County Sligo’s new Head Professional is fulfilling his destiny with new role
SOME of us may yearn, like Yeats, to escape to Innisfree and “live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
But the great poet also knew the splendour of life in the shadow of Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, those magnificent views of the bays at Sligo and Drumcliff and the golfing wonderland that is County Sligo Golf Club’s magical Harry Colt links at Rosses Point.
The club’s new Head Professional, 30-year old Colin Starrett, hails from Derry, but he learned the game on the great links of the northwest. And he’s looking forward to playing his role in County Sligo Golf Club’s continuing story and helping members and visitors from all over the world enjoy one of golf’s unique places.
He’s following in some famous footsteps at a club blessed by the talent of some outstanding professionals over the past 100 years.
While the club was founded in 1894, the great Willie Nolan was not employed in what was then a seasonal job as the club’s first professional until 1921. He was followed by John O’Neill in 1923 and then in 1925 by John McCourt, who was engaged for a minimum period of six months, “subject to his giving satisfactory service” and was so good, he remained in the job for the next 21 years.
McCourt spotted the early promise of Joe Carr and nurtured the talent of the great Cecil Ewing before being succeeded in 1946 by the great instructor Johnny McGonigle, who performed the role magnificently for the next 45 years until his retirement in 1991.
The great McGonigle was replaced by an equally talented teacher in Leslie Robinson, who gave way to another Ulsterman, namesake Jim Robinson, until 2017.
Conor McCormick took over the reins as the club ceded the professional’s shop to American Golf for a brief period before appointing Starrett as the club’s new PGA professional in March.
The new man appears to have been destined to end up in Sligo, given his journey in the professional game so far. He began his career at the Golfing Union of Ireland’s National Academy, doing the first few years of his PGA apprenticeship under Kenny Fahey and rubbing shoulders daily at Carton House with the National Coach, Neil Manchip, Co Sligo’s own Francis Howley, who was Director of Golf at Co Kildare demesne at the time.
“Like anyone when you get to a certain level in golf, you want to pursue it as a career,” Colin says of his path. “I would have played my golf all over the northwest, starting at City of Derry and then playing for them and North West through the junior ranks before joining Ballyliffin a little later on.
“I thought about playing for a living, but I was well advised about the standard required, and I didn’t have the means to pursue a ten-year playing career.
“I’d always been very interested in coaching though, and so after managing a large retail store, I was delighted to get a start with the GUI national Academy working with Neil Manchip and Kenny Fahey and Noel Fox, who was training there at the time. That was a lovely introduction to the PGA, and while I was under Kenny, I shadowed Neil in many of the Irish panel coaching sessions, which was great exposure to top high-performance and coaching. It was brilliant for me and my training, learning from the best from year one.”
Things went so well, he was selected as Ireland’s leading trainee in his first year and never looked back. Encouraged by Fahey, he accepted an offer from Howley to come with him to Portmarnock Golf Club, where he completed his training in November 2016 and qualified a few months later.
“I was teaching a lot of Francis’ junior golfers in the Academy, and Kenny said you know what, I think it would be a nice progression for you to go with Francis to Portmarnock’,” he says of the move to Portmarnock, where he followed in the footsteps of assistants such as Damien McGrane, Brendan McGovern and Derek McNamara.
“As much as he would miss me, he knew it was the right progression for me. So that was a great chapter in my training. The fantastic thing about Portmarnock is that it’s a very traditional Irish links and golf is so deeply embedded in the club ethos.
“I love golf in every aspect, so it’s nice to be somewhere like County Sligo where there is such enthusiasm for it and training with Francis, he is such a professional in every sense of the word, I picked up a lot of great habits that have stood me in good stead.”
Starrett was unaware until recently that his grandfather George Starrett had played off scratch and worked as the greenkeeper in City of Derry for many years.
“I didn’t know there was golfing heritage in the family,” he says with a grin. My dad wouldn’t be a great golfer, that’s for sure. But my grandfather would’ve opened the shop and looked after the course and given a few lessons. It was nice to find that out a few years ago.”
County Sligo is one of Ireland’s most welcoming classic venues, and Starrett is looking forward to doing his part to help put golf in the northwest on the map over the next few years as overseas visitors move away from the southwest and explore the links of Sligo and Donegal.
To that end, the experience he gained at Portmarnock was vital for what he now hopes to do in Sligo.
“For for everyone in Ireland, tourism is very important, so getting those overseas visitors and getting a bit of exposure to what top-level customer service looks like was huge. You have to do it right, but you also have to do it in an Irish way, so getting that balance right is huge.
“I learned a lot working with the general manager, the operations manager and the course manager, so you get an insight into everyone’s world and how they operate. And when you work at one of these top clubs, you notice you’re working with people at the top of their games, people who are very good at what they do, and that helps you get better at your own job.”
Just as Fahey encouraged him to move to Portmarnock, Howley had no hesitation in encouraging his Senior Assistant Professional to apply for the Head Professional’s job at such a prestigious club as County Sligo.
“I’m just delighted to join a club like County Sligo,” he says. “The four and a half years I spent at Portmarnock just flew by, but that’s the way when you are enjoying what you do.”
Given the huge improvements that have been made to the links and the practice facilities at Rosses Point in recent years, Starrett is looking forward to doing his bit to spread the word and make the club even better.
“I’m delighted to have the chance to showcase golf in the northwest a bit more because I am acutely aware of the great courses that we have in this part of the world,” he says. “That great link with Portmarnock with Joe Carr and Cecil Ewing made me feel right at home. I never played in the ‘West’, but I played Rosses Point a lot growing as a junior. It’s a great facility, and it’s such a bonus to have a fantastic golf course because it’s not a hard sell to get people to come and play when what you’re offering here is excellence.
“I love standing up on the third tee to drink it all in. On a good day, you can see five counties from there. It’s just a spectacular vista, and a great reminder of the fantastic facilities and great space we have here, from the Championship links to the Bohmore nine and the practice bays, the chipping and putting greens.
“The club has also put in rock armour on the 16th and 17th and done a proper job that will last for many years to come.”
As for his ambitions for the job, he sees himself as the traditional club professional, ready and willing to do all the jobs a great club pro must do.
“I want to have the shop looking well, obviously, but a major part of it is about helping the club and its teams with coaching, doing club repairs and giving lessons.
“I just love people coming into the shop for a chat because if you are a member, especially at a special club like County Sligo, it’s important that you feel like you’re part of something big.
“So I’m just enjoying having a very traditional professional’s role, looking after the welfare of members and making all the visitors feel welcome. And it’s lovely to be back west again. It’s an exciting new chapter for me – a dream job.”