PGA Professional at Royal Curragh since 1996, Gerry Burke had no background in golf, in fact he got his love of the game initially from playing Pitch & Putt in the well known Embankment Cabaret Complex in Tallaght, which had a small Pitch & Putt course attached to it.
Gerry lived nearby in Saggart and he, along with his brothers Joe and Anthony (Stoney) played pitch and putt on a regular basis there at that time.
“We used to play pitch and putt, go up and get a bag of chips and then listen to acts such as Christy Moore, the Dubliners and Jim McCann rehearse, totally oblivious we were listening to some of the greatest performers this country has ever produced.”
Owned by the well known Listowel native and raconteur Mick McCarthy, Gerry says “one year there was a potato shortage and some genius decided to dig up the course and grow spuds, which ended the pitch and putt, and to make it even worse, the crop of spuds was never even harvested.”
The Burke family moved to Ardclough in 1984, Gerry's dad, Arty, was a born and bred Ardclough man and in fact was a prominent member of the famous Ardclough team that won the Kildare Senior Football Championship of 1949, defeating the star-studded army team of the time.
Arty would was never shy in reminding anyone and everyone, that was willing to listen, about the exploits of that team and Ardclough teams in general of that era.
It was around then that Bodenstown Golf Club opened, and like many young lads of that time, the Burke boys all joined, as Gerry says “it was not easy to get into golf clubs at that time, there was still a lot of snobbery and bull shit involved.”
A few years later Gerry joined Bodenstown, and pro Tommy Halpin, who left Naas, then a 9 hole course, to take up the professional job at Bodenstown, an 18 hole course, and served his time to become a professional.
Around 1987 both Tommy and Gerry left Bodenstown to take up residence at Castlewarden Golf Club, just up the road from Ardclough, a group of lads had got together and bought a farm owned by well-known Ardclough and Kildare hurler, Colm O'Malley.
What was unusual about that is there was no course at Castlewarden, just a big farm, Tommy Halpin given the job of designing an 18 hole course, which he did, and did very well at that.
When that project was up and running Gerry Burke decided while everything at Castlewarden was going well, getting in members and progressing, there was simply not enough cash around to justify two pros so one day when talking to Aidan Walsh, then a prominent member of Cill Dara GC, he was asked to go along to a meeting with him (Aidan Walsh) and Paddy Prendergast (Long Paddy) with a view to becoming the pro there.
“I met Aidan and Paddy and eventually was asked what would it cost, and when I gave them a figure, I can still remember Paddy Prendergast looking at me and saying ‘the perishers here won't pay that’ but eventually he said ‘we’ll see what they’ll pay you, and we will make up the remainder with an annual golf classic’.”
In fairness said Gerry, they were as good as their word, “in fact paid me even more.”
After a few years Gerry had ambitions of going on the Professional Tour; went to the Tour School on five occasions, the last time being 1988 when he qualified for the final round where 20 or so would get their card, the remainder would go on to the Challenge Tour.
“At that time there were two school tours, one in England and one in Spain, I won the one held in England (having come home from my honeymoon) and went on to the final in Spain, and although I did not make the final 20, I then progressed to the Challenge Tour where I played for three years.”
Of course Gerry could not hold down the job at Cill Dara and still tour, even though he would play just six or seven tour events, the rest of the time would be take up playing the Pro-Am circuit.
“In the meantime I approached Gus Fitzpatrick who had opened his Driving Range in Kerdiffstown, beside Naas Golf Club, and Gus agreed I could conduct lessons from his place while at the same time carry on playing professionally.”
After three years or so the time came to look around again and the Curragh (soon to become The Royal Curragh) were looking for a new pro, the legendary Phil Lawlor was retiring, after 56 years, and so I applied.
“To be honest I did not think I had much chance, the word at the time was another golfer, with ties to the club, was in prime position but I said I would go through the process regardless.”
So how did that go?
“Well to be honest, I can still remember the day I went in for the interview.
“There sitting in the office were three gents, two in full military uniform (Johnny Vize and Dave Barry) along with David O'Hora.
“The first thing I said when I walked in and saw the uniforms was ‘did I miss the call-up for the war’.
“In fairness they took the joke well, Johnny Vize certainly did as he nearly fell off the chair laughing.”
Anyway to cut a long story short, Gerry got a call two days later enquiring when would he be available to start.
“And I'm there ever since.”
Has there been much change since you started in the Curragh?
“It is actually very similar now to what it was back when I started out in ’84; we were in the depths of a recession; golf was very much a luxury, people who had a few quid played it and those who did not simply did not play; but just like now, courses fell by the wayside, so in many respects we are nearly back now to what it was like when I first started in Bodenstown.
“Remember the golfing population has nearly shrunk to what it was back then also, that’s what a lot of people have forgotten.
“Golf became very popular in the ’90s and noughties, because it was affordable and people had a few quid in their pocket and they had time to play it, but really the big problem, as I see it anyway, is there are basically too many golf courses for our golfing population.”
You must remember, said Gerry, “that when I started with Tommy Halpin we had at the time when I would call ‘Stadium Courses’ we had more or less just two, the K Club and Mount Juliet and that was where Irish golfers looking for that special day out went; then we got to the stage when there was ‘Stadium Course’ on every ten miles of the road (in this area anyway).
“The Heritage, Rathsallagh, Tulfarris, City West, Palmerstown, all 5 Star, and then the ordinary club look-
ed at those and said ‘if we don't have flat screen TV in the locker room and don’t have bundles of fluffy towels in the shower rooms we are not at the races,’ so they started to borrow money to keep up, as they saw it, and if someone was offering green fee for just 25 quid it was looked upon as a kip, these lads, as we know now, were all living on a credit card to pay for it; that’s where we got to and in fairness we are not out of that mentality yet in some quarters.”
One of the longest serving club golf pros in the country at this stage, Gerry was given a huge honour back in 2009 when be became Captain of the PGA, “which was a nice honour to receive, both personally and indeed for the Royal Curragh; a lovely gesture from my peers and fellow pros.”
Gerry has little or no doubt that golf, like most businesses, will bounce back in time but not before we lose more courses, unfortunately.
“The ordinary member does not want to spend any more money on membership but unless he does he can't expect 5 Star treatment; every society is shopping around for the best deal they can get, naturally, as they are only playing half a dozen outings a year, at the most, and in a lot of cases it is now a race to the bottom for green fees.”
It is hard work, extremely hard work these days running a golf club and there are a lot of really good folk giving a lot of their time to keep clubs afloat, looking at ways and means of brining in more money year in and year out, and while the present coronavirus may hasten the closer of some courses, in other ways it may help out others.
“There are lots of people out there, lads and girls, whose particular sport has ceased, a good few have taken up membership at various clubs, due to good offers to join, and while these may not remain members come next year when, hopefully, all other sport is back fully up and running, they have now tasted golf, have really enjoyed it and in time will, hopefully, come back and join again.”
Is the time it takes to play golf a problem, four, five hours?
Gerry explains the situation in his own inimitable way.
“In my mother’s day, the da would work all week and Sunday would be his day, let that be for golf, football or whatever, he basically had a free leg on a Sunday, but these days more times than the not the lady of the house is also working all week herself, young kids at home and daddy wants to go off golfing for five hours — that's just not on any more; that’s why one of the most popular times on a Sunday morning is first thing, practically from sunrise.”
Of course the GUI, along with a lot of clubs, have been looked at reduced competitions, reduced in the fact that instead of 18 hole competitions, maybe 9 or 12 holes, with a re-entry but the problem that arises then is that members will say, hold on “I'm only playing half a round, so my sub should be reduced by half.”
There are no quick fixes, no quick answers but golf will survive, it may change, in what way, hard to say, but it will survive but only if the course can sustain it, only if the course can pay for itself, if it can’t, it simply can’t stay open.
While Gerry has seen the lessons side of the business ‘slow,’ to a certain degree, mainly due to the fact that “young golfers these days want to use all the modern day gadgets such as TrackMan, video analysis, and the like, which is grand (Gavin Lunny built up a very successful set-up in Naas with that) but the age group I deal with don't want a six day course that includes nutrition, fitness, and the like, so I mostly rely on folk I have been dealing with down the years, who have a bit of a problem, come to me and I sort them out, no problem.
“These are my bread-and butter, along with the loyal golfers of the in-house societies such as The Tuesdays, The Army, The Wags, The Bunnies & Tigers, and, of course, the Gents and Ladies Clubs, they have all remained very loyal to me and keep the shop going.”
The shop, open seven days a week, that Gerry runs with his assistant, Lee Birrell, carries an extensive range of all-things golf and while it is tough competing with the High Street nevertheless Gerry insists he will survive, the golf will survive, the shop will survive, and while walk-ins are always welcome, it is the loyal club members that will ensure he gets a living out of it, a decreased living, he adds, but “sure everything and every business has taken a hit but we will come through.”
So what of the future for golf and for Gerry Burke in particular?
“It will be steady, we will get to the stage when everything will bottom out but unfortunately we will definitely get to a stage when we see more clubs closing, that's a given, the numbers are not there; a lot has to do with location, the Curragh is on the edge of Newbridge; as is Newbridge Golf Club, who will survive also, but with a lot of hard work, but when you see a place like Carlow who are only going to open the bar for four days and the restaurant for three days, it's going back to what it was in 1984.
“When we joined Bodenstown there was no bar mid-week; no catering; the Captains’ Dinner was held in Ósta John Devoy; who knows it could go back to that, you never know, just look around at all those palacious club houses out there, but there is nobody in them.
“Long term this covet thing has seen young lads and girls coming in and hopefully we can hold on to them; they got a taste for golf and when they are finished playing other sports hopefully will come back to golf.”
A lot has changed in the world of golf since Gerry Burke began playing Pitch & Putt on that now potato patch at the Embankment.
A lot has changed since he first joined Tommy Halpin to begin his apprenticeship at Bodenstown.
But has it really?
When one looks back to then, and then looks to today, maybe the change has not been as profound as 0ne might imagine at first glance.
That old saying of what comes around goes around springs to mind.