Powerscourt Golf Club manager Bernard Gibbons is growing accustomed to dress suits, victory speeches and gala events.
Earlier this year, he and his team celebrated the title of ‘Best Parkland Venue in Ireland’ bestowed on them by the Golfer’s Guide to Ireland.
Last month, he was named ‘Golf Manager of the Year’ at the annual Ireland Golf Tour Operator Association (IGTOA) awards ceremony in Knockranny House, Westport.
And then on Friday night, Gibbons was in Italy as Powerscourt (as one of six members of the Dublin East Coast Golf Alliance) was named ‘European Golf Destination of the Year’ in the annual golf industry ‘Oscars’, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) Awards.
It is testament to the hard work of Gibbons and his staff that a golf club, less than 20 years in existence, is accumulating such accolades at home and abroad.
Set amidst the stunning scenery of the Powerscourt Estate, the East and West courses have blossomed under Gibbons’ management and he feels all these titles are just reward for the long hours and quest for perfection.
“My association with Powerscourt goes back 17 years,” he explained. “It is wonderful club, one of the best in Ireland in my humble opinion, with a healthy bank balance, a strong membership and one that is run to a very high standard. From the time I started my golfing career, I always wanted to be at the top, whether it was playing, teaching, or administration. This award (Golf Manager of the Year) has achieved that for me.”
And making sure that high standard is maintained each and every day is top of Gibbons’ to-do list.
“On an average day, I am up by 7am and at the club between 8am and 9am. The first thing I do is to have a look to see how the courses are, especially after a night of heavy rain and wind, and make sure all is in place for the day’s business. And it goes from there. No two days are the same.
“On other days we would be getting ready for corporate and society events, there is a lot of preparation work required for those even before a golf ball is struck. We would have course meetings each Wednesday when we sit down with one of the directors, and the course staff, to go through any issues that have arisen over the previous week and then look to the week ahead. That same approach would apply to all the other departments.
“We have 36 staff across the board on the golf side of things. So it is a huge logistical undertaking to make sure everything runs like clockwork.”
Golf has shaped Gibbons’ life since he became an apprentice to the legendary John Jacobs at the driving range at Leopardstown Racecourse. He was just 15. In the intervening 50 years, he has played the game professionally, commentated on the sport for RTÉ and was chair of the Golf Course Owners Association. He and Powerscourt have grown in tandem since the golf club opened in 1997. Those were very different days economically.
“When I went to Powerscourt, we were selling share membership in the golf club at £10,000. A few years later, that topped out at €50,000.
“(In the good times) we developed and extended the club house, and built the second golf course.
“All of that was a wonderful learning experience, watching a golf course grow and develop from the ground up, and all that it entails was a very interesting stage of my life.”
The highlights were many in those early days.
“I got the Smurfit Irish PGA Championship here in 1998. I was so proud to see my fellow pros playing — that event was won by Pádraig Harrington.
“We secured the 2001 Irish Seniors Open and had the likes of Bernard Gallacher and all those legends of the 70s here, and that’s another standout.”
But the good times couldn’t stay good forever. Ireland stumbled headlong into the downturn, an era which has made an indelible mark on Irish golf, according to Gibbons.
“The biggest upset from the downturn was the actions of some golf clubs who crucified the product by underselling,” says Gibbons. “That did untold damage to the game in Ireland. Some have learned the lessons from the recession and some haven’t.
“Being honest, we have too many golf courses in Ireland, and it doesn’t look like that is going to change.
“There are some who are still damaging the product because they are selling so cheaply. I believe that a game of golf is more valuable than €15 or €20.
“We still offered extremely good rates during the summer. For example, €55 I think is exceptional value for what you are getting at a beautiful place like Powerscourt.”
Yet despite the trials, tribulations and adversity, Powerscourt is thriving. Literally bigger and better than those early days when Gibbons first walked through the doors.
The development of the new course in 2003 and then the construction of the 200 room luxury five star Powerscourt Hotel was a massive shot in the arm for the golf business.
“It was difficult in the past to attract tourists because we didn’t have any place for them to stay. But since the construction of the hotel, there has been a big increase in foreign golfers coming to stay and play.
“Europe is the primary market for us (in terms of non-Irish clients). A lot of the links courses would go for the North American market, whereas in our case as a parkland it seems to garner more European interest.”
The ambition is for Powerscourt to keep growing, developing and winning more awards. Gibbons though will be watching from a remove next year.
“I’m 65 next year so that will be it for me. Will I miss it? What do you think? But I’d hope to stay involved in golf in a consultancy capacity.”
One of the biggest positives of retirement for Gibbons will mean more opportunities for the one thing that a golf manager struggles to find time for — playing the game.
“I’m always trying to play one of the two courses every week, as much for the golf itself as to see how things are. I’m a member of Woodbrook and I play there on a regular basis with my two sons, who are decent.”
“My handicap?” he laughs, “I was off scratch but now it is gone to 13, but it is a good 13!”
Bernard Gibbons’s tips for running a successful golf course
Your most important customer. Adopt an ‘open door’ policy and be ready when they are.
Constant communication, regular meetings, awareness of what’s going on daily is key.
3. The course
Making sure your product (the golf course) is always in top class condition, set up and presented for all categories of golfers.
Across your entire operation from the car park to the toilets, everything must be clean at all times.
5. Marketing and promoting
Your business will not survive without it. You must go to the customer keeping in constant contact with tour operators, companies, societies, media and clients
The East Course
Designed by Walker Cup Captain, Peter McEvoy, the East course opened in 1996. Just two years later, it hosted the Smurfit Irish PGA championship and in 2001 was the venue for the AIB European Senior Tour. A parkland and moorland course with links characteristics, measuring 6,412 metres from the championship tees, the East Course follows the contours of this mature and historic landscape. McEvoy has designed a testing and rewarding challenge for all levels of golfers.
The West Course
This Parkland course with links characteristics, plays 6,345 metres from the championship tees. Opened in 2003 and designed by David McLay Kidd, whose portfolio includes the acclaimed Bandon Dunes in Oregon, the West Course offers a variety of challenging holes presenting a fresh perspective on the stunning scenery of the Powerscourt Estate.
Following the announcement that Ireland will remain in full Level 5 restrictions golf is prohibited until 5th April 2021.
For now we are advised to stay home and stay safe to ensure that we continue to flatten the curve. We look forward to welcoming you all back to Powerscourt Golf Club in the not distant future. ‘STAY THE COURSE SO WE CAN GET BACK OUT ON THE COURSE’
Gavin Hunt Golf Manager