at a green ringed with John Deere machinery and populated with greenkeepers - one of them hand-mowing the surface to, what seems, a millimetre of its life, another raking a bunker, and yet another using a stimpmeter to gauge green speed.
Here, too, is the LET's Greenkeeping Consultant, Julian Mooney, deep in discussion with Mark Collins, the course superintendent. They're poring over a calibrated clear plastic prism gauge resting on the green surface. Howard walks across to join in the conversation, which focuses on cutting height for the forthcoming Open.
Back into the Gator and on to another hole. Killeen's owners spared no expense when the course was constructed. The buggy pathway is metalled and in fine condition and must have cost a pretty penny.
We're at the beautiful 17th - views over landscaped country to hills and trees in the distance. In the foreground is one of several large lakes that grace the course, bordered with rushes and managed as a wildlife haven of biodiversity.
Howard, Julian and Mark are chatting again greenside. "Thinking ahead to the Solheim Cup, you'll likely need auxiliary lighting. It's pretty dark now, so the light in September is likely to be worse," advises Howard.
"Yes, you're right," Julian responds. Mark then voices the unspoken sentiment shared by all. "I'm surprised how cold it is already. There's plenty of dew on the ground at this time, so it might be worth thinking about an afternoon cut during the tournament." Julian agrees.
It's a snapshot of a day in the life of, what is, a partnership of interests and understanding about the needs and necessities of a tournament still more than a year away. Planning is everything, as they say.
It's also a rare opportunity to witness the more expansive role that this supplier plays in the build-up for a major event. Howard explains how this bouncing back and forth of ideas is part and parcel of that relationship. "It's progressed well beyond just a matter of machines," he states.
John Deere's hands-on approach has won friends where it matters - with Killeen, with the LET and with the golfers themselves, I'm told. "We chose them for three reasons," explains Mark, the superintendent since 2006. "I had known and dealt with Howard for a number of years; the company offered what I believed was far greater value for money than rival manufacturers in terms of the machines' capabilities and operational reliability; and the quality of Dublin Grass Machinery's aftersales service was matchless." A glowing testimonial certainly - and the proof of the pudding is in the eating - but Deere's relationship with the LET is the aspect of this golfing partnership that I'm here to explore.
The Killeen Castle course forms the latest page in the chapter on Jack Nicklaus designs. It's the antithesis of his known distaste for courses built around excessively long yardage to appease today's big hitters.
He preferred a design that would challenge the professional and average golfer alike, and test the skills and capabilities of the short game - something that women players are said to excel in. Nicklaus reportedly spent a good deal of time researching to achieve that balance. The result is a culmination of what he wanted most from a course. Accordingly, Killeen's toughest hurdles are its contouring and severity of undulation - topographical factors that can make mowing a little tricky. However, Mark, and his team of eleven, will often need to change rollers and make adjustments throughout the day as shifting conditions dictate, so requires machinery that can cope with such varying demands - a key criterion in choice of supplier, he maintains. "They are quick and easy to interchange and fit well into the set up here. Even their standard units can be adjusted, which can prove invaluable with limited time spans," he explains.
The run-up to a major competition, especially when you're in the media spotlight and aiming to confirm your status among the world's golfing venues, is no time to be worrying about delivery of spare parts.
Local dealer relationships need to be strong, so the club know parts will be available at short notice. "Deere have a far superior supply, compared to other manufacturers," says Mark, "and I know we can call on them at a moment's notice, if necessary, for any size of replacement part."
The manufacturer's business embraces agriculture, as well as sport and amenity, so it can tap into its worldwide airfreight network to deliver parts anywhere, overnight. "That's a benefit we simply didn't find elsewhere," Mark adds.
The role of the agronomist is one of mounting importance in preparing a venue for a major event and, with the LET staging tournaments across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the US, the importance of knowing what to expect from the course, how it should be set up for the women's game and how well machinery suppliers liaise with the LET and venue are all critical.
Julian Mooney made history in 2004 when he became the LET's first agronomist. Unlike his counterparts on the men's tour, he completes this role as the sole agronomist with no travelling greenkeeping support team. Forging strong, lasting relationships with host courses, golf federations, greenkeeping associations and machinery suppliers has become a vital aspect of his work.
"Part of the skill in this job is about bringing together local knowledge and predicting how agronomic conditions will react with changing environmental and mechanical stresses," he explains. "We want to avoid turning up a week before an event to find conditioning or even playability issues."
With the Solheim Cup still a year off, preparations are already underway to ensure the right machinery delivers a perfectly prepared course when the show comes to Killeen.
"The design here is a challenging one, with pleasant undulations on greens, so we need to carefully consider what machines are needed, whether that be floating or fixed head greens mowers for example," Julian explains.
Julian first encountered John Deere as a student intern at East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Georgia - home of the PGA Tour Championship. Following studies in the US, he returned to take up consultancy work in Ireland and was subsequently appointed as Greenkeeping Consultant to the LET.
Becoming the first agronomist for the LET has meant years dedicated to developing an agronomy programme and strategy for the tour, which visits thirty locations worldwide annually. For my benefit, he distils the advantages of the John Deere relationship with the LET and how that benefits tour venues.
"LET host venues have benefitted from the John Deere agreement, primarily as a result of the flexibility the agreement offers. Cyprien Comoy, Director of Tournament Operations, the nominated Tournament Director, and I liaise with the host venue throughout the year to develop the course to the required standard.
When the advance week arrives, things begin to get easier as John Deere and its local dealers install tournament support equipment. This allows our host venue to bulk mow turf at the most agronomically opportune time, rather than having to mow at 5.00am when a moist turfgrass canopy and surface can compromise the quality of cut and presentation. For example, fairways can be cut 50% quicker with the additional resource provided, and this can facilitate double-mowing if deemed necessary by tournament officials. If we anticipate that forecasted rain will prevent maintenance on the course in 24 hours time, we will double-mow, where appropriate, to enhance definition and presentation, which can help us to offset the negative effect on appearance caused by missing a cut."
"John Deere dealer technicians, and the area manager for product support, works closely with the resident mechanic to ensure all cutting units are precision relief ground to the original factory specification. This helps to achieve the highest quality of cut, in accordance with LET requirements. This involves several field inspections where mowing equipment is stopped and inspected periodically throughout morning and evening maintenance to monitor quality of cut."
"The patrons agreement also allows LET tournament sites to demonstrate equipment ahead of time to determine the optimum method of mowing the course, and achieve the LET's agronomic and presentation requirements. Killeen Castle are already benefitting from the patron's agreement in preparation for The 2011 Solheim Cup."
"In this case, it is likely we will opt for John Deere's new 8000 e-Hybrid mower for fairway mowing. This will give us a triplex-like finish and minimise any possible compaction issues on the rye/fescue/poa annua fairways. The greens at Killeen Castle have classic yet challenging movement and, as they were seeded with the newer generation of creeping bentgrasses, they require extremely low heights of cut. To cope with such demands it is likely we will trial both the John Deere 180C and the new 220E E-Hybrid, which gives the LET several options."
Preparing a venue for women's golf throws up differing challenges to those for the men's, especially on a long-driving course. Killeen though, because it presents such a test of the short game, offers an environment well-suited to women players.
"The contrasts for the women's game mean preparations differ, which can present challenges," he explains.
"We set up host venues according to the ability of our Tour professionals. This results in a shorter course than one set up on the PGA European Tour. We use club distance statistics based on a selection of our members positioning within the Henderson Money List and Rolex Rankings".
Length is the deciding difference in the men's and women's game, so tees have to be carefully selected, Julian stresses, adding that the quality in the women's game is in many ways superior.
"Our Tour professionals tend to have more finesse to their game than the men, and their accuracy is also generally better," he reveals. "Women have definitely mastered the short game, and courses like Killeen are part of the new breed of venue that really puts the short game to the test."
Playable rough at LET host venues is another considerable difference in setting up a tournament for the women's game, generally speaking the playable rough is not as long, as female players do not have the same level of strength as their male counterparts.
Mark Casey, director of operations for the LET and the Solheim Cup, is well placed to appreciate advancements in the women's game, and how clubs such as Killeen Castle are changing the dimension to women's golf.
He oversees the twenty-six tournaments the LET is staging in twenty-one different countries this year, including New Zealand, Australia, China, India, Dubai and Morocco. "We play in some of the world's most stunning resorts," he tells me, "yet the quality of the build at Killeen is second to none, not only in Ireland but also throughout Europe, and here, in Meath, sits the cream of these - especially for the short game challenge."
With a schedule that requires travel to countries offering markedly different courses, Mark is eager to stress the importance of having well established partnerships with suppliers such as John Deere, who command a strong international credibility.
"The LET has worked with John Deere for four years now - we needed a company who could support us across the world, and not be restricted with where and when machines could be delivered and supplied."
"To be able to come to a site for a short and very intense period of time, and deal with a local dealer helps us greatly to form a better relationship with the greenkkeping staff at the club which, in turn, helps us produce a better product for the girls. John Deere are known for their excellent dealer relationships, but we needed someone who could work with us across different markets, from the emerging Chinese one to a traditional English course, like Royal Birkdale, which was a prime example of how well the relationship can work, and we anticipate a similar outcome at Killeen."
Back to Howard, who echoes this sentiment, believing that Deere is strongly placed to intensify its golfing focus. "The game is growing hugely in China and parts of Asia, and lots of opportunities are emerging for us there, as they are in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern Europe."
"Yet, the women's game is progressing faster than any other market, especially throughout Europe, with countries like Germany and Scandinavia leading the way. No less than 40% of all golfers in Europe are female. The game is seen much more as a family pursuit than the image it has had traditionally in the UK and America. We need to ensure we're a big part of this and our alignment with the LET, the Solheim Cup and, with prestigious clubs such as Killeen, means we are heading in the right direction."
The marriage between the Solheim Cup, women's golf, junior golf and John Deere World - its merchandising arm - are all part of attempts to soften the John Deere image and build on a growing golf reputation, something Julian believes it has already done to great success.
"The company has had to up their game with some of their mowers to suit more contoured greens surfaces, with contour heads pedestrian mowers being increasingly seen as the preference," he says.
"Yet, despite only recently introducing a contour head greens mower, the company has been amply able to set up their fixed head machines to suit even the most undulating greens, which been the case at Killeen."