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By Cathal Mullaney
Golf course design is one of life’s trickier trades, but the legendary Irish architect Eddie Hackett was typically modest when asked how he would describe his work: “I just dress up,” the Dubliner said, “what the Good Lord provides.”
When Hackett first arrived in Enniscrone in the early 1970s, it was immediately clear to him that the Lord had created some of the world’s most spectacular dune land in a little part of west Sligo, simply made for a golf course.
Hackett’s modifications and designs helped Enniscrone - then a small 9-hole club with little more than a community spirit - transform itself into one of Ireland’s premier venues that now has a worldwide reputation as links golf at its very best.
While the decision to expand to 18 holes in 1974 under Hackett’s guidance was a major milestone, the Enniscrone story goes all the way back to 1918 - making 2018 its centenary year.
At the time of golf’s introduction to the then small seaside resort with a predominantly rural background, there was little appetite for the game in the west of Ireland. The north and east of the country were the places where golf courses were fully established and the game itself was prominent, but Enniscrone soon had its own course that locals were decidedly proud of.
Initially, the political hostilities at the start of the 1920s hindered golf’s introduction to the area, and there were three locations in the village at which golf was played at some point. The first evidence of Enniscrone Golf Club in the local media came in a notice in the Western People newspaper on August 19th 1923, when an advertisement for medal competitions was included. While there is little doubt the game was alive in Enniscrone at the time, it appears to have been a summer past-time for locals and tourists alike. The lack of a defined home remained a problem.
By 1930 however, a permanent home was secured in the townland of Bartragh on the banks of Killala Bay. This terrain was largely flat and took in some of the surrounding countryside, with some holes running along the Enniscrone to Ballina road and others running across the land where the current course now stands. The club was officially affiliated to the GUI in 1931 with a total of 65 members made up of 50 men and 15 ladies, generally all from the local area and surrounding hinterlands. The membership fee was £1, and as remains the case today, there was significant support from the local community and businesses in helping the club establish itself.
A redesign of the course took place in the late 1930s, when Tom McGrath, who was attached to Ballina Golf Club some nine miles away over the border in Co Mayo, tweaked some holes. It was very much golf course design on the cheap, as was the maintenance of the new course with significant voluntary effort from several staunch club members. Livestock roamed the course, with wire around the greens to prevent cows and sheep damaging the putting surfaces. Summertime was peak time for golf activity, with tourists expected to leave their green fee in an honesty box in a small changing-room structure before teeing off!
The requirement for a clubhouse was realised in 1947 when the club invested £400 in erecting a modest structure that served the needs of members and tourists alike, though bigger functions continued to be held in the local hotels.
Despite a strong relationship with clubs in close proximity to Enniscrone such as Ballina, Swinford and Tubbercurry, Enniscrone suffered a major decline through the 1950s to the point that only 14 members were attached to the club in 1959.
Luckily, however, Enniscrone was to receive a major boost after two major projects were initiated in neighbouring north Mayo that resulted in an influx of people to the area. The building of an electricity station at Bellacorrick and the initiation of the Moy Drainage Scheme in the 1960s provided the club with a badly-needed membership boost, with the added benefit of some coming from established golf club backgrounds in the east of Ireland.
The arrival of new members greatly eased concerns about the future viability and survival of the club; indeed, what it served to do was spark a new ambition to expand to 18 holes.
The decision came on foot of the rising popularity of golf worldwide, and the fact that the duneland adjacent to the 9-hole course had endless potential for a truly spectacular links.
Having decided to proceed following an EGM on the subject in the famed Marine Ballrooms in the village in 1970, Eddie Hackett was engaged as architect for a new 18-hole course that would incorporate some - though not all - of the old 9-hole course.
The club was terribly fortunate to have been dealing with most supportive landowners throughout these years in the form of Miss Conway and her nephew Jim, both of whom were tremendous supporters of the vision for a top-class course in Enniscrone. Having scanned the terrain, Hackett’s excitement was plain for all to see; this new design had the potential to be something special.
“Many of the holes bring in views of the Atlantic and surrounding lovely countryside. The different pars are so intermingled there will be no monotony. The land lends itself admirably to the construction of spectacular pars 3s played in opposite directions. A pleasing feature is the variety.
“As well as holes in the open flat land, there will be those ranging through the sand dunes with the occasional dog-leg adding to the attraction. I am very enthusiastic about your great undertaking. My impression is that the quality of the terrain makes it well worthwhile and that ultimately, the links will not only be a boon to Enniscrone but to the west of Ireland.”
Hackett’s design included five of the old greens from the 9-hole course, but the real attraction was that the new course would cut into the high duneland - though not all of it. The work started in late 1970, and to help lessen the cost most of the labour was completed voluntarily by club members keen to see their dream realised.
Moving earth in places where machinery never entered before, the remarkable efforts of members along with paid staff and contractors came to fruition when the course took shape in 1972. On August 4th 1974 the golf course was officially opened, along with a new clubhouse, in a red-letter day for the entire community. It was only the third 18-hole course in the west of Ireland alongside Co Sligo and Galway Golf Club, so it firmly put Enniscrone on the map.
Widely commended, the course received plaudits from far and wide including from the great Christy O’Connor who played in a fourball to mark the occasion with fellow professional John O’Leary and two top amateurs Rupert De Staunton and Sean Flanagan.
The club, decidedly proud of its achievements, ambled through the 1970s and 1980s, with several championships being held over the links, the highest profile of which was the 1993 Irish Men’s Close.
The ambition of the club, evident throughout its history, still remained. As the 1980s ended, an extension to the clubhouse added further improvement. For many, however, they could not but help think about the dunes that had not yet been developed for golf.
The biggest on the property, they could not have been developed in the 1970s - it was simply too big a task with basic machinery and limited finance - but further developments in that area made a further extension possible that would add endlessly to the Enniscrone experience, eliminating what were regarded as some rather dull holes on the flatter land.
In the 1990s, plans were afoot to explore what possibilities existed. The sold financial footing of the club since its upgrade in 1974 was a major help as it made it possible to expand further. Donald Steel, a renowned English architect, was approached and along with Martin Ebert, mapped out some of the country’s most spectacular holes through the property’s biggest dunes.
Following the conclusion of the 1999 West of Ireland Championship - the 1997 and 1998 championships also took place at Enniscrone due to renovations at Co Sligo - work began on this phase of development.
Completed in the early stages of the new millennium, Steel rerouted the new championship links through the dunes with the addition of six magical holes - the 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the front nine, and the 14th, 15th and 16th on the back nine. The new course, aptly named ‘the Dunes’, started at the old 16th and struck straight into the dunes, utilising what most regarded the best part of the property. Some of the holes on the old course on the flatter land were discarded, and along with three other new holes, made up a nifty 9-hole layout called the Scurmore course.
Along with a new extension to the clubhouse, the new and improved Enniscrone offering opened officially in 2001 and put Enniscrone into exalted company.
The modifications from Steel, which complimented the work by Hackett, made for a truly unique layout that put Enniscrone into the upper echelons of Irish golf courses with comparisons being made with Ballybunion, Lahinch and Royal Portrush.
Since, the course and club have shot up the rankings, currently standing at 14th in the Golf Digest Ireland rankings.
It has become a must play for golf enthusiasts in Ireland and further afield, with strong visitor numbers arriving from the US, Canada, Europe and Britain since the opening of ‘the Dunes’ course.
At home, it is one of the premier venues for national championships, hosting the Irish Men’s Close for a second time in 2009, and the Irish Ladies Close in 2014. In the club’s centenary year, the Ladies Close will return to the links while the Irish Seniors Close will also be staged at Enniscrone.
It is perhaps fitting, given Enniscrone’s unique journey to becoming one of Ireland’s top courses, to sum up Enniscrone using the eloquent description the late Charlie McGoldrick, the club’s much-loved PGA Professional until his untimely passing in 2011, coined when speaking to visitors readying themselves to tackle his beloved links: “You are about to play on not only one of the best golf courses in Ireland,” he said, “but on one of the best golf courses in the world”.