Douglas Golf Club GM John McHenry is sounding remarkably upbeat and enthusiastic on a dreary January afternoon.
Perhaps it is a natural trait or a skill he honed as a European Tour pro; whatever the source of optimism and positive thinking, McHenry has it by the bucketload.
The Covid crisis and resultant lockdowns have hit Douglas — and every golf club in Ireland — hard, but rather than wallowing in reflection and self pity, McHenry is moving on, constantly looking forward, never back.
He knows brighter days are ahead — literally and figuratively — and when that day comes, McHenry wants the famous 112-year-old Cork institution to be primed to welcome members — and some new faces.
To that end he and his team have overseen a superb €3m transformation of the clubhouse — polishing a rough diamond in design terms into a sleek and eye-catching jewel.
For McHenry this project was much more than about a makeover, this was the first page in a new chapter for the club as it adapts and grows into the second century of its existence.
“Over the past 10 years the clear understanding was that Douglas needed to take a look at the golf clubhouse. It was revamped in 1970 but the core of the building would have dated back much earlier than that.
“A task committee was set up a number of years ago to look at two options: knocking the clubhouse and building anew or retaining the character of the building and revamping it.
“And the decision was made to go with the second option. It was only when we started paring away and removing items that we discovered that this was more than just a refurbishment, there were a significant number of hidden structural issues which once exposed needed to be addressed as a matter of priority.
“From the outset the desire of the membership was that we should properly look at all aspects of the building as this work would shape the look of the clubhouse for the next 30 or 40 years.
“One of the chief things we looked at was moving away from the traditional look of a golf clubhouse. Many of these older style clubhouses can be very intimidating for newcomers, so our first objective was to try to create a warmer, friendly, and more welcoming atmosphere. That target was achieved by a new layout along with new colours and new lighting.”
Taking the lead from Tim O’Donovan of Conceptual Design, management in Douglas were keen to create something that was multi-functional and able to move with the time.
“What we have done with our bar, lounge, and dining room is that they can be split into pods. So for example on a quiet Monday night we can set up in such a way that we have a nice intimate feel for 20 people but on Friday night we can transform it into one open plan if we have a full house.”
The colour scheme is warm and inviting while greater use of natural light adds tremendous freshness to the central areas.
“We were also keen not to forget our club’s proud history with the 1909 restaurant, a subtle nod to its creation when the original course was designed by golfing legend and six-time British Open winner, Harry Vardon. (The course was then extended and altered by course architect of Augusta National, Alister MacKenzie, in 1924).”
McHenry also looked outside the building and saw potential: “We had a road around the clubhouse but felt that it was something we could reconfigure. So we constructed a patio area that will allow members to go out and enjoy themselves in the open air. We installed heaters and have throws too.”
The recurring theme in McHenry’s conversation is relevance. How can they produce a product that is more relevant to the membership?
How can they become relevant to a younger audience?
“Gone are the days when a golf club is just about the quality of the course. Yes the course is the fundamental element but it is no longer the only element. People are now as interested in the quality of food, the comfort level, and all the other things that they come to expect (an impressive new gym is another part of the redevelopment and that mantra of ‘relevance’).
“We are in this prime location in Cork City, so why not use that and entice people to come for a drink or a barbecue or a fine dining experience?
“It is about being flexible, about listening, learning, and then going forward from there. The broader we become, the more attractive we are.”
When the clubhouse will be able to welcome guests is a question which McHenry cannot answer. Covid lockdowns look set to extend well into February and perhaps beyond with Government officials set to provide another update this afternoon.
For the past 10 months, McHenry and the team have learned to roll with the punches.
“We have frozen subs and the like but our membership has been very patient and understanding with us. This year we have decided to move things around with societies which will help to free up hundreds of hours of tee times on Friday’s and the weekends. Hopefully, we will see the benefits of that later in the year.”
But McHenry points out that clubs, and clubhouses such as Douglas, have a greater role to play in society.
“We have a lot of elderly membership who would come up for a few hours every day. It was their social outlet and kept them busy. Golf clubs are often a home away from home to a lot of membership.”