Daunting challenge of upgrading a masterpiece without diluting its character
It seemed almost like cheating to be enjoying glorious spring sunshine down at Rosses Point last week, as a preamble to the Radisson Blu-sponsored West of Ireland Amateur Championship, which begins next Friday. At a venue famed for its wild beauty and savage winds, conditions were, in fact, ideal for viewing the significant upgrading in progress.
Pat Ruddy, the chosen architect, is set to observe competitive action by way of assessing the efficiency of his work so far. Stage one of the Ruddy treatment concerns the opening 12 holes and has to do largely with tee adjustments, fresh bunkering and green extensions.
It is quite a challenge, given the celebrity of the course designer, Harry Colt, whose work elsewhere on this island came under recent scrutiny through the planned return of the Open Championship to Royal Portrush. Prior to his death in 1951, he famously observed: "An architect's earnest hope is, without doubt, that his courses will have the necessary vitality to resist possibly adverse criticism, and will endure as a lasting record of his craft and of his love for his work."
In this context, it should be noted that the only significant equipment change he would have observed during his working life was the arrival of steel shafts. Since then, it is greatly to his credit that West of Ireland competitors have continued to roundly curse the Co Sligo links, while rarely disparaging it. Indeed I retain a particularly vivid memory of the 1988 'West'. With vicious winds bending flagsticks almost to breaking point, Woodbrook international Liam MacNamara spoke submissively about hitting five wood-shots to the long 503-yard third (his 21st) to win an extended match with a double-bogey seven.
The third is now about 30 yards longer, courtesy of a new green set back left of the original. Long, narrow, beautifully contoured and strategically bunkered, it is ready for play, though its possible baptism this week will depend on the championship committee.
Matters get underway on Wednesday when 92 pre-qualifiers with handicaps of 2.1 or better will compete for eight places in the Championship proper. On Good Friday they will join 126 players off scratch or better, who have been exempted into the main draw.
The current course developments bring to mind a particular 'West' during the 1970s when I came across an ambitious local scribe who introduced himself as Pat Ruddy. And I remember indulgent nods when he informed seasoned scribes that he would one day design and build his own golf course. And 15 years later, he invited us to sample the embryonic European Club.
"Back in the 1950s, I came to Rosses Point as an excited schoolboy with my father," he recalled yesterday. "It has always been very close to my heart and my challenge now is how best to respect Mr Colt, while bringing his masterpiece into line with the impact of modern technology. And without upsetting the club members."
Those members can be a formidable bunch, especially on reaching high office. Like the departed Charlie Anderson, one-time chairman of the links committee who, on a certain summer's evening, approached the clubhouse having dealt with a problem further out the course.
That was when he observed a three-handicap member, Fr John Feeney, blithely ignoring the notice 'No practice putting' close by the 18th green. Meanwhile, another priest, Fr Tom Moran, was walking up and down, reading his office. Unable to contain himself, the links officer remarked: "It's amazing that one of you gentlemen can read Latin and the other cannot read English."
A significant Ruddy change, whereby the tee on the long fifth was moved 80 yards to the right, was in play for last year's West. But significant yardage has since been added to what was always a weak par five by extending the green.
"The par fives had become fairly straightforward for the modern player," he said. "This was especially true of the fifth where they could be hitting as little as a six-iron second shot to the green." Even with a new tee, new bunkering and seriously lengthened green, however, the old Colt look has been maintained for the members by retaining the original green.
There are other new tees. "The links set-up essentially involved straight-away driving down the fairway," he added. "So, by throwing the angle off a fraction, you can create a different challenge, though not necessarily as a dog-leg."
A perfect example is the new first tee which will be in play this week along with new bunkering and an extended green. Then there's new bunkering at the sixth, seventh and a particularly attractive one 244 yards down the left on the 12th, along with an extended green on the 10th. By next year, however, players will have to contend with major lengthening of the eighth, 10th and 11th through new back tees, and a particularly testing second shot to the seventh where the green and fronting stream are being extended to the right.
In 1962, Joe Carr travelled west in his red Jaguar with two distinguished English visitors - the renowned golf scribe Pat Ward-Thomas, and Walker Cup selector Gerald Micklem. It was a treat which Ward-Thomas had long promised himself and he wasn't disappointed.
Indeed he later wrote: "It all lies on the peninsula between the bays of Drumcliffe and Sligo; to the north, Ben Bulben rises like the prow of a great ship heading for eternal seas, and away to the south is Knocknarea, where the cruel Queen Maeve lies buried high above her Connaught kingdom. The mountains inland had been unbelievably clear beneath cloud-flecked skies; the long, blue line of the Mayo coast stretches far into the Atlantic that has gleamed silver and peaceful in the sunshine . . .
"One evening, we drove along peaceful lanes, where only a rare gleam of catkin and blackthorn and gorse bespoke the coming of summer, to see the Lake Isle of Innishfree . . . an enchanting place that inspired so much of the poetry of Yeats . . ."
As the scene of 12 West of Ireland triumphs, including that particular one in 1962, Carr claimed you couldn't scramble successfully there - "The right shots have to be played." The nature of scrambling can change dramatically, however, when players have short irons in their hands.
Which is why Ruddy could promise with typical relish: "The giant is re-awakening," before adding: "That new 10th tee is so appealing that I've decided I want to be buried beneath it."
Co Sligo officials clearly knew their man.
Sunday Indo Sport