County Sligo Golf Club was founded in 1894. The course was developed on land leased from Henry Middleton, an uncle of William Butler Yeats, the famous poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature, and his brother Jack B Yeats, the noted landscape painter. The club owes its existence to Lieutenant Colonel James Campbell who chaired the first meeting of the club on the 18th of October 1894 and became its first captain. Harper Campbell Perry became the first Honorary Secretary and with the assistance of Arthur Jackson, these three are regarded as the founding fathers of the club.
The proposed location of the links in Rosses Point had been immortalised in verse by Middleton's nephew W.B Yeats:
" My name is Henry Middleton,
I have a small demesne,
A small forgotten house that's set,
On a storm bitten green."
James Campbell was familiar with this piece of ground because the Sligo militia, of which he was a Lt. Col, held their annual summer camps on the flat ground of Bomore. They also practised their artillery skills against the waves of the Atlantic from gun emplacements on Bomore Point. It is generally believed that the officers played golf over a few rudimentary holes laid out by army personnel long before the formal laying out of the course.
That same year 1894, the club became affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland which, had itself, only been founded three years earlier and thus Sligo played its part in the early growth of Irish golf. The original membership totalled ninety-six and included many prominent people in the town.
Incidentally Bomore was also the venue for Sligo Races for many years as it was a natural amphitheatre for spectators who lined the high ground along the present fifth tee.
George Combe was invited by James Campbell to lay out the first nine holes at Rosses Point. Combe was a scratch golfer, the first honorary secretary of the Golfing Union of Ireland of which he was a founder member in 1891, and set up the world's first handicap system in 1896.
He laid out the first nine holes around the current clubhouse and Greenlands. His early association with the club has been perpetuated by his presentation of a silver cup in 1896. The Combe Cup is still played for today and is one of the oldest golf trophies in existence. In 1902 Combe was awarded the first Honorary Life Membership for his contribution to the designing and creation of the club's first nine holes and he continued to be a regular visitor until his death in 1938.
The original lease for the links was for one year and was very close to not being renewed. Henry Middleton was a reclusive man who took exception to members playing golf in the vicinity of his house and made efforts to have them removed in 1895. Thus Co. Sligo Golf Club would have ceased to exist were it not for the persistence and diplomacy of James Campbell and Harper Campbell Perry who between them smoothed the troubled waters and negotiated a further ten-year lease for the land. Eventually in 1912 they agreed with Henry Middleton that he accept honorary membership of the club, thus ending the long running dispute and ensuring the future of the club.
In the early years the committee met in a room rented in Thomas Ewing's Hotel situated adjacent to the links - the present Yeats Country Hotel. By 1912 it was deemed appropriate to build a new clubhouse to compliment the revised eighteen hole layout. The services of George O'Connor, the noted Dublin architect were engaged and he designed a pavilion type clubhouse on a mock Tudor style. This notable facade remains an integral feature of today's modernised clubhouse.
In 1906 the club decided to increase the number of holes from nine to eighteen. This task was entrusted to Captain William Campbell, a step brother of James. He was a scratch golfer, a distinguished polo player, a more than useful soccer player and a member of Royal Dublin Golf Club as well as the Cambridge Golf Society.
His design incorporated the Combe holes and explored new territory along the sand dunes out as far as the present 12th hole. The new links was formally opened on April 8th 1907. At over five thousand nine hundred yards, it was regarded as a "A Capital Links" and was considered one of the best in Ireland.
In 1923 the club inaugurated the West of Ireland Championship. The first winner was Larry Vernon, husband of Amy Ormsby, the most celebrated Co. Sligo lady golfer who won the Irish and South African Ladies championships. The West of Ireland brought top golfers from Ireland and overseas to the club to compete for the championship. Cecil Ewing was, of course, the dominant figure in the West in the 1950s and 1960s as he won ten times and featured in eight other finals, many of these against Joe Carr who eventually equalled Cecil’s record of ten wins when beating Michael Edwards in the 1961 final. The rivalry and friendship between Ewing and Carr were respectively fierce and intense.
All paths led to Rosses Point when these two giants were set to clash once more and one of the most memorable of all their battles was in the final of the Irish Amateur Open of 1950, at Rosses Point, when Carr prevailed at the 40th hole!
It was considered that the links did not offer a stern enough challenge to these top players, so in 1927 the committee decided to upgrade the course. The services of the renowned golf course architect Harry Shapland Colt, whose repertoire included the design of courses such as Sunningdale, Wentworth, Royal Lytham & St Annes, St Andrews, Eden and Pine Valley in the US, were recommended. Shortly afterwards the club received an offer from the course design company, 'Hawtree & Taylor, quoting a lower design fee and the committee offered them the commission stressing that an early start date was essential.
However, 'Hawtree & Taylor' were unable to meet the requirements, so the firm of 'Colt, MacKenzie, Allison & Morrison' was appointed. Harry Colt started work in June of 1927 when he pegged out the location of tees and greens. Work started immediately on the construction of the new course. He proposed a radical change form the Campbell course favouring an anti clockwise layout similar to his designs at Royal Lytham and St Andrews Eden course. He is reputed to have been influenced by the layout of the Old Course at St Andrews and his design at Rosses Point is uncannily similar.
Colt was a strategic designer who used the natural contours of the ground rather than move large amounts of earth. He had an artistic flair, had an aversion to straight lines and abhorred blind shots. He also favoured subtle changes in direction so that as you leave a green the next hole takes you on a different orientation. These design characteristics are subtly incorporated into the design at County Sligo.
Colt's greens were contoured to facilitate natural drainage, a feature that caused much concern for the members of the time when first introduced. Not being accustomed to putting on undulating surfaces the members lobbied the links committee to reduce the contours to more manageable proportions. The seventeenth green presented special problems due to the large amount of excavation needed in the days prior to mechanical excavation. So what we now know as the treacherous seventeenth green did not come into play until 1931.
Thus the development of the new course was completed in 1931 and at this time Harry Colt was contacted to provide a bunkering plan. Having agreed the fee the committee were surprised when Captain Hugh Allison arrived with a letter from Colt stating that, as he had no engagements in Ireland at that time, he was sending his assistant to carry out the work. This created a unique design situation with Colt responsible for the course layout and Allison taking credit for the bunkering arrangement. Allison was noted for his deeper bunkers and with a high ridge line to be negotiated for a successful exit. Colt, on the other hand, favoured shallow bunkers. Hence Allison was known as 'humps and bumps' by his colleagues for his tendency to incorporate mounds in the centre of greens he designed.
Another notable man of Rosses Point is Dr. James Mahon who won the Irish Close in 1955 and was for many years one of the country’s finest players. James was one of three extraordinary brothers, the others being Michael and Tom who held a combined handicap of 1 for a time!
James once had the distinction of being a plus 1 handicapper and not a member of the Irish team! That was unheard of at the time. He played for Ireland in 1938 and again in 1952, 1954 and 1955. James Mahon could have won more than one national title, he was beaten by James Bruen in the final of the Irish Amateur Open and was deprived of the same title by Joe Carr who produced an eagle at the final hole of the final at Portmarnock in 1956, but for the fact that he opted for the private life of a medical practitioner.
Rosses Point has, of course, been a venue for almost every Irish golf championship of note and some notable exhibition matches have been played at Rosses Point and chief amongst these would be the visit by Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood in 1937. The scored a 3/2 win over Ewing and club professional Jim McCourt.
In 1947, over 36 holes, Ewing and John Burke scored a famous 1 hole win over Bobby Locke and Norman Von Nida; and in 1951, Ewing partnered Henry Cotton to a 3/2 loss to Joe Carr and Frank Stranahan.
James McCourt’s predecessor as professional at County Sligo Golf Club was the legendary Willie Nolan who, when he went on to greater things, never failed to attribute the development of his playing skills to the days spent working a golf ball around the links at Rosses Point in a fresh Atlantic breeze!
The amiable John McGonigle succeeded McCourt in 1938 and it was only in 1991 that he, in turn, handed the reins over to Leslie Robinson. The current PGA Professional is Jim Robinson.
McGonigle had a great career during which he was captain of the Irish Professional Golfers’ Association, was coach to the Irish ladies golf team that won the European Amateur Team title under his guidance, and made world news in 1952 when leading the qualifying field for the British Open with a then really astounding 65 at Hillside. He was a regular threat in Irish professional tournaments through the 1950s and 1960s and he placed third, to none other than Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor Snr., in the Irish Professional Championship of 1965.
Of course, women have played a large part in the life of the County Sligo Golf Club. In 1910, Miss Amy Ormsby of Rosses Point won the Irish Ladies Championship, and in later years, when she became Mrs. Vernon, she won the South African Ladies Championship four years in succession.
The County Sligo Golf Club has impacted on the administrative side of the game, too. Of course, Cecil Ewing followed his career as a player with an equally brilliant administrative career as he became Irish team captain and then president of the Golfing Union of Ireland. He had been preceded in the latter post by T.P. Toher, who had been club captain in 1930 and 1939, and who was duly elected president of the Golfing Union of Ireland, a position which he held until 1946.
Frank Howley was honorary secretary of the Connacht Branch of the Golfing Union of Ireland from 1935 to 1955, with Declan Howley being chairman in 1991.
During the 1960's new locker rooms were added and the staging of the Home Internationals in 1991 was the catalyst for further development. In recent years, a major refurbishment was undertaken to upgrade the clubhouse facilities to meet modern standards while also maintaining the old world charm that the original clubhouse possessed. The new clubhouse incorporates all that you would expect from a first rate golf club. Members and visitors can enjoy a meal at the excellent restaurant, whilst enjoying spectacular views of the first two holes and Benbulben in the distance.
A new nine hole course was completed in 1999 on the flat ground to the right of the 5th and 7th holes on the Championship course. Johnathon Tucker of STRI, was engaged to create the design and work was carried out by the greens staff. It is a challenging Par 35 and is an excellent nursery for junior golfers, beginners and older members who like to play on the level ground.
In recent years the golf club has engaged the services of the renowned golf course architect, Martin Hawtree, to strengthen areas of the course that were being challenged by the continual improvements in golf equipment. Hawtree's work is ongoing and includes new tees that have been added to the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 11th, 17th and 18th holes The work has also included reshaping bunkers and new bunkers added on 6th, 7th, 11th and 15th. These changes will ensure a stern test for the elite amateurs of Britain and Ireland as they compete for the Raymond Trophy Home Internationals scheduled for County Sligo in 2011.
The history of this great club is still being written on a daily basis and many glorious and memorable chapters have yet to be added to this great epic.
Harry Shapland Colt
Dr. James Mahon
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