- Irish Women's Close
Irish Women's Close
Holywood Ladies Golf Club was the first women’s golf club in Ireland, founded in 1888, with their inaugural competition held on 27th February, 1989. A year later, the first inter-club match took place between Holywood and Royal County at Portrush. Soon after, there were Ladies Clubs established in other parts of Ulster at Auchnacloy, Belmont, County Down, Dungannon, Killymoon and Lurgan.
Two years after the Golf Union of Ireland was formed in 1891, the Irish Ladies Golf Union was established at a meeting in the Girl’s Friendly Society Lodge, Belfast on Friday 15th December 1893. Present were delegates from Royal Belfast, Dungannon and Royal County, Portrush and a decision was taken to organize the first championship meetings at Carnalea in 1894, Portrush in 1895 and Newcastle in 1896.
The first ladies’ national competition was played the following year at Carnalea in Bangor, with Clara Mulligan from Royal Belfast – the newly elected ILGU Hon. Sec. – beating Nellie Graham from Lisburn 3&2 in the final of the match play contest. Nellie got over the disappointment of losing the inaugural championship by winning editions three and four at Royal County Down and Royal Dublin after changing her home club to RCD.
Incredibly, only four women would capture eighteen of the next twenty-four titles available up until 1925.
May Hezlet from Royal Portrush lost the first final she took part in as a 16-year-old girl at Malone in 1898 but twelve months later she made up for this loss by beating her big rival Rhona Adair 5&4 at Royal County Down. She would go on to win another four titles between 1904 and 1908 and in three of these finals she defeated her sister Florence. May also won the British Ladies Amateur in 1899 at Newcastle, in 1902 at Deal and in 1907 back at Newcastle.
Rhona Adair from Killymoon won four Irish championships in a row, starting in 1900 (when she defeated another Hezlet sister, Violet, 9&7 in the final at Portrush) and ending in 1903 at Portrush when she again trounced Violet Hezlet 7&5 in the final match. Rhona also savoured success in the British Ladies Amateur, winning at Royal North Devon in 1900 and at Royal Portrush in 1903.
Mabel Harrison from The Island secured a hat-trick of Irish Championships in 1910, 1911 and 1912, beating the unfortunate Florence Hazlet (who lost all of her six finals) in the final tie at the last of these three competitions in 1912 at Portsalon. Although she was a resident of Dublin, Mabel spent much of the summer in Portrush, nominating the club there as her home club when she participated in the British Ladies Amateur.
Another member of The Island, Janet Jackson, won five championships either side of the Great War. The first of these wins was at Lahinch in 1913, beating her club mate and friend Mabel Harrison 4&3 in the final, and the last came twelve years later on the same course, when she overcame yet another member from The Island, Pat Jameson – who would win the title a year down the line at Royal Dublin – by a 2&1 score in the 1925 final.
The fourteen remaining competitions that were staged before World War II resulted in only one multiple winner, Eithne Pentony from Grange. She won the title at County Sligo in 1931 then at Royal County Down two years later, recording a 3&2 victory in each final.
Philomena Garvey from County Louth won the first Close Championship when competitions resumed after the war in 1946, needing three extra holes before she overcame another County Louth player, Clarrie Reddan, who’d won the event ten years earlier as Miss Tiernan when she was a single lady. Over the next 17 years, Philomena took part in thirteen finals – and won every one of them convincingly. Just when everybody thought her last triumph was at Killarney in 1963, she popped up after reacquiring her amateur status in 1968 to claim her fifteenth and final title at Royal Portrush before retiring in 1970.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Irishwoman, though because she lost four of the five British Ladies Amateur finals she contested. Still, in a career where she also represented Ireland between 1947 and 1969, was a member of six Curtis Cup teams, and took part in seven editions of the Vagliano Trophy, there’s no denying Philomena set a standard of golfing excellence for female golfers in Ireland that will probably never be matched.
One person who certainly tried her best to emulate the Garvey achievements is Mary McKenna from Donabate, who won eight of the ten Close Championship finals she reached between 1969 and 1989. She won the first of those events at Ballybunion, losing only at the same venue to Maisie Mooney from Forest Little in 1973 and at County Sligo to Claire Nesbitt from Knock in 1976 before clinching her eighth title at Westport in 1989. Mary was also an Irish international player from 1968 to 1993 and made nine consecutive appearances on the Curtis Cup team between 1970 and 1986, becoming Ireland’s most decorated woman golfer.
Mary McKenna’s last trophy-winning performance came seven years after her previous title win and in four of those seasons the woman who had won the Irish Close Championship was Claire Hourihane from Woodbrook. Three of the victories were accomplished in successive years against Valerie Hasset from Ennis at Cork in 1983, Maureen Madill from Portstewart at County Sligo in 1984, then Mary McKenna at Waterville in 1985. Clare would go on to snare another championship at Ballybunion in 1991 to match May Hazlet’s total of five. During a 22-year international career with Ireland, Clare also took part in four Curtis Cups and six Vagliano Trophy matches.
During the 1990s, Eileen Rose McDaid won three of the six finals she reached in the championship. Her first win came in 1990 at the Island, when she nominated Skibereen as her home club. After losing in the final to Claire Hourihane 12 months later, she defeated the same opponent at County Louth in 1992, this time as a Kilkenny golfer and under her married surname of Power. Her final victory came three years later when she edged out Sheena O’Brien from Grange by one hole at Cork. Eileen Rose also represented Ireland for fifteen years, starting in 1987, and was on the Curtis Cup team in 1994.
In the new millennium, multiple winners include Alison Coffey of Warrenpoint (at County Louth in 2000 and the European Club in 2001), Tricia Mangan of Ennis (at Portsalon in 2005 and the European Club in 2006), and Leona Maguire of Slieve Russell (at Westport in 2008 and County Louth in 2012). Leona’s twin sister Lisa made four finals between 2008 and 2013 – the first was against her sister – but she came out on top in only one, against Mary Dowling of New Ross at Fota Park in 2009, winning 5&4 in the final.
The only course missing from the roster of those that have hosted the championship is Carnalea in Bangor, where the very first edition of the Irish Women’s Close was held. Unfortunately, it currently doesn’t feature in our County Down listings.
Until 2019, the following clubs had hosted the event the most number of times: Lahinch (12), Royal Portrush (11), Royal County Down (10), Ballybunion (7), Portmarnock (7), County Louth (6) and County Sligo (6).
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