By Harry Keaney
An arctic wind whipped across the rolling hills of Dutchess County last Wednesday. Golfers, like Tipperaryman Phil O’Meara, take notice of wind, particularly around Union Vale, where a group of Irish and Irish Americans are developing their own 18-hole course atop an undulating 200-acre site.
"There’ll always be a breeze here, even in the middle of summer," said O’Meara, standing at the site of a new clubhouse and surveying the panoramic view that stretches all the way to the distant Catskills.
While efforts in the past by Irish groups to obtain "a place of their own" has often been embroiled in controversy, members of the Irish Golf Association, of which O’Meara is president, have quietly and steadily been turning their dream into reality.
The new course is off the Taconic Parkway, about an hour’s drive north of Yonkers Raceway.
The first nine holes are scheduled to open May 5; all 18 are expected to open June 15. A grand-opening ceremony, graced perhaps by a big-name star, will take place later.
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Meanwhile, the 18,000-square-foot two-story clubhouse is under construction; it will comprise a reception area, restaurant, bar, a private members’ bar, catering hall, pro shop and storage space.
Last week, course superintendent Chris Strehl was charging up a $600,000 computerized, state-of-the-art irrigation system. Strehl was previously assistant superintendent at Tuxedo Country Club in Tuxedo, N.Y. Others present — among them Westmeath’s John Dunleavy, grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Galway’s Brendan Hynes, a retired state highway supervisor — were eyeing the placement of a boundary fence near the course’s main entrance from North Parliman Road. In all, among the dozen or so workers, from building contractor Pat Costigan to treasurer and businessman Tony Brady, there was a discernible pride in their creation.
"The first thing you think of is pride in the accomplishment of having a place of our own to play golf," said Armaghman Connie Malone, a member of the Emerald Golf Club. "I am proud of how this was built, how those involved created a benevolent atmosphere with the local people. This is a tremendous achievement for all the guys who took a chance on this and put their money on the line. We are just a bunch of guys who want a place to play golf and we hope everybody will come and play. We wanted a challenging golf course. Now we have a course with a challenge comparable to any links course in Ireland."
Born of passion
The idea for this golf course was born of an Irish-American passion for golf. In the New York area alone, there are about 18 Irish golf clubs. For many players, however, the increasingly popularity of the sport has made it more difficult to find a suitable place to play. Most private clubs now have high initiation charges and annual fees. Playing on most public courses may mean having to accept unsuitable tee-off times and then, perhaps, an infuriatingly long wait.
"We were always hearing we should have our own golf course," Martin Dunne said. "The need became more acute. A lot of guys are very nervous that you can no longer play as a group in some courses."
According to Hynes, in an interview with the Echo in 1998, the real impetus for the idea came from the clubs. "They get pushed around," he said. "I have belonged to Woodlawn Golf Club for 25 years and we have played on six courses."
Against this background, some Irish golfers in the New York area began looking for a place of their own. In the summer of 1996, they formed a non-profit corporation called the Irish Golf Association.
In the fall of 1997, they came across a 200-acre grazing farm for sale at Union Vale and signed a contract to purchase, subject to obtaining the necessary approvals to build a golf course.
Many members of the association believe the next two steps they took were crucial to their success. They met and established a good working rapport with local officials.
"The town told us up front what was needed," O’Meara said. "I think they were very thorough and very honest."
In addition, the IGA members turned over the mammoth task of preparing the necessary reports and documents for their permit application to one professional organization, the LA Group, which has specific expertise in this area. The LA Group is based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The permit application included preparation of engineering surveys, traffic tests, a storm management plan, obtaining an earth-moving permit, and an array of reports covering such areas as arch’ology, wildlife and wetland.
"You have to protect the wetlands, you can not touch them," Dunne said.
As part of the arch’ological investigation of the site, about 10 acres had to be plowed to check for unearthed artifacts or evidence of native American settlements.
Public hearings were also held.
Meanwhile, the association had engaged Bronxville golf course architect Stephen Kay to design the course. A few years ago, Kay designed the Links of North Dakota on a similar site outside of the town of Williston, N.D. Golf Magazine, in its August 1997 issue, described that course as "one of the purest expressions of links-style golf ever conceived outside of Scotland."
"When the maps were done and the architect had the plans, we met with the state environmental officials," O’Meara recalled. "They objected to the planned development of two of the holes. We could have fought that but we rerouted the course."
"The environmental people also walked the course hole by hole and they basically accepted it," O’Meara said. "That was a big thing out of the way because they were accepting our layout."
In May 1998, the association obtained a permit to develop a golf course. The entire cost of obtaining the permit came to about a quarter million dollars. Of that, the LA Group’s bill was between $160,000 to $170,000.
The IGA closed on the sale the same month. The price, $600,000, or $3,000 an acre.
Clark Companies, of Delhi, N.Y., won the contract to build the 6,839-yard course for more than $2 million, a job it has carried out in two phases. The first nine holes were built in 1998, the second nine were built last year. The clubhouse will be completed this year.
Although virtually all links courses are near the coast, the inland course at Union Vale will have many links features. There are few trees, about 100 sand traps, and a few ponds and brooks. The wind will be a constant factor.
Course architect Stephen Kay said that he was designing the course for a group of Irish Americans, many of whom were from Ireland, and "the property seemed to fit" an Irish- or Scottish-type of golf course. While pointing out that there are differences between Scottish and Irish courses, he said that in general they were the same in that they were links or heathland courses.
"Because there are no trees, you tend to get a windier golf course," Kay said. "Because of this, you need to play the course differently each day."
Kay said the fairways were also wider than average and this results in "more strategy in the game."
Kay said the new course in Union Vale will be "more playable to the average golfer and will develop more strategy for the really good golfer."
According to IGA members and the course superintendent, Chris Strehl, the two most challenging holes are likely to be the 14th and the 16th.
"The 14th is a 605 yards par 5 into prevailing wind, with a second shot about 190 to carry over a wetland pond," he said. "It has a dog-leg left over a pond," said Tom O’Farrell, a retired PaineWebber executive who’s on the IGA’s finance committee.
The 16th, Strehl pointed out, has three fairway traps, with "the second shot going to a well-bunkered green that slopes off to the left."
For many golfers, an important aspect of a course is the type of grass used. The course at Union Vale will have creeping bentgrass on the greens, creeping bentgrass and perennial ryegrass on the tees and fairways and perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue in the roughs.
According to some of those involved with the course, every hole has a distinctive feature, with some based on designs from well-known golf courses in Ireland.
Beneath the course lies an extensive computer-controlled irrigation system. Local weather forecast for the course will also be available, this helping golfers to plan their day in advance.
"This will be a first-class course with a T-box to suit everybody’s style and handicap," Dunne said. "I can go up there, having booked in advance, and know I can play."
For some time now, that, precisely, is what New York’s Irish-American golfers have been asking for.