FLOGAS IRISH AMATEUR OPEN

Meet Pat Ruddy: An Irish golfing legend who is thrilled to see the Irish Amateur come to his house

by Ronan MacNamara

“Piddle piddle down the middle.” A simple phrase that simplifies the game of golf, yet we do our utmost to make it as complicated as possible. Anyone who arrives on the first tee at the European Club in Co. Wicklow will be given this seemingly helpful piece of advice by designer Pat Ruddy.

Ruddy’s baby is the European Club, a place he is fortunate enough to call his own, to call his home, literally as he lives above the clubhouse.

Championship golf is, of course, a big part of Ruddy's life. In three successive weeks in October three national championships are scheduled for Ruddy designed links,  the Men's Amateur Open at The European Club, the Irish Men's Senior Open at Donegal Murvagh and the Irish Intervarsities Championship at Portsalon. This hat-trick of big events brings to thirty-eight the number of championships played on Ruddy designs.

While his excitement ahead of the Men’s Amateur Open was evident, the occasion will be tinged with sadness as the event will have come too late for those who were closest to Ruddy.

“We’ve had a number of championships here," he said. "Two Ladies Close championships, three PGAs so that’s always good and we are looking forward to this one with the international flavour.

“I am very pleased that such a thing could happen in my field and anxious that the players will enjoy it and a regret that the dead guys aren’t here. My father, the grandfathers, all the friends because they would be in bits to think that such an event could come to our house. For it to come to our house is such an honour and if the players tear it apart, criticise it, let it happen.

“It’s an amazing turn of events for it to come to your house.

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“It never occurred to me during the 50s 60s and 70s that this could happen but the sadness is that I would love to have some of the old guys here to see it they would have been in bits,” he added.

Ruddy has been widely known in the golf architecture world as a quirky designer who loves to make challenging golf courses, that resemble a game of chess. In preparation for the tournament this week the former scratch golfer has added run off areas around a number of greens while the rough is going to be thick and lush to gobble up any wayward drives. However, with a glint in his eye Ruddy said the fairways are wide enough for everyone so there should be no complaints if you can piddle piddle down the middle.

“To win any championship you need everything, but particularly the man who makes the putts wins. If McIlroy makes the putts on Tour he wins, if he’s hitting them on the lip he will be eight or ten shots worse than the leader. It all comes down to getting the ball in the hole.

“Most of these young players are full of adventure and I will enjoy watching them. There will inevitably be some casualties, some roadkill but that’s the nature of it.

“One of the ones I am enjoying most is opening up run-offs on some of the greens, holes 3, 8, 10 and 11 in particular, just to give a little more variety. We have a new tee on the 9th making it 35 yards longer. Bits of pieces besides that and we are very happy with where the course is now.

“The rough may be long in places but it has been widened substantially, we had a year of nothing but greenkeeping so we hand cut the lush grasses and let them grow back so it wouldn’t look brown and scarred. So we have opened up the fairways well, our narrowest piece of fairway is 1,800 balls wide so you should be able to fit your ball in amongst that number if you want to win a championship.”

Bryson and the Russian Doll

Ruddy is playing golf in a ninth decade on Earth – which was his answer to how old he was – in that time golf has changed exponentially, particularly over the last 20 years with driving distances going through the roof.

The challenge for the golf course designer is making sure every course is playable for the elite player and the high handicapper. Ruddy admits he is constantly watching and observing what is happening in modern golf so he can come up with strategies to make his course stand the test of time, for everyone.

It seems unthinkable that someone who views the game of golf so methodically could be a fan of Bryson DeChambeau but for those that know Ruddy this won’t come as a surprise.

“In this place we are in perpetual motion towards enhancing the place against the backdrop of what is a top class today and the whole spectrum we view it like a Russian doll so it’s really complex mathematics to make sure the course works off the championship tees, the middle tees and the shorter tees so we are constantly tugging at the puzzles and watching what is happening in golf internationally, you know what is golf? DeChambeau is new, so what do you do to allow him to play if he comes, then Joe Bloggs from down the road who is getting old how do you get him around? So, we are constantly pulling at both ends of the string.

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Richard Hills and Pat Ruddy

“I think DeChambeau is one element of the game. Golf is a very complex tune, I think he is great. It’s a problem for the game if he can drive every green but he doesn’t. When I went to the Masters I went down to see John Daly on the 8th just to hear the whoosh of the ball, my wife would be down on the fairway to see where it landed and I was on the tee breathing in the oxygen so DeChambeau is wonderful. He sold me emotionally when he went over the lake at Bay Hill and turned around with a villainous look in his face and laughing and he enjoyed doing it so that’s good to have that instead of all cautious poke, poke.”

Oh shit!

Ruddy loves a bit of devilment in his course design, as well as the knee-high fescue rough the fairway bunkers are hazardous with sleepers and lush rough making them punishing for any miss off the tee.

Ruddy’s most famous feature on the European is the water hazard on the 18th. The small burn is twenty yards short of the green and it guards against any bump and run approach shot into the green. Already a long hole the burn forces you to carry the hazard if you can but the fairway also slopes towards the creek which makes a layup from the rough or fairway bunker a challenge.

Creeks and burns have become part of Open Championship folklore with the infamous pictures of Jean Van De Velde and even our own Pádraig Harrington’s struggles with the Barry Burn at Carnoustie in 2007, so it comes as a mystery to the Mayo man as to why his hazard is scoffed at by those who have inevitably fallen victim to it.

“You tend to have critics. It was Alastair McKenzie and Donald Ross who said ‘critics are ignorant men’ and your skill as a designer goes down to the standard of the player if they can’t manage it, a rally cyclist would criticise the bicycle if he fell off it.

“The 18th is a water hazard in a distant way that is modelled on the Barry Burn at Carnoustie and nobody complains about that! Our friend Jean Van De Velde had his socks off in it and nobody thought anything was wrong with that. People say there should be no water on links but you go to St Andrews and the Swilken Burn is on the very first hole and I am quite happy that ours is a bit evil we used to call the hole ‘oh shit’ because it’s the last thing people want to see when they’re coming up 18 tired.

“The ground is tilted towards it just to encourage a bit of depredation. I love it,” he grinned.

How Ruddy got the eye for a golfing chessboard

Golf course design was not Ruddy’s first love, he started out as a writer in 1963 where he was a freelance journalist in Dublin before landing a job with the Evening Herald as a golf writer where he produced five pages, five nights a week for several years. Ruddy also sold stories to magazines in as many as 19 countries in the world, including South Africa.

Ruddy’s first foray into golf course design was in 1968 when he was drafted in to help Castlecomer Golf Club, but he always longed for a golf course of his own and so he ventured towards Brittas Bay and came up with the European Club.

“I wanted a golf course of my own from 1958. I read about Jackie Burke and Jimmy Demaret, two great golfers setting up a club of their own in Houston Texas. They called it the Champions.

“I got here, and I called it the European and it’s sort of romantic. When I was in America, I would say I’m from Ireland and they would ask is that near Paris or London so they didn’t know where we were.

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Pat Ruddy and Mark Kennelly

“So, lots of Americans don’t know where Europe is so I decided to refine the search for them and I called it the European Club, there’s no point going to Fiji to look for this course!

“Some still don’t know where Ireland is but that was back in the 80s when fewer than 10% of Americans left the country, they might have been afraid of the Leprechauns taking them away.

“I enjoy building good strong international quality courses. I love any golf course, we used to play in mucky fields in the 50s where there was a local rule to flatten the grass down on the greens with your foot to make the line and I loved that too.

“As a designer I like going big with beauty in between. My philosophy on golf, there’s so many moves on a chess board to even make the third move there are nine million options to go wrong. I like building that sort of lottery effect with golf shots. The thing is you have to make your shots or you will lose the ball. The essence of the game is from A to B but not via Y and Z. I try to make it interesting, batting a ball down a wide field isn’t a game of skill.

“When I was 14 I learned about white spaces books which are great for drawing golf holes on. I would be plotting my way when I was maybe 18 or 19 handicap trying to get around the bunkers at Rosses Point so I didn’t start hitting 250-yard drives so you don’t forget where you came from. It’s like discovering your first slice of apple tart you never forget,” he added.

The stigma around tee boxes

A former scratch golfer, Ruddy played in numerous elite amateur events across the country. As his body inevitably slows down, he has no problem teeing his ball up on the forward tee boxes, something which he feels more amateur golfers should not be ashamed to do, citing that many amateurs play their golf from the incorrect tees in terms of their ability.

"I thought I was very popular when my handicap was low.  People kept inviting me to play.    But I was only  sucker as they made money out of me.   When I got back upo to 5 the phone didn't ring so much and I had to start ringing people to come play with me!"

“I have been a very bad golfer an awful lot too, I know how to make bad scores. I get older now and I see my friends giving up the game and that begs the question to how we can get around as we start to slow down. But you can get around if you go to the correct tees for your game. If you go to the correct starting point anyone can play and get to the fairway.

The European Club 4th Hole

“Most amateurs don’t play off the right tees, peer pressure is huge to go back a step too far and then the concentration level, have they done an analysis of the golf course and themselves before playing. But as a designer from observation, I see lots of people playing golf in different ways.

“One time I went to play in the South of Ireland in 72, my game went off I started hitting drives sideways so I was in my hotel room that night reading Chi Chi Rodriguez ‘How to hit em straight’ and he had this story about hitting into the left wall and then you can’t go offline. The next day I hit every fairway, I have always been amused by the challenge of golf,” he added.

Pat just wants to have fun

Ruddy loves to have fun at golf and while he was never at the level to win the elite championships, he earned a reputation as a lucky man for bringing home eventual winners!

“You have to have a sense of humour in life,” he said. “I was called in as a reserve for the Irish Seniors in Belmullet and I was last in so going through my hometown of Ballina I blew the engine in my car which was costly, but I got there eventually to find the last man is out with Gareth McGimpsey the number one man!

“I looked at Garth and judged that his eyes  were so high, that  when he bends over to address the ball his scope of vision would be going  so far out and I had better keep my toes outside that line. So I kept my toes quiet and out of sight for 18 holes and I managed to hit a good drive off 1 and 10 when there were people watching and I did well on 9 and 18 because your pride comes up but he shot a course record and then at the end he said ‘Pat I’ll see you again’ and I said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and he asked would I be here tomorrow and I told him we were together again. He went pale. But I brought him home a winner!

“The following week I was down in Enniscorthy in the Leinster Seniors, and I brought Frank Gannon home a winner so they were queuing up to play with me then.

“I had a particularly bad day at Kirkistown Castle in the Ulster Seniors I was gone to bits and I got to the 9th par-5, lashing rain and I was doing badly, I was going to give up but I held out for a three so now I had to keep going.

“I came in and got dried out and Kevin Stevens the Ulster Secretary was there with a big leaderboard and clearly was ‘P Ruddy 99’ so I got them to drop it down to a 66 and a few fellas were bemused that I did a 66 but it was good to see the Ulster branch were up for a bit of fun too,” he laughed.

Ruddy is an eccentric, during the big snow in 2010 he declared the European Club as the only golf course open for business when he virtually sold out McGuirks of its yellow and pink golf balls and took gargantuan sized diggers to clear the fairways and the landing areas only for his relentless work to be undone by another layer of snow the following night.

Looking forward to “Doomsday”

At the end of the day, he is also a very simple man who just loves golf and loves his golf course. The Ruddy family are all part of the furniture at the European but the golf course is his baby and he is enamoured by the variety of golf shots links golf offers. Having and owning a golf course of his own is certainly a privilege and its’ safe to say that if golf ceased to exist for whatever reason, Ruddy would be quite happy tipping the ball around his field on his own.

“I just like the golf and I like the golfers, it could have been fishing or something but for me it’s the golf.

“The Americans always tell me it’s so lovely down at 12 and I tell them it’s not a man-made water hazard out there, that one goes the whole way to Australia and back. I like looking at the water that has maybe been in Australia or wherever and you can do that at a links golf course.

“The fashion now is to hit the ball high which is great but it comes down vertically and goes nowhere whereas a links man has a lower arc to his shot and it runs forever. On 13 of the holes here you can play a running shot from 100 yards out if you like so you can play the old links style because the front of the greens aren’t blocked off.

“Shot making is great. I like the darts game and I like the shot making game but I want to have choices, the links gives you choices and it’s very helpful for me trying to get back from five hip replacements.

Panorama tee 3, European Club

“My first mission was to reach the fairways and any hole where I wasn’t making the fairway I cut it back towards the tee which is a great privilege! Now I can get a running wood towards the green and if I get within range in two at my age I can try and do the business, but you can’t do that coming over lakes on the modern courses. Links gives me a great lifeline if I can play the ground game to my advantage and run a ball down to the big boys.

“The ground game is a very satisfactory game and it’s great to learn how to play it, have both shots in the bag both in the air and on the ground. I did have to give up on hitting a 150-yard wedge though!

“I enjoy making the course fun but then I’ll make sure the links can test your game. Some people used to give out about the course being too difficult in the early years.  Then Johnny Miller came a few times to talk design when he was getting into the profession and he said The European Club  would be a  great place to host the Open Championship if we grew the rough in towards the fairways more. It’s  all how the beholder sees it.
 
“I always wanted a golf course of my own and last year (during Covid 2020) I had it to myself . It was lonely. I got the thought that I would be okay even if golf failed as a sport and business because I have my own place and it is paid for. If golf got into  the pits, I could keep one greenkeeper  to  cut the grass and just have a golf course of my own running for almost a mile along the sea. If that’s doomsday  that’s a pretty lovely doomsday,” he smiled.
 

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