‘Young bulls’ of golfers driving balls dangerously off course, WRC hears

Stray balls driven by “young bulls” of golfers at a Cork course caused so much damage that the driving range had to be made smaller and the greenkeeper made redundant, its owners have said.

However, the greenkeeper believes his redundancy was not a genuine one, alleging he was dismissed because of a row with one of the owners.

Brothers Colman and Michael Ryan, along with their mother Margaret Ryan, who trade in partnership as Frankfield House in Douglas, Co Cork, are defending a complaint made under the Unfair Dismissals Act by their former employee, Gary O’Sullivan.

Giving evidence to an adjudication hearing on Thursday afternoon, Michael Ryan said the family business had installed nets and fences around the course down the years, but drives kept going wild.

He said since he started coaching, technologically advanced drivers in the hands of physically stronger players meant balls were flying further and further.

“I call them young bulls. These young lads these days are so big and powerful,” he said.

He said a drive of 260-270 yards was once typical for a “gentleman golfer”, but ordinary players could now send the ball some 350 yards from the tee – but their aim had not improved and the problem of stray balls was worse.

Once, he said a player teeing off from the fairway at their course “carried it 150 yards over a petrol station, over a secondary road, and embedded it in the windshield” of a car parked at a garden centre on the Kinsale Road, Mr Ryan said.

With safety concerns mounting – and a prohibitive price of €1.5 million quoted to fence off the entire property to the same height as the netting installed along the north end of the course where it adjoins the N40 – the golf club was wound down in 2014, Mr Ryan said, and the course was “growing grass”.

The driving range remained open, but stray balls kept landing in the adjoining housing estate, he said.

“We’ve had to replace at least one window in every house in [the nearest] row,” Mr Ryan said, and referred to invoices from a glazing company submitted in evidence.

Mr Ryan decided to reduce the number of bays on the driving range by two thirds – effectively reducing their remaining business by that amount, he said.

That meant there was no longer a need for Mr O’Sullivan as greenkeeper, he said, as the family was able to do the work themselves – and on August 15th 2020 Mr Ryan drove out to Whitegate to tell his former employee he would be letting him go.

Solicitor Robert O’Keeffe, for Mr O’Sullivan, said it was his client’s position that he had been asked to take holidays for two weeks to let things “calm down” after having a row with Colman Ryan at work on July 29th – and the first he heard of any redundancy process was when Michael Ryan met him in Whitegate on August 15th.

Questioned by the adjudicating officer, Michael McEntee, Michael Ryan said the golf centre had three full-time staff including Mr O’Sullivan and two barmen at the clubhouse – both of whom had longer service than the greenkeeper.

The only people who worked outdoors were himself, his brother and Mr O’Sullivan, he said.

Under cross-examination by Mr O’Keeffe, Colman Ryan said he had a clear memory of the events of July 29th 2020.

“There was a thunderstorm all of a sudden that afternoon and there was a big stampede of golfers wanting to go from the outdoor range to the indoor range,” he said.

“I needed Mr O’Sullivan to literally just hold his finger against [a] bolt on the outside while I went around the other side of the wall to put on the nut,” he said, but Mr O’Sullivan got “very irate” about “the number of people coming in on top of him”.

“He was quite concerned about Covid, which I can understand,” he said, saying he knew a close relation of Mr O’Sullivan’s was ill at the time and would have been at risk of dying if they were infected.

Mr O’Keeffe said his client would say Mr O’Sullivan had called him “useless” during this encounter.

Mr O’Sullivan said 10-15 people were crowded into a small indoor area with no ventilation and he was “in fear” for his vulnerable relative.

He said he continued to report to work for the next two days until Michael Ryan asked him to take two weeks’ holidays to let things calm down, and accepted holiday pay from him.

Mr O’Sullivan said he heard nothing from his employers until the middle of August when Michael Ryan texted to say he was coming up to Whitegate to meet him.

“I was actually given this [letter] on the side of the road,” he told the hearing. “I was up there in the snow and the rain and to finish up like this was a little bit poor,” he added.

“This wasn’t a genuine redundancy. There was an incident on July 29th 2020 which left tension in the centre and it was due to this that Mr O’Sullivan was made redundant without any consultation,” Mr O’Keeffe said in closing.

“Insurance claims, and problems with golf balls and closing down the range – none of this was ever mentioned to my client until recently,” he said.

Ruarí Ó Cathain, for the Ryans, said his clients maintained it was a “genuine redundancy” which arose with the “spectre of closure over everybody”.

Adjudicating officer Michael McEntee adjourned the hearing to consider his decision and said it was likely to be delivered to the parties in the next seven to eight weeks.

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