Play more golf, I suppose
After three decades as Cork’s longest-serving general manager, Matt Sands tells Kevin Markham he’s calling time on a distinguished career
Cork Golf Club is famous for many things, with its limestone quarry leading the way. It created a remarkable setting for golf holes that were first played over while the quarry was still in operation. This was back in the late 1890s. Later, Harry Vardon (1911) extended the club to 18 holes, before Dr Alister MacKenzie (1925) rerouted the course, added three new holes, created new greens and added sand-filled bunkers — quite the novelty back then. And all the while the quarry remained at the heart of the course.
Changes have continued over the decades, most notably by Martin Hawtree in 2013, as well as a massive clearance plan to expose the famed quarry rock which had become overgrown in recent times.
The changes and progress over the past 30 years have been achieved under the watchful eye and guiding hand of one man — Matt Sands, the club’s general manager.
Now, after 32 years of service, Matt is to retire at the age of 68 on August 31. The Irish Examiner caught up with Matt to discuss his years at the club.
Irish Examiner (IE): What date did you arrive at Cork Golf Club?
Matt Sands (MS): May 31, 1988, during the club’s centenary year.
IE: Tell us about your road to Cork?
MS: I was involved for many years in Donabate Golf Club, in Dublin, and I was captain there in 1987. Golf club management was something I had wanted to get into, so when I saw the ad for the position of manager at Cork Golf Club, I applied. And, 32 years later, here I am.
IE: What was your background before that?
MS: I was in the family joinery business.
IE: Back then that must have been a huge move, from Dublin to Cork.
MS: It was, yes, but I was happy to do it. I wasn’t married at the time but my wife-to-be got a transfer to Cork, and we got married a couple of months after I moved down. We have three children — Matt, Cathy and Hannah — and they are all Corkonians.
IE: How easy or difficult did you find the role when you first moved down?
MS: I never found it difficult. I suppose having being involved in Donabate Golf Club over the years, I knew what I was letting myself in for — and I loved the job from day one.
Like any job you have good days and bad days, but you’re dealing with people in their leisure time and, by and large, they’re in good humour. They are here to enjoy themselves and I always thought that was my goal — to provide good customer service to members and visitors alike. I found that easy.
IE: How has your role evolved over the years?
MS: It has changed dramatically. When I came here first I hadn’t a clue about computers.
I am not saying I know much more now, but I seem to spend more and more time on the computer, so I suppose the whole technology side of the job has changed. And then there’s the volume of foreign visitors, which has mushroomed in the last 30 years.
Corporate business has grown and declined and is starting to grow again now. Any job moves with the times, moves with the economy, and this role is no different.
IE: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at the club?
MS: Back in 1995, we went for a board of management as opposed to a committee structure. The big advantage to that is it gives you continuity. You have a chairman for three years as opposed to a different captain each year.
We did a major clubhouse extension and revamp in 2002, spending €2.5m. I was very involved in that entire process. We also looked at making changes to the course, to see how it could be enhanced. It was a long process that started in 2008, and was completed in 2013. The major revamp saw Martin Hawtree hired for the design work and DAR Golf as the contractors. We rebuilt every tee, all existing and new bunkers were fitted with SportBond, and we built one new green — the 12th.
There have been a lot of changes over the years, but those are the major things.
IE: What are your proudest achievements?
MS: What immediately springs to mind is the revamped clubhouse. The building, which took seven months, was the easy part. We moved out in October and moved back in again the May bank holiday weekend. But prior to that, it probably took about two years, because there were various designs and locations and discussions. Once we got planning permission, we moved out of the old clubhouse and commenced building within five months.
From a golfing point of view, I would say two things: the Pro-Am and the Munster Stroke Play Championship. The Pro-Am started back in the early 1990s and continues today. I run it, and have run it, for many years without a sponsor. The Munster Stroke Play evolved from the Cork Scratch Cup, and we obtained championship status in 2006.
It has grown into a top-class championship. It’s played on the May bank holiday and while I’m very involved, the GUI have had to take more control over the last few years.
From a work point of view, it has been hugely rewarding to build up the relationships with staff members over the years; there’s a history at the club of long service, and I think I’ve helped to nurture that.
IE: What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
MS: I’d have to say meeting people.
IE: What would you say is your least favourite?
MS: I would say the most disappointing thing is when you’ve done a lot of work preparing for an event and then the weather doesn’t behave.
IE: What awards have you and the club won during your tenure?
MS: I was awarded the IGTOA Manager of the Year in 2001. I won Golfer’s Guide to Ireland Manager of the Year twice. The club has also won the Golfer’s Guide Best Parkland Course in Munster for four years — in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2017. I was president of the Irish Golf Club & Managers (Irish Association of Golf Club Secretaries, as it was then) in 2004 and again in 2015. I was the first person to be president twice.
IE: Of all the professionals, celebrities, business people, and politicians you’ve met, who was the most memorable?
MS: I suppose the most memorable one would have to be Sally Yates, assistant to the attorney general under the Obama administration, and, for 11 days, the acting attorney general in the Trump administration. She was staying at Hayfield Manor and they rang me up and asked if she could play. I said yes, of course. In the meantime, I Googled her and discovered that she was from Atlanta. Loyal Goulding (who passed away in November 2018) went to Augusta for over 30 years and became good friends with Charlie Yates, who played in the first 11 Masters tournaments and later became secretary of the Augusta National Golf Club.
I put two and two together and discovered that Sally Yates was married to Charlie Yates’ son, J Comer Yates. I called Loyal, who was ill at the time, and told him that Comer and Sally were on their way over. I went and picked up Loyal and brought him back to meet them. When they discovered that this was Loyal’s home club, they couldn’t believe it. It was not a high-profile occasion, but it was a special day.
Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley being presented with honorary life membership of Cork GC in 2013.
Matt Sands, Margot Dennehy, lady captain; Dave Prendergast, captain; Willie Weir, president; Anne Burkley, lady president; and Fergal Deasy, vice captain.
I should also mention another special day, which was when the club made Paul McGinley an honorary life member in 2013. Myself and the officers of the day met Paul in Dublin and presented him with the honorary life membership. It was a lovely occasion, as I have known Paul since he used to caddy for his father Michael, a long-time friend of mine.
IE: Who was the greatest player you have seen here?
MS: I’d say Christy O’Connor Snr, even though he was well past his prime. It was something to see. Ian Woosnam played here in 1994 with (Welsh rugby player) Gareth Edwards and (Welsh comedian) Max Boyce.
IE: What’s your favourite hole?
MS: The 14th. That’ll come as a surprise to some people, but I just like the shape of it.
IE: How often do you get to play here?
MS: Very little … but I hope to play more in retirement.
IE: What is your fondest memory?
MS: I have several. Opening the new clubhouse would be one. Hosting the Irish Close in 2007, where Shane Lowry was victorious, is another. We hosted the Ladies Home Internationals in 2012, which was a great event, especially considering that the course was closed for several days beforehand because of horrendous weather. We presented a course which was just superb and to turn it around that fast will always stick in my mind.
IE: What’s your fondest memory in terms of your role, away from Cork?
MS: I have been to three CMAA (Club Managers Association of America) world conferences in the US, representing the Irish Golf Club Managers. At the 2015 CMAA conference in San Diego, I got to play Cyprus Point, Pebble Beach, Spyglass, and the Olympic Club, ironically with my successor Brian Hurley, on the way home.
IE: How did your role change over the last 10 years in terms of the crash in 2008? Did you find there was a big change?
MS: Yes, obviously there was a need to trim costs. I consider it a big achievement that I cut an awful lot of costs from the operation without diminishing standards.
IE: What are the most significant changes you have seen in Irish golf clubs during your 30 years?
MS: The presentation of courses has improved immensely and the standards in amateur golf – culminating in success in the majors, amateur teams and individual events — has flourished too. There’s also the expansion of modern technology, both in terms of clubhouse software, equipment for golfers, as well as in greenkeeping.
IE: Not a serious question, but as you are not from Cork, how did you find it moving here? Were you easily accepted?
MS: Yes, straight away. I came into an environment where I met a lot of people in a short space of time and with it being the club’s centenary year, it was a special time to arrive.
My wife Cathriona found the same: she worked in AIB, she got a transfer to Cork and met a lot of people quickly.
IE: What are you going to do next?
MS: Nothing [laughs]. I don’t know … take it easy, play more golf, I suppose. Spend more time with my wife.
IE: How has Covid-19 affected things for you here at Cork Golf Club?
MS: Covid-19 has changed society within the space of a few months. The club’s income stream has been decimated, and club life will be affected for the foreseeable future. I and the club have taken prudent action to stabilise the situation.
The recruitment of my successor commenced before Covid-19, however part of the process was carried out by Zoom (the new norm) and final interviews were conducted in socially-distanced environments.
The whole team in the club have pulled together and the course has never been better due to Simon O’Hara and his crew working in split shifts during the lockdown. Our new caterer, Jim Plummer, was in place for three weeks before Covid-19, but is now back up and running.
It was not how I had envisaged my last few months in the club, however it is only a minor irritation compared to the grief and suffering some families have had to endure.