With stunning views of Dublin bay, great greens, challenging and unusually laid out holes, Howth Golf Club is the home of a truly, unforgettable golf course. Gerard Morgan is the course Superintendent, we paid him a visit to see how got himself into the industry and maybe learn a thing or two.
First though, we got to talk about Howth Golf Club. Founded in 1916 and is one of the most special, golf experiences in Ireland due to its unique settings. With spectacular panoramic views of the coast of Dublin from the Wicklow mountains to the Cooley and Mourne mountains. Gerard describes Howth as an ‘Upland Heathland’ course, large ranges of purple heather is a striking feature of the course.
The 71 par course itself features some very interesting holes, it was designed by renowned Scottish golfer and course architect James Braid, a 5 time Open winner who has also designed the prestigious Kings and Queens courses in Gleneagles. Two holes that particularly stood out to me were the 5th and 15th holes. The 5th hole is great fun, a tricky par 4, dog leg left with the second shot onto an exceptionally elevated green engulfed by a meadow of heather and gorse bush. The 15th is a really nice par 3, were you pitch down onto sunken green, the view from the green of Dublin bay will take your breath away.
Gerard Morgan and his team
Gerard has been the Superintendent of Howth Golf Club since March 2016. His team at Howth Golf Club includes four full-time greenkeepers (Graham, David, Peter and Frazer) and part-time gardener, Mary. Morgan also takes on one or two work place students over the summer to help out. “So, we would have 7 or 8 in total on a big day. It’s nice to have that amount of help, because every job takes a bit of time and you want to have standards that you can keep up with, not just rush everything. Get everything done as best possible and have the course looking well and presentable for the members.”
“I would describe the course as an upland, heathland course. We have 11 hectares of fairway, a hectare of green, ¾ of hectare of tees to look after and then we have rough, gorse, heather and mountains outside that! We are on a 50/50 block cutting pattern, it’s a more traditional cutting pattern and it works very well here. The golf course is a hundred years old at this stage so it has that heritage behind it that we go back to that original cutting rather than the American cutting, which would be the stripes. So we go 50/50, half and half, let the fairways speak for themselves.”
Upcoming programs and projects
“Yeah pretty much the whole left side of the course was on fire and a huge area of gorse was burnt away. But, it came back nicely, the heather responded really well after the fire and has actually bloomed fantastically…”
“Our winter program consisted of gorse removal, we had to remove mountains of gorse, it’s all out there now waiting to be shredded and disposed of. This year we are focused more around tee boxes. We are looking to open them up and make them much bigger we would like to make the carry shorter to the fairway. We are hoping these programs will help increase the speed of play around the course, help open up the views and give better access to areas so you can actually mow them better and spray them better.”
Huge gorse fires two years ago have left the course with some beautiful heather meadows. “Yeah pretty much the whole left side of the course was on fire and a huge area of gorse was burnt away. But, it came back nicely, the heather responded really well after the fire and has actually bloomed fantastically there in September last year. You wouldn’t believe the colour of the heather, it’s a unique place to play golf.”
“The budgets are down to the superintendent, I have to look around for best price, look for the best deals for the club. The club is who you are working for at the end of the day, they supply the money and you have to get the best deal for them. I look to save as much and to spend as wisely as possible. The way I look at it is, that you’re spending your own money, you’re going to look for the best bargain or best value and quality as well. It’s a balancing act because quality products are essential to produce a quality product. The quality of the products is going to be reflected in the course and the playing quality.”
Is there any products or machinery that stick out to you, which you couldn’t live without?
“Our best asset in Howth Golf Club is our Pro-Core. I could not live without that machine, it’s out all the time, it gives us so much, it’s versatile, and you can use it on tees and greens, surrounds, everywhere. Just getting aeration holes into the surface, air is key, especially here because we have thatch problems and it’s great for breaking down the thatch and get some oxygen into the root zone. The only way to do it is to mechanically punch in holes, I mean you can spray stuff out if you can but I think the best solution is getting air into the surface and the Pro-Core doesn’t really affect play. Then we get our top-dresser out on top of that to get sand into those holes which is important.”
” The way I look at it is, that you’re spending your own money, you’re going to look for the best bargain or best value and quality as well.”
“On a rainy day when it’s lashing down, with both the aeration holes and the sand, it definitely helps get the water away that bit quicker than it did in the past. It (the course) drains alright, it could drain a bit quicker but in time we can sort that out but we are just taking it one step at a time. When I started out the cups were filling up with water, but having said that and after the rain we had this morning, maybe there is still a couple of cups out there full of water ha-ha. The greens are starting to dry up much quicker though, two hours after a heavy shower it will dry out substantially. After a prolonged period of rain, the course will be back to normal after a good days drying and a bit of wind.”
On the greens
“We have push-up greens, shaped with native soil but they have been top-dressed over years and years. I want to increase the levels of sand to dilute some of that thatch and organic matter in the greens and to firm them up that little bit more. I want to get them down to a level of just under 5% organic matter in them. We are not far away, we will just keep going with what we are doing, stay on top of our aeration programmes, our top-dressing programmes to fix some of the problems that are out there.”
“We are very exposed here and the weather can provide us with a multitude of problems. It’s like we have three layers, you got the lower, middle and upper levels. Up at the top level, it could be fogged over and you wouldn’t be able to see up there, while back down here at the bottom, it’s a fine, clear day, and that situation could be the other way around on another day!”
Do you need to bring in any consultants or outside contractors?
“Not in the last year no, I want to peel everything back and get the course to a certain standard first and then go forward from there. Maybe in the future, we might look to bring in an environmental consultant for advice on some aspects of the place because there is a lot of heather out there that needs addressing. We want to encourage the heather and discourage some of the gorse in some places to get it back to a heathland golf course, because that is how we are going to be defined, as an upland heathland golf course which are few and far between in Ireland.”
“Everybody who flies into Dublin will pass over Howth Golf Club, it’s a flight pass above us, I want people to look down and see that we are doing a good job”
Golf tourism in Ireland is a huge and lucrative industry and being 25 minutes from Dublin Airport, 40 minutes from Dublin City centre, a very well designed course with pristine greens and epic views of Dublin, surely Howth Golf Club is a tourist haven?
“To a certain extent it is, we need to do a lot work before we can actually promote it to tourists. We want them to be repeat visitors, we want them to be happy with the product. We want to present the course as best possible to them so they can tell people about a really good experience. I think we are just not set up for it just yet but in a year to eighteen months we will be. I would want to be in the job for a good 2-3 years to know what’s going on in the place to perfect it and get the product right. Then we can sell it to the Americans and the Europeans to come over and play it and experience it. Everybody who flies into Dublin will pass over Howth Golf Club, it’s a flight pass above us, I want people to look down and see that we are doing a good job ha-ha.”
It is a distinctive place to play golf, with charming abandoned white cottages and great banks of gorse, heather and bracken decorated with clusters of wildflowers. A kind of bio-sphere, it’s a special area of conservation were you can spot tourists and hikers cutting through some of the holes as the course is shared by a network of public rites of passage.
Toro Greensmaster 3250-D
Toro ProPass Topdresser
Toro ProCore 648
John Deere Pedestrian Mower
John Deere Fairway Mower
John Deere Gator 6×4
Smithco Spray Star 1000
Smithco Tournament Greens Roller
Jacobsen AR522 Rotary Mower
Jacobsen GP400 Greens Mower (15 Blade)
Jacobsen Tri-King 1900D Mower
Cushman Hauler PRO
Iseki Compact Tractor
How did you get into this line of work, who are your influences??
Gerard is a young man, just 30 years, old but he has already clocked up about 15 years’ experience as a greenkeeper. His biggest influence for getting into the industry was his father, Tom. “He works on the pitches out in Clann Mhuire GAA in Naul, north county Dublin, part-time. He got me into to it, he was just always really involved with taking care of the pitch there and was involved in the building of the pitch at Clann Mhuire back 2004. I always had a bit of interest in it, but he was the one who told me to try get a bit of work experience out on a golf course and I got into Donabate when I was 15 or 16. I have been working on golf courses ever since.”
Education & Experience Route
“Near the end of my school days, I didn’t really know what to do with myself to be honest. I went to a careers day in the RDS in my final year of school and met a gentleman there called Pat Maloney. Pat was a huge influence on me, Pat unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. He told me about a course I could do, because I told him I was interested in golf, green keeping and wanted to be working outside but I also wanted to get a degree. He put me in touch with the right people and got me to sign up for a 3 year degree studying horticulture, in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, and within that course was a sports turf syllabus. In my final year, when I was doing my dissertation, I was nominated for Horticulture Student of the Year by the RDS and went on to win it.”
I felt it was the natural next step for me as far as career progression, I was a senior green keeper down in Portmarnock and when this superintendent job came up, I had to apply for it
“After earning my degree, I started my first full-time, green keeping position in Portmarnock Golf Club. It was a super place to work, I was there for 4 years, at the time it was the Irish number one golf course”
“I went back to college again in 2011 to study Business Management in the National College of Ireland. It was a yearlong, part-time course and has been a huge benefit to me, especially in the position I find myself in now. The course thought me about business organisation, accountancy, communications, it was a very worthwhile program to take part in.”
Morgan stayed at Portmarnock from 2013 to 2016, where he became superintendent of Howth Golf Club. “I felt it was the natural next step for me as far as career progression, I was a senior green keeper down in Portmarnock and when this superintendent job came up, I had to apply for it. Now, I didn’t think I would have had much of a chance for it at the time, but the interview went very well and they saw that I had plenty of experience in educational terms and practical experience terms. So I got the job and here I am.”
“There has been a lot of people who have influenced me along my path but, at the end of the day the first person to show me the right way to cut grass was my Dad. I have used his work ethic and his attention to detail until now and I think it’s got me to good places.”