County Sligo – or Rosses Point, as it is better known – is an exhilarating west coast links, situated in the heart of Yeats country. W.B.Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
County Sligo Golf Club started out with a nine-hole course, designed by George Combe (contriver in 1896 of the world's first handicap system), and opened for play in 1894. At the turn of the 20th century, Willie Campbell extended the course to 18 holes. The famous Colt and Alison partnership remodelled the course in 1927.
There are many spectacular golf courses in Ireland and County Sligo is no exception. The views of the Darty Mountains and Benbulben, Sligo’s limestone “Table Mountain”, are simply beautiful. Drumcliffe Bay sweeps around the golf course. Its fine long sandy beaches, the Atlantic and the harbour are often in full panoramic view. The Ox Mountains – Knockalong the highest peak – add a further dimension to the already stunning vista.
In the same vein as the scenery, County Sligo is a real joy. It’s a strategic links with dramatic undulations, raised plateau greens, run-offs, high ground, low ground, and cliffs, challenging bunkering, burns and dunes. County Sligo has it all, including unusual routing over three distinctly different sections. The back nine, especially the 11th to the 17th, played on the headland, are truly magnificent. The sheer individuality of holes and the varied terrain makes County Sligo an absolute must-play golf course.
County Sligo is the home of the West of Ireland Amateur Championship and host to other important amateur events. It was here, in 1981, that Declan Branigan won the Irish Amateur Close Championship, becoming the first Irishman to win three major Irish amateur titles in the same year. Earlier that year, Branigan won the West (also at County Sligo) and the East (at County Louth).
In Pat Ruddy’s book Holes in my Head: A Lifetime Dreaming Golf Holes, the author has this to say about the recent course renovations in the following edited extract:
“To say I was pleased to be invited to work on the County Sligo Golf Club’s great links would be an understatement. I was thrilled and ecstatic to return on such a mission, at the end of a long journey in the game, to the place where my golf life started. It was at Rosses Point that I fell seriously in love with golf. It was in the 1950s. I was but a boy. Ever since, as boy and man, I have dreamt of Rosses Point every day. Every day.
It was here that the seeds were sown for a career in golf course architecture. I was told that the links had been designed by a great man named Harry Colt in 1927. That seemed like ages ago but he became much more immediate when I realised he had died as recently as 1951. Our lives had overlapped. Imagine my shock and delight in 2013 when David O’Donovan, manager of the County Sligo Golf Club, asked me whether I might be interested in making a submission on possible improvements to their great links.
I have striven to enhance a great place in a gentle way as I resisted any thoughts of a ‘vanity run’ of huge landshapes and cascading modern greens. I just slipped into an armchair beside Mr. Colt and listened to his thoughts. I am confident that the place is left recognisable as before, but much different and better. With this in mind I set to work at Sligo and headlined my plan of works on the links as: Revitalising a Classic. The first thing to do was to chart the existing greens in detail. In this way the club has a detailed record of the greens as I found them and as I intended to leave them.
Also, the game would be strengthened greatly with new championship tees at holes 1, 5, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15 and 17. These tees were planned for extra distance but also for extra strategy as many of the holes had come to be played in a straight line from tee to green and I took great care to create new angles with a number of the new tees. The game has been greatly improved for championship play with new green extensions presenting the opportunity to place the target behind or close to bunkers and run-offs.
In several cases I took the opportunity to have bunkers that arrived with the green extensions move into position to add character to the old untouched greens as well. There are now places where a previously innocent pin at the back of the old green is dangerously close to a new bunker. It was my opinion that the four par-3s at Rosses Point are excellent and there is no imperative to change them. Things could be done. But there is hardly a better quartet of par-3s on any course and so they stay.
The three par-5s were a different matter as they had developed a silly habit of yielding too many birdies (a classical par-5 disease) and lots of eagles. The 3rd is a handsome devil playing downhill but at 533-yards to an open green it was an easy target. My solution was to create a new, well-bunkered green further back and left. The 5th was even more vulnerable at 480-yards but it moved to a new level with a new tee and a long extension at the back of the green. The 12th is an iconic hole and work there has featured strong bunkering in the dog-leg from the tee and a new greenside bunker.
I hope that my work meets with the approval of Harry Colt. I left his routing alone and most of his greens as I paid tribute to history while helping a great links adjust to the modern championship game. The great links is still recognisable, all in character, but so much more intricate and better.”
To sample the best of golf on the West Coast of Ireland there are two main choices: southwest to Lahinch, Ballybunion and Waterville or northwest to Donegal GC Murvagh, Enniscrone and the grand old lady at Rosses Point.
To describe the difference between the two alternatives I think of the plain-speaking captain of the first dive boat I went on. When conversation turned to the merits of the most famous dive site in the vicinity, he said: “What’s the fun in waiting around just to see a bunch of idiots filming each others’ butts?” So off we went to another place which was magical...and undisturbed by other boats.
You might not get the seclusion at Rosses Point which you can get at Ballyliffin or Rosapenna, but also not the constantly full booking sheets that is often the reality of high season golf at the top courses in the South West of Ireland.
On our arrival (without a booking, bien sûr) the pro shop assistant asked us if we wanted to start immediately. Somewhat bemused, we agreed. When teeing off, we saw two helicopters landing. Afterwards, we realised that we would probably have spent almost an hour longer on the links if we had not taken his offer. A few years later, I am still grateful for his initiative.
The pro shop assistant did not, however, try very hard to talk us out of our idea to also play the club’s Bomore nine. It would have been a better move to play the Championship course twice on the day, especially as we made a few rookie mistakes during our round.
County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point held the Irish Amateur Open the week prior to my visit and it is understandable why a prestigious venue such as this is deemed worthy of holding a tournament of this ilk.
The real beauty of Sligo, however, is that it has the ability to mix championship brawn with quirkier elements across its more undulating terrain and in the case of the short 4th serves up a truly wondrous and unique golf hole.
Many a visiting golfer may tie in a visit here with Carne and Enniscrone. I’d wholly recommend that strategy as Sligo offers an excellent alternative (breather!) to the big dune golf at the other two venues yet the quality is not compromised in the slightest.
The green complexes at Sligo stand out as being superior to most with large putting surfaces and standout bunkering. At a number of holes the length of the green is so vast that bunkers flank the putting surface often pinching in between a third and two-thirds of the way back - not always fronting the green like you find at many courses.
Excellent use is also made of a couple of ditches running through the property, not least at the marvellous 7th where chasing a right-hand flag is a fool’s errand.
The only arguable blot on the landscape, especially on the exceptional front nine, is the drive at the second hole which is a touch too steep although the skyline green is lovely and quickly makes amends for an uninspiring tee shot.
Indeed the outward half is one of the best nine-holes of golf I have played. And at a push I could go as far as saying the first two-thirds of the course.
Although much lauded the run for home which traces the beach didn’t quite live up to the staggeringly good golf through the first 12 holes in my eyes. There is absolutely nothing to dislike though and there are some very fine holes on these closing six holes – maybe it was the tailwind on the day which meant they didn’t quite play their best?
The standout on the homeward stretch is the remarkable uphill, doglegging 17th which requires some plotting, due to the uncertainty of where fairway meets broken ground, but at 470 yards brute force is also an asset.
In summary this traditional links layout utilizes the natural contours of the landscape to great effect. The end result is a course filled with dramatic undulations, elevated tees, and excellent green sites. Rosses Point is a stylish course, worthy of holding any top amateur championship but it goes a little further than this and delivers some individualistic holes which the travelling golfer will find extremely fulfilling.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
County Sligo is a terrific golf course in a beautiful raised location that slightly defies classification. It starts with gentle then severe elevation change followed by sweeping downhill like Gullane 1/2, gully redan par 3, heroic elevated tee shot like Cruden Bay... And so it goes. Add in elements of Royal Porthcawl for the topography, Castle Stuart in fairness and sight lines, Royal Dornoch for the mid back 9 stretch, a finishing duo with blind shots like the Machrie and you have a must play course. The greens were the best we've seen so far in North West Ireland with fun contours but no buried elephants but tough in the wind, the low lying holes always had interest with properly defined burns, shaved surrounds allowing the running game, the ever present beautiful scenery, changeable weather and the bonkers but fun 17th and it's a course it would be hard to improve. Would love to come back.
Judging from the reviews below, County Sligo divides opinion. Almost everyone agrees that it's a good course, but some feel it falls short of the best. I agree with the latter sentiment, I was slightly underwhelmed.
There's no doubt that it's a good golf course with some very good holes and few weak ones. But having played it in a trip that took in Carne, Enniscrone and Connemara, I came away feeling that Sligo was the least strong of the four. The weather drove my off Connemara, so I'm unable to make a complete comparison there, but for Sligo to be rated above Carne and Enniscrone? I can't see that. The views are stupendous, of course, and the facilities excellent, but for me it added up to a great place to play golf, not quite a great golf course.
For our round at Co Sligo the day started off kind weather-wise, overcast yet with barely any breeze. These somewhat unexpectedly benign conditions lasted for the duration of the front nine, until the clouds let loose and persistent heavy rain dominated the bank nine, albeit, oddly, without the wind ever really picking up beyond a slight breeze.
The first four holes and 5th tee are positioned on and around what more resembles a mountain than a large sand-dune. After the relatively benign par four 1st played to an elevated green, the imposing 2nd hole appears a driveable par four on the scorecard but such is the sharp incline it would take an exceptional drive to find the green protected by three nasty sand traps. One of my favourites was the par five 3rd, the tee-shot a dramatic one back down the mountain to a fairway that has three bunkers on either flank and runs out at a rough covered decline before continuing on a flatter note towards the green, the only drawback (in my view) being the road crossing the fairway before the green. The 4th is the first of a fine set of par threes, the green perched high up on a plateau with anything short or right severely punished. The index 18 5th hole boasts my favourite tee shot on the course, a huge downhill drive to a generous fairway on the flat middle section of the course on what is a very reachable par five with a 45-yard long green, a birdie chance albeit there are eleven bunkers littered along the way to punish any mishaps.
The flat-lands portion of the front nine (5th fairway/green and successive par fours from the 6th-8th) features the sneakily dangerous draw-favouring 6th with a hazard along the right and the very tough 7th, which is complicated by menacing fairway bunkering a treacherous burn running in front and to the right of the green, the hole framed by the dramatic backdrop of the famous Belbulben table top mountain. The approach to the dogleg right 8th was another one of my favourite shots on the course, played over the burn to what is an amphitheatre like setting at the green and a little backstop helping out any slightly over-clubbed shots. The 9th is a lovely par three across the top of the dunes with four bunkers protecting the front half of the green and an absolute no-go fall-off zone on the right side.
The back nine begins with the picturesque par four 10th, again in the direction of Belbulben, featuring particularly lumpy fairway undulations and another huge green. The 11th and 12th run directly back west towards the ocean, the 11th an awkward par four (probably my least favourite hole on the course) with a fairway sloping from left to right and a green guarded by hungry bunkers, one short on the left to catch any bounce-in shots and one short on the right to gobble up any underhit shots veering to the right down the hill. The par five 12th is a decent birdie opportunity before the homeward stretch, played up and over an incline and down the other side of the hill invitingly towards the green and the ocean horizon beyond.
The par three 13th tee is one of the standout scenes on the course, set above and overlooking the beach and the green below, its defences including a burn back right and ‘Lady Captain’s Bunker’ (€1 entrance fee) among the five sand traps. Whilst the final five holes are all played in a southerly direction back towards the clubhouse (13-16 alongside the beach), they offer great variety, starting with Tom Watson’s favourite, the demanding par four 14th that requires a long and accurate tee shot short of the burn that weaves its way across the fairway and an approach to an open, yet sideways sloping putting surface. I could see why Tom likes it, but I myself preferred the par four 15th, framed majestically by dunes on both sides from tee to green and overlooked by the spectacular highland section of the front nine to the left background. The par three 16th is similar to the other short holes in that the tee is above the green level, though slightly less so here, and like the others offers plenty of reward for good tee shots once you find the relatively flat green.
The 17th hole, whilst one of the more memorable holes on the course, may not necessarily be the most enjoyable for some simply because of its difficulty. The landing area from the tee is quite flat and favours the right side to open up the approach to the green, which is a long way up the steep hill and surrounded by dramatic high dunes – bogey here is a not a bad score at all. The 18th is a blind tee shot over the apex of a hill and appears tricky off the tee, but the landing area is forgiving and offers a chance to get close with a short iron for a finishing birdie, although missing the green does leave a difficult up and down.
Pick of the holes:
Par three – 13th
Par fours – 8th, 15th
Par five – 5th
Tremendous golf course with many standout holes including 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15. This area boasts Enniscrone (a top 20 course in my opinion) and Strandhill so well worth a trip. In summary, a beautiful and challenging course.
Almost seven years after my last visit here, I returned the other day in search of an elusive “X-factor,” something that I felt was missing first time around. The course was obviously configured as before: the first three holes are still routed up and down a hill in an old-fashioned arrangement that I find quite charming, the four par threes at 4, 9, 13 & 16 remain terrifically strong short holes (yielding not a single par on a very blustery day) and the pair of closing par fours – especially the stroke index two 17th – are as tough and intimidating as they ever were.
No, what I missed when I was here in 2007 was something only ever found at a select few courses – a golfing soul!
The large number of GUI pennants displayed in the entrance hall of the clubhouse gives notice to the golfing achievements of County Sligo members at regional and national level over many years and you don’t win all those tournaments unless you’ve honed your golfing skills to a very high level on a fine old track like that at Rosses Point.
The place is steeped in tradition, with its West of Ireland Amateur competition identifying most of the great Irish champions – right up to Rory McIlroy in recent years – since it was first played for in 1923. The venerable old course and the refurbished clubhouse fit hand in glove and each should be savoured to gain a full appreciation of one of Ireland’s top sporting institutions.
If David O’Donovan, the genial Director of Golf at County Sligo, is around when you visit then ask him nicely if he’ll give you a peek into the committee room downstairs, where the walls are adorned with old photos and correspondence associated with Cecil Ewing, one of the finest amateur golfers to ever swing a club. It’s a fitting display in honour of an Irish golfing great and well worth a wee browse around if you get the chance.