The West is officially awake as a major international golf venue with Carne Golf Links and County Sligo Golf Club deep in negotiations to host a revived Irish Seniors Open in 2015 and 2016.
Talks between the European Tour, the golf clubs and both Mayo and Sligo County Councils are at an advanced stage and if the plan comes to fruition, it will give the region a major tourism and golfing boost.
County Sligo Golf Club is particularly keen to welcome big-time golf back to Rosses Point as it embarked on Phase One of a major renovation of its world-renowned Harry Colt links only yesterday.
Major course improvements recommended by respected designer Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native, were unanimously approved by the County Sligo members at a special meeting 10 days ago.
Machinery rolled onto the famous links yesterday to begin work on the early stages of a plan that could see the Irish Open played at Rosses Point in 2019, when the club celebrates its 125th anniversary.
“That would be the goal,” said David O’Donovan, general manager of Co Sligo. “If you are going to have the Irish Open, you’d love to have the big stars that are going to come for the British Open at Royal Portrush, possibly the week after it. We will be totally finished with our Phase One improvements by then and may even be finished with phase two, when they are presented to the members and approved.
“It’s five years down the line but we will have the work done and County Sligo will be able to stand up to the distance these guys hit the ball.”
Simon Harris, commercial director of the European Senior Tour, visited County Sligo during the summer and was accompanied by Mark Aspland, European Tour marketing and promotions manager, for a series of meetings with Mayo and Sligo County Councils as well as potential sponsors over the past few days.
Local government backing is believed to be crucial for what has been described as a “joint mission” to put the west of Ireland back in the international golfing radar.
Designed by Eddie Hackett, Carne Golf Links in Belmullet is highly regarded and its towering dunes should prove a huge test for the over-50s stars next year when the Irish Seniors Open returns for the first time since 2010.
But there is even more excitement about the changes that will be made to Rosses Point, with the creation of four new championship tees, several new bunkers, a new third green and another six greens extended to provide more challenging pin positions. Phase two has yet to be presented to members but is expected to see important changes to the 14th, 15th and 17th holes. None of the changes, which will be done in-house in collaboration with Ruddy, require huge earth-moving, which means that the annual West of Ireland Amateur Open Championship will go ahead as scheduled every Easter.
In what is a boost to club coffers, the cost of the improvements — which are not likely to cost more than €200,000 — will be met by a club member, who wishes to remain anonymous.
An enhanced Co Sligo would greatly boost the club’s green fee income: just €300,000 this year compared to €1.7m at Ballybunion. No-one is more excited about the project than Ruddy, creator of The European Club and a native of Ballinrobe
“I was thrilled when they asked me to look at it,” he said of changes that will take up to 10 months to complete. “I had always looked at the place with lover’s eyes since I cycled out there in the summers as a child in the 1950s.
“I could see that with gentle engineering — low volume, light engineering — I could still make substantial changes and I would hope they are all improvements.”
Measuring just 7,000 yards from the tips, Rosses Point has become short by modern standards, not having had a major makeover since Harry Colt redesigned the course in 1927.
“I know we will enhance the thing greatly and, of course, Mr Colt remains in residence,” said Ruddy. “His greens will remain, except for the third, which will be moved back to the left towards the small hut. His greens were not of the buried elephant variety. He was much more of the gentle rolls and borrows though I will try to do slightly more roll and borrow on the extensions for the modern championship and hopefully pull it off successfully.
“While there will be slightly more life in the new pieces, they won’t jar on the eye and will sit comfortably side by side, and Mr Colt won’t kick me out of bed!”
Touching a great links is a little like being asked to restore the Mona Lisa, but all concerned are convinced it is essential that the course keeps up with the times. It is not so far away that light engineering can’t do it. There will be no question of digging up mountains.
“To be the best has to be the goal. Augusta National work harder at improving every year: improvements, not just changes. Every five years, there is a different form of golf. From Ballesteros on to Woods, and now it’s McIlroy’s time. That’s why all great venues are transformed. We aim to move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf, a place where Sligo deserves to be.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved