Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every 18-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the 7,000-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married.
I've had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:
Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club -- which I've played, though not with him -- has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club's profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will "move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf." One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.
Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham's photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit -- the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members -- but David O'Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn't mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I'd be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O'Donovan.
Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O'Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart -- an Irish first for me. When you're in a cart, it's hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff -- on a par 5 called the Jump -- and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here's the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn't opened yet, we played the club's third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for 20 years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). "My game is coming back," he said -- a man at peace.