Monday, November 24, 2014

County Sligo Golf Club Gets a Face Lift

The par four 10th - sea and Benbulbin slipping alongside
Do you dare play with perfection?

Do you take a beautiful woman and inject some botox? Do you take the Mona Lisa and add a fresh lick of paint?

And, if so, then the question is 'why?'

County Sligo is one of the finest links courses in Ireland... perhaps anywhere... but now change is afoot.

When I first played it in 2007, it was after brutal rain that scared other golfers away. It left me to play the course on my own and revel in its beauty. It was a majestic golf experience with lightning fast putting surfaces, sublime green complexes, a dynamic landscape and stunning views. County Sligo is the grand dame in these parts – elegant and charming, but also stern and impatient. It is a no nonsense kind of course that revels in its past… which dates back to the 19th century.

Yet as 2014 draws to a close, County Sligo is undergoing its first substantial upgrade programme since the 1920s, when Harry Colt redesigned the links. Right there is reason enough to leave well alone. ‘Harry Colt’ is a name to embrace and cherish… and market.

That the designer working on these upgrades today is Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native and the genius behind The European, is a positive thing... but perhaps the rationale for introducing such upgrades (stretched over three phases) is less well defined…
The par 3 4th and the terrifying front.
The rationale for change, as expressed in the Co. Sligo upgrade press release, hinges on three factors: declining green fees; falling rankings for the club nationally and internationally; and a loss of profile. Each of these is addressed below.

Another stated objective is to raise the profile and reputation to such an extent that the course will attract a serious tournament in the years ahead... namely The Irish Senior Open (2015) and The Irish Open itself. It already hosts the annual West of Ireland (won by McIlroy, Harrington and Lowry) but the club has bigger aspirations.

Green Fees

Green fee intake around the country has been falling or stagnant for several years. In the current climate that is no surprise, but links courses have shown some signs of recovery in the past two years as the number of American golfers have increased. This is particularly true on the ‘bucket list’ run of courses on the west coast. 

Co. Sligo highlights that Ballybunion Golf Club takes in nearly €1.5 million more in guest fees than the Sligo club. It should be noted that Ballybunion charges almost twice as much and has a second, impressive golf course. Ballybunion’s location and ‘must-play’ reputation also makes it highly desirable for the Americans who throng the fairways for 4-5 months of the year. The north-west coast does not have the same kudos for American golfers as the Kerry/Clare coastline… even though it is every bit as good. That is one of the biggest challenges for Co. Sligo, Enniscrone, Carne and Donegal. How do you build your reputation?
The 11th hole, showing off the steep left to right slope. The green
is to the right of the distant golfers (on 12th tee).

Falling Rankings

The subject of rankings is a difficult one: some people say they are pointless; others give them far too much credit. Rankings change all the time and they should not be taken too seriously.

Bear with me here as I did some digging... Golf World (UK) magazine started their rankings in 1986. This is as far back as I can find, when County Sligo ranked 34th in Great Britain & Ireland. The same magazine ranks them at 59th today. The big switches happened in 2000, when the club fell from 27th to 45th, and then again in 2004, when the club fell from 44th to 57th.

And this is where Co. Sligo has languished ever since. In that time there have been new courses (Doonbeg, Carne and The European, in Ireland, and Kingsbarns, Loch Lomond, Castle Stuart, Woburn Marquess and Trump Aberdeen, among others, in GB, all of which rank higher), new personnel managing/contributing to the rankings and, no doubt, new ranking system criteria.

In terms of Golf World, it is interesting to note that in the same year (2000) that Co. Sligo fell from 27th to 45th:
- The European rose from 42nd to 28th
- The Island went from 90th to 74th
- Portstewart (Strand) fell from 38th to 66th
- Royal Dublin from 69th to 91st
- Enniscrone slipped from 84th out of the top 100 altogether.

These are huge shifts and indicate a major change in approach by the magazine. Of course, that’s just one magazine. Here is a table of rankings by five different golf media. I can't find all the years, so Golf Digest Ireland and Golf World are the best guides:

So yes, the ranking has slipped a bit, although it has not slipped out of Golf World's GB&I top 100 (one of Co. Sligo's concerns). 

Loss of Profile

This is undoubtedly linked to both the Rankings and green fee intake, so doesn't really need any further elaboration.

County Sligo Golf Club Changes

So how is County Sligo looking to rectify these perceived problems? Answer: by upgrading… or ‘improving’ the course. These upgrades will be introduced across three phases, focusing on:
  • lengthening the course (for championship events specifically) by building new tee boxes and replacing one green (the 3rd);
  • extending greens to present tougher/alternative pin positions;
  • adding bunkers to fairways and green complexes to enhance challenges;
  • and other changes, such as introducing new mounding, adjusting water features (the brook) and realigning fairways/rough to take advantage of natural features or OB.
The full list of phase one upgrades is outlined at the end of this blog.

The 3rd green, which will disappear altogether - a new one is
to be built 60 metres farther back (to the right in this pic).
These changes to the course will certainly increase interest from the golfing world and will lure golf writers back to this beautiful stretch of Irish coastline. The resulting chatter will probably help to boost profile and rankings, too… and, ultimately, green fees… so such changes will in all likelihood achieve some of the club’s goals.

Obviously, when you have a mystery benefactor pumping in money to make these changes, it would seem advantageous to charge ahead. But are physical changes really the answer, when balanced against a course that has Harry Colt’s name all over it? Pat Ruddy is at pains to stress that he will only be enhancing Colt’s work… but change is change.

Such upgrades inevitably alter the very fabric of a majestic Colt classic. Yes, these changes will result in a sterner test… they may also result in a stronger, better course… but the name of Colt will be diluted. My personal feeling is that such Colt classics should be embraced for what they are and how they look.

There are other issues to be addressed: one particular comment from the Press Release highlights that the upgrade will make it a “test for the finest golfers who are now equipped with all the benefits of advanced club and ball technology.” Fair enough… but 95% of the time the course will be played by amateur golfers who, despite all the new technology, still have an average handicap of around 16… unchanged for many years. As any golfer can tell you – just because you hit it 30 yards longer doesn’t mean you hit it straighter.

As for making the course longer… at 7,000 yards it is considered short in championship golf terms… doesn’t that actually play into the hands of those who drive the ball a mile… you actually make it easier for them by making it harder for the shorter hitters to compete. A links like this comes down to the challenges around the greens, the length of the rough and the wind factor. We’ve all seen how the Pros can rip apart the best Open Championship links when the wind doesn’t blow. Royal County Down, Portmarnock, County Sligo… they’re no different. Plus – and this is important – County Sligo boasts a variety that constantly changes the rhythm and shape of the holes and green complexes. Holes are bursting with intrigue as a result.

I have no issue with Pat Ruddy being the designer... my issue is that this grand dame of Irish golf should treasure what it has and work on building its reputation in other ways. If - and it's a very small 'if' - Pat Ruddy's new work is not well received by the global golfing community, then County Sligo will have shot itself in the foot. The club will undoubtedly have gone through a lengthy evaluation process to ascertain the pros and cons of making change, so my reservations are of little consequence, but, at the end of the day, the single biggest question is:

Will all of these changes move Co. Sligo back to the 'pinnacle of world golf’ as expressed by Pat Ruddy himself in the press release?

I'm no designer and I've never pretended to be, but as far as I'm concerned it's already there. What makes the course special is the Harry Colt layout and the history that surrounds it. For me that is where its greatest strength lies.

And after all that, despite loving County Sligo just the way it is, I admit that I am fascinated to see how Pat Ruddy’s changes affect the course. I play it every year and feel that I know it well at this stage, so I have read with interest the phase one changes. I bow to Pat’s superior knowledge, but I don’t think the bunker on the 11th fairway is necessary: the steep slope inflicts enough pain so drives need to be extremely accurate as it is.

A world-class hole, the 17th should NEVER be touched.
I do however have one request for County Sligo, regarding the 17th hole (planned for phase two): do not touch it or change it in anyway. Lengthen it with a new championship tee by all means, but no other change should be considered on one of the best holes in the country. It is natural and utterly magnificent. Change is totally unnecessary.

Here are the Phase One changes, which affect 11 holes:

A new championship tee shaping a different line for the drive; a new mound straddling the fairway; an extended green and a new bunker to match the existing one on the right.
Most significant will be work to bring the out-of-bounds wall more into focus for big hitters and a much larger green. There will also be a new fairway bunker on the left.
A new green behind the existing one will extend the hole by some 60 metres.
Another par five that is too short by modern standards. This will be converted into a dog-leg right by placing a new tee in the “roundabout” on the road to Bomore. The green will also be enlarged at the back.
The fairway will narrow near the shelter hut with two new bunkers nearby.
The stream lining the left of the hole will come into play more; a new fairway bunker and an extension of the green towards the shelter hut will add some “white knuckle” pin positions. 
A new tee 30 metres behind the existing one to lengthen the hole and work to enlarge and add bunkers.
HOLE 10:
This hole is to be lengthened by 65 metres by building a new championship tee behind the existing one and increasing the length and width of the green. Greenside bunkers are also planned.
HOLE 11:
This will become more of a dog-leg by creating a new championship tee 30 metres back and to the right. A large fairway bunker will be excavated on the left of the fairway.
HOLE 12:
The drive here is too close to the ninth green so the medal tee moves forward and right. The fairway will also move right some 20 metres. More bunkering.
HOLE 18:
The most significant change is for championship players to tee up from the ladies’ tee on hole five. The green is to be dropped slightly at the back and extended. Some of the contours of the fairway will be changed to create a “speed ramp” to slow down long running balls. Also green side bunkering to make some pin positions more nervy.

Any thoughts or opinions... please feel free to share.


  1. It is unfair that the rankings appear to factor in what changes were made to the course as it implies that if the course is not updated it will slide down the rankings.

    Having said that some courses could be improved and personally I feel that Rosses Point is one of them. Perhaps my expectations were too high when I read Hooked but, a couple of great holes aside (the 4th springs to mind) I wasn't as blown
    away by the course as you had been.

    Pat Ruddy is a fine course designer and I would be surprised if the changes proposed don't result in a more enjoyable golf experience.

    1. It comes down to that whole thing of meddling for the sake of it. As so many Captains do. County Sligo isn't doing that but they have one shot at this, so it'll be intriguing to see what the final product will look like and how it will play.
      What I liked so much about the place - and the same is true of The Island - is that the rhythm changes constantly. In some places that doesn't work as there is that feeling of holes being stuck on - as at 9 to 18 hole golf courses - but at County Sligo it really works. Interesting that the 4th stands out so strongly for you. The only holes that don't work for me are 7 and 18.

  2. It would be interesting to compare the scores from the West of Ireland over the same period as you did the rankings. It might show how much the course is or isn't affected by Golf technology.

  3. Read your blog about the facelift of co. Sligo. If golf courses in ireland think they need to moderize to get more americans, they're thinking wrong. They need to moderize the road system instead. Co. Sligo is kind of out of the way, being that the two major airports are more than an hour away, plus having to drive roads that we think of as tiny, puts courses like this in a bad position.

    I know that most of us go with tours that offer driven tour buses, but the costs almost double over self drive. If the courses are as remote as carne, enniscrone, co. sligo, donegal, with no quick access between each, then the tours that are self drive will stay around the metro areas like killarney, dublin, and areas easy to get to from them.

    If the rates go up because of the facelifts, the amount of play will go down, no matter what rank they make.

    1. Straying off topic a little, you make some very interesting points about travelling in the west of Ireland. Especially the metro area of Killarney -- which is also at least 2 hours from any major airport (for North American visitors) and there is no quick access between the courses in the southwest either.

      With the M4 motorway now taking you direct to Mullingar, Sligo is 2.5 hours drive.
      from Dublin Airport. From there Donegal is 45 minutes and Enniscrone is 1 hour. Comparably Tralee is 55 minutes from Killarney and Ballybunion is 1 hour 20 at best. It cannot be argues that the roads from Killarney are any worse than the roads from Sligo. The Ring of Kerry route from Killarney to Waterville is hardly an easy drive and Old Head is so far from Killarney that you actually also need to change accommodation and stay in Kinsale.

      Carne should be played twice anyway so leave Sligo, play Enniscrone and continue to Belmullet. Stay in Belmullet for 2 nights and either play Westport on the way to Connemara returning to Dublin via Galway from where it is 2 hours direct.

      I think you'll find the southwest is just as difficult to negotiate as the west and getting to Sligo from Dublin is just as easy or difficult as getting from Killarney to Shannon.

      Of course the east does have it best from a driving perspective...theres no questioning that.

      Peter O'Sullivan

    2. Interesting points, Peter, and well made. I'd go so far as to say that the travel times from Shannon are less influential as the south-west is Ireland's main golf destination, and Shannon is at the centre (i.e. courses north and south of it). The Ballybunions, Watervilles and Lahinchs of the world are on bucket lists (and I agree completely about Old Head) and that makes travel times almost irrelevant. The north west can't boast that same reputation and therefore gets seen as being more inaccessible.
      It seems to come down to a combination of perception and reputation... as your travel times prove.