Defending against the Killeen killers

KILLARNEY’s resident professional Dave Keating can quote you facts until tomorrow but one really knocks your socks off.

“There’s Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, and not one of them has ever played this (Killeen) golf course.” And then he pauses for effect. “Now that’s some stat.”

How is that possible? How can one of the premier inland courses in the country not have played host to four of Ireland’s super six (McGinley and Clarke excepted) at any stage over the past 20 years or so?

Whatever the reason, there’s a lesson in the fact for a club like Killarney. Keating agrees that this week’s 3 Irish Open is “massively important for the club.

“If you take the last time the Open was here (1992) as a starting point, we are talking about a completely different generation of professional players. In 1992, they were using wooden-headed drivers here. This generation of golfers has never used a wooden-headed driver and there would be a lot of amateur players in the same boat that this tournament opens us up to. We’ve been off the map a little bit since 1992, but that younger age group is now coming back to us, and that’s re-ignited the older brigade too,” says Keating. “In May 2009 we had 4,500 green fees, but in the same month this year we had 6,000.”

If the club pro is the public face of any golf club, then Killarney is set fair with Keating, who arrived a couple of years back from Charleville. A natural front-of-house presence, he’s already pioneered a drive to get more teenage and junior golfers out on the course. For this week, though, he’s more concerned with the present than the future.

“A 54-hole complex like this needs a major event every five years, and if you had it here for a few years in a row all the better,” he declares. “I believe an Open should remain in the one location for a period of time to enable the tour players feel comfortable and familiar with the place.

“When an event is kept at the same venue, they are invariably the ones with the strongest fields because players know what to expect. We need to keep the name out there all the time. Other fine clubs like Fota Island and Adare Manor would have eaten into our business over the last 15 years or so, but we’re definitely seeing that business coming back now, plus there’s a new, fresh generation coming in.”

As well as running the pro shop (which relocates to the tented village for the week) and providing critical management back up to secretary manager, Maurice O’Meara, Keating will be a friendly ear to the tour players, many of whom will be playing the new Killeen for the first time.

Any helpful hints on areas of the course to be wary of, the typical winds, where to place tee shots, is gold-dust to the pros.

In return, Keating smiles that he expects them to be gentle on his course. But addressing that hoary old question – what will be the winning score – Killarney’s resident pro does not envisage a slaughter of the reduced par 71 track (the par 5 No 11 will play as a par 4 for the week): “Depending on the weather, I reckon the winning score will be between 10 and 18 under. If it gets windy, final totals will be closer to 10 under.”

That seems an optimistically low estimate for a course many feel should have been reduced to a 70, with the par 5 seventh an obvious candidate to be reduced to a par four.

“I wouldn’t be worried about the course now that the rough is growing a bit. They’re reducing the par to 71, which I agree with. Remember, No 6 is a 210 yard par three, and if they’re facing into the breeze on that, and then have to face a 500 yard par 4, they won’t enjoy it.”

A sore point, that, with some people, who will mutter “pity about them”. Those who were around a couple of decades ago will remember the players creating a stink about the shaved down run off around the aforementioned 6th, and the immediate capitulation of the Tour who moved the tee up the following day. Keating remembers the controversy too but argues that it isn’t just about enjoyment for the tour professionals.

“People don’t come out to watch a four-day grind,” he insists. “Spectators want to see birdies and bogeys with a few eagles thrown in. There has to be a little bit of give from a course. (Phil) Mickelson won the Masters this year and on the par 5 15th, he hit a drive and a nine iron.

“You need a couple of obvious birdie holes, and you have them on the (par five) 7th and 16th. I would have no fear for the course. Even if you reduced it to a 70 and a fella shoots a 61 – it’s still a 61 either way, so I don’t see what the gain is. Rory Mclroy shot a 63 on the first day of the Open Championship; is that any less fantastic if the par was 71 and not 72? Remember too, that if No 7 was not a par five, then the only par five on the course would be the 16th.”

On the question of the 6th, Keating thinks that subtle changes around the green make it fairer for the players and just as interesting for the spectators: “They will be off the back tees all four days this time – in 1992, there was water all around, now there’s no water on the left side, so there’s a bail out, but it still leaves a difficult chip.” And when the big tent literally comes down, what’s the legacy Killarney’s aiming to retain? “Short term, obviously you are looking for people to come here and enjoy the facilities and the great rates. We have an offer of €150 to play the three courses which is exceptional value. I read a stat recently where the holes of golf in Munster went up 70% in a 10-year period, so you underline just how competitive we need to be.”

And beyond that? “It’s mainly about the coaching for me, especially with the junior golf section, there’s a massive effort being put into that.

“We’ve set up a new programme here which gives kids the opportunity to improve in a structured environment. I think in a lot of clubs, juniors have been left behind, especially in a place like this when green fees is the core business. There has been a vacuum there between the age of 18 and 30, and we’re introducing a range of memberships that are all about encouraging the junior golfers. The key when you get them playing is not to lose them.”


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