STRAY golf balls at a driving range in Cork caused so much damage to nearby property – and in one case, a person – that there was no choice but to reduce the range and make the greenkeeper redundant, say its owners.
But the greenkeeper believes his dismissal was not genuine, alleging he was fired due to a dispute with one of the owners.
The Colman brothers and Michael Ryan, and their mother Margaret Ryan, who work in partnership as Frankfield House in Douglas, Co Cork, are defending a claim brought under the Unfair Dismissal Act by their former employee, Gary O ‘Sullivan.
Giving evidence at an arbitration hearing yesterday afternoon, Michael Ryan said the family business had installed netting and fencing around the course over the years but training continued to run wild.
He said that since he started coaching, technologically advanced pilots in the hands of physically stronger players meant the balls were flying farther and farther.
“I call them the young bulls. These young guys these days are so big and powerful,” he said.
He said a 260-270 yard drive was once typical for a “gentleman golfer”, but now ordinary players could hit the ball around 350 yards off the tee – but their aim hadn’t improved and the problem of stray bullets was worse.
He once said a player coming off the fairway on their course “carried it 150 yards over a gas station, down a side road, and embedded it in the windshield” from a car parked in a garden center on Kinsale Road, Mr Ryan said.
With growing security concerns – and a prohibitive cost of €1.5m to fence the whole property at the same height as the netting installed along the northern end of the course where it adjoins the N40 – the golf club was closed in 2014, Mr Ryan said, and the course was “growing grass”.
The driving range remained open, but stray balls continued to land in the nearby housing estate, he said.
“We had to replace at least one window in every house in [the nearest] row,” said Mr. Ryan, and referred to invoices from a glazing company tendered into evidence.
Mr Ryan said he realized something needed to be done when a stray bullet flew over rooftops and hit property that housed a legal professional.
“He wasn’t happy,” Mr Ryan said, and the prospect of legal action was raised.
“We will take action unless you take credible action to prevent golf balls from going over the fence,” the neighbors wrote in a letter submitted to the Commission.
Mr Ryan decided to cut the number of bays on the driving range by two-thirds, thereby reducing their remaining business by that amount, he said.
This meant there was no longer a need for Mr O’Sullivan as greenkeeper, he said, as the family were able to do the job themselves. On August 15, 2020, Mr Ryan traveled to Whitegate, Co Cork, to tell his former employee he would let him go.
He said shortly after going to Whitegate a stray ball off the course hit a man in the face.
“I was numb, but at the same time – it happened, it was always going to happen,” Mr Ryan said, describing it as the realization of his fears and the reason he had to shut down outside operations .
He said he paid the victim €2,000 to cover dental surgery as well as additional physiotherapy costs, and continued to correspond with the man and pay any resulting medical bills.
The victim had not filed a personal injury complaint, Mr Ryan said.
Solicitor Robert O’Keeffe, for Mr O’Sullivan, said his client’s position was that he had been asked to take a two-week holiday to let things ‘calm down’ after falling out with Colman Ryan at work on July 29 – and the first time he heard of a redundancy process was when Michael Ryan met him at Whitegate on August 15.
When questioned by umpire Michael McEntee, Michael Ryan said the golf center had three full-time employees, including Mr O’Sullivan and two clubhouse bartenders, both of whom had more duty than the greenkeeper.
The only people working outside were himself, his brother and Mr O’Sullivan, he said.
Cross-examined by Mr O’Keeffe, Colman Ryan said he had a clear recollection of the events of July 29, 2020.
“There was a thunderstorm all of a sudden that afternoon and there was a big rush of golfers who wanted to move from the outside course to the inside course,” he said.
“I needed Mr. O’Sullivan to literally hold his finger against [a] bolt on the outside while I went around to the other side of the wall to put the nut on.
He added that Mr O’Sullivan had become ‘very furious’ at the ‘number of people coming at him’.
‘He was quite concerned about Covid, which I can understand,’ he said, saying he knew someone close to Mr O’Sullivan was ill at the time and would have risked death if he died. he had been infected.
He said he just wanted to run a machine to lighten the queue and restore “order” to the center.
“I wasn’t arguing with Mr. O’Sullivan. Mr O’Sullivan got mad at everyone,’ he said.
Mr O’Keeffe said his client would say Mr O’Sullivan called him ‘useless’ during that encounter.
“I could have, when there was no way I could, get him to keep his finger on the outside of the lock. I couldn’t do a simple task,” he said.
In his testimony, Mr O’Sullivan said the lock in question was “very tedious” as it was particularly small and difficult to grasp.
“People were coming in and out the door, coming up to me, asking me questions. I would turn to them and say ‘we’re trying to fix the machines’ and when I did that my grip on the nut would slip,” he said.
He said Colman Ryan came up to him “absolutely seething” to say, “Do you ever want to hold the nut”, to which he replied that he was doing his best.
Mr O’Sullivan said 10 to 15 people were crammed into a small indoor area with no ventilation and he was “scared” for his vulnerable relative.
He said he told Colman Ryan that the bartender who was supposed to handle social distancing was not doing his job and remarked to him that he was “useless”.
Mr. Ryan’s response was, “No, you’re useless,” he said.
“He told me ‘I’m the boss’ and he could talk to me any way he wanted,” Mr O’Sullivan added.
He said he continued to show up for work for the next two days until Michael Ryan asked him to take two weeks off to calm things down and agreed to vacation pay from him.
Mr O’Sullivan said he heard nothing from his employers until mid-August when Michael Ryan texted to say he was coming to Whitegate to meet him.
“Actually, I was 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 end up like that was a little poor,” he added.
“It was not a real dismissal. There was an incident on July 29, 2020 which left tensions at the center and it was for this reason that Mr. O’Sullivan was fired without any consultation,” Mr. O’Keeffe said in closing.
“Insurance claims, golf ball issues and range closures – none of this was ever mentioned to my client until recently,” he said.
Ruairí Ó Cathain, for the Ryans, said his clients argued it was a “genuine dismissal” that arose with the “specter of closure on everyone”.
‘The income was not enough to support the role,’ he said, and as the only outside-only employee, Mr O’Sullivan was the only choice when it was the outside part of the business. which had been “grossly affected”.
Arbitrator Michael McEntee adjourned the hearing to review his decision and said it would likely be released to the parties within the next seven to eight weeks.