IT was right in the middle of the wettest spell of 2004. The American Express World Championship had just ended in a rainstorm, forcing the players to use preferred lies for all four days at Mount Juliet. And they don't come much better than Tim Mahony's jewel in Co Kilkenny.
Yet we played 18 holes over the new Heritage course near Portlaoise four day later and didn't pick up as much as a speck of mud on our shoes. That's a fair indication of the extraordinary groundwork that went into the project before the course designed by Seve Ballesteros and Jeff Howest for Tom Keane at Killenard, Co Laois, opened for play earlier this year. It is probably one of the reasons why it has already attained a stage of maturation that one simply wouldn't have believed possible and why The Heritage is already regarded as one of the finest of the many outstanding developments steadily coming on stream in this country.
The design of the course was handed to a couple of masters of the art, Seve Ballesteros, who imparted his knowledge of the many fabulous venues he played and visited all over the world throughout his distinguished career, and Jeff Howes, who assisted Jack Nicklaus at Mount Juliet and is now rightly regarded as one of the best architects in the business. With Tom Keane's financial and building resources behind the work from the outset, The Heritage just couldn't go wrong.
At the moment, the course, all 7,319 yards of it from the back tees, is augmented by a clubhouse greater in square yardage than any in Ireland and that includes The K-Club! Big isn't always beautiful, far from it, but Keane and his architectural team have got it just right. The locker rooms and shower area are without parallel and the bars, restaurants, lounges and shops are five-star quality. The building includes an indoor bowling green and right outside is another green blessed with the most magnificent carpet of grass! The Seve Ballesteros Natural Golf School is up and running and includes a ten bay floodlit driving range, power tees, short game facility with putting green, pitching green, bunker practice area, target golf greens not to mention the presence of professionals Eddie Doyle and Eamonn O'Flanagan.
Then there's the Leix Course, a dedicated practice course with holes measuring from 150 to 120 yards, a theme pub and restaurant, floodlit jogging/walking track and all that before the luxurious leisure and spa centre and 150 bedroom, five star hotel, on which work is now well under way, open for business.
Tom, Angela Keane and family, have demonstrated further sagacity with the appointment of Limerickman Eoin O'Sullivan as managing director of the hotels, former Irish international Eddie Dunne as general manager and Leinster Branch GUI official Joe McNamara as director of golf.
The golf course was built by SOL, the company associated with numerous other high profile jobs including Portmarnock, Lahinch, Royal Dublin, Co Louth, Tralee, Ballybunion and Doonbeg under the supervision of Michael O'Leary. If the condition of the course already referred to is a reliable yardstick, then they have done some job. The Heritage occupies some 300 acres and they moved 300,000 cubic metres of earth, used 14,000 tons of rootzone, 4,500 tons of bunker sand and 8,000 of gravel sand to transform a relatively mundane piece of farmland into a picturesque and first-class golf course.
It's playable all year around, because of the 5,000 metres of storm drainage, 22,000 metres of 4 inch land drainage and 126,000 metres (78 miles) of sand slit drainage. There's a lot of water out there, most significantly and spectacularly with the 9th and 18th separated by a large lake in play at both from tee to green. In all, there are 40,000 square metres (or 10 acres) of lakes, all of them delightfully set off by 700 metres of stonewalls. There are 98 bunkers but it seems like more given the huge size of many and they are going to require a lot of maintenance by the superintendent Anthony Fitzpatrick and his team. 5,000 trees were by SAP with most of the hardwood in excess of 20 years old.
None of which is much good to the golfer unless the course and its design come up to scratch. So many new creations are beyond the capacity of the vast majority of players and seem to have been built for top-class professionals who may never set foot on them. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Heritage if you were to tackle it from the championship markers or even the medal tees from where it still extends to 6,889 yards. Sanity prevailed on our recent visit and we played from the green markers which have a yardage of 6,516, long enough for most requirements.
The opener is a gentle enough par four and the long 2nd shouldn't prove too troublesome either provided you steer clear of the big pond to the left of the putting surface. Water is again a factor at the first of the par threes, the 4th, where a long iron or four or five wood will be required to carry the 214 yards over the hazard. A stream crossing the fairway adds to the difficulty of the 6th but if it's water you fear, then the 9th, 421 yards from the back tees, will have you shivering in your shoes. There's lots of it all the way from tee to green and deviously placed bunkers for company on the left as well.
If anything, the homeward run provides a sterner test even if the par five 10th and the near driveable 11th provide a reasonably gentle start. The 12th and 13th, both of which will please the long hitter, are serious fours and the long and uphill 14th is a genuine three shotter for most. There's something of a reprieve at the 16th which is most unusual in that it is the only hole without bunkers and as a consequence probably lacks a certain amount of definition. But the undulating green falls away on all sides so birdies will not be as frequent as might be imagined. A birdie, though, would be more than a little helpful for the 17th is a formidable par three and, as we have noted, the 18th a nightmare for anybody protecting a good score on a big day.
To find the Heritage, leave the M7 off the new Monasterevin bypass and follow the signs for Killenard. The village also has easy access to the railway line at Portarlington from where I'm assured there is a regular and reliable taxi service.
Call Eddie Dunne or Joe McNamara at 0502 45994/45041. You won't be disappointed.