Everyone knows Westport Golf Club, don’t they?
It’s obvious because Westport is a big championship course on the Wild Atlantic Way… it is overlooked by Croagh Patrick and perched on Clew Bay… and it’s just five minutes from the charming town of Westport. It is Connacht’s ‘biggest’ parkland and it has hosted a raft of important Irish tournaments. To me, it’s obvious that everybody knows the course.
But never assume. Yes, you’ve heard of it no doubt but you probably haven’t played here or know that much about it. It’s a fair journey by car from Dublin and Cork, and this is not a stronghold for golfers – this is Mayo football country – so it is little surprise that Westport flies beneath the radar in the golf destination discussion.
It has also been flying under the radar when it comes to Irish course rankings. In a Bermuda Triangle-esque feat, Westport has rather vanished from the conversation. Back in 2007, the course was ranked in the top–50 but over the past decade, it has drifted down into the 70s. That it has languished so badly is a surprise as the course itself has not changed. It opened in 1973 (the club was founded in 1908) and the last significant upgrade was in the early 2000s when water features were introduced at the 7th/10th green complex, to the right of the 8th green and all along the 18th fairway, on the right-hand side.
Now add in that the original course designer was Fred Hawtree and you’ll appreciate why the course’s rankings dip is so strange.
So, what’s the story? It’s hard to say.
Westport Golf Club has just hosted the AIG Cups and Shields (mid-September) and used the occasion to begin its resurgence. This is a club that wants to get noticed again and while you might think that this is true of every course, it is not.
Word of mouth on course condition spreads fast and if you have bad greens, people will hear about it. That certainly is not the case at Westport, where a very well supported member levy has brought in a tidy sum. This is being used for course improvements (maintenance, drainage and sanding programmes), clubhouse refurbishment and new machinery. It is the start of a five-year development plan to get the course and club back to its best. And after just one year, the greens make it clear how successful those endeavours have been.
But certain qualities never fade.
The back nine, which uses its proximity to Clew Bay for maximum bragging rights, is the star of the show. The par three 14th and par five 15th are wonderful, while the club pitches holes 11 to 15 as its iconic stretch. It is not just down to Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick either, for the terrain picks up a real rumble from the 11th on and the old stone walls that have stood for hundreds of years add a very distinct charm. One such wall ran alongside the 11th fairway but it vanished overnight some years ago. No stone has been recovered and it remains a mystery. Not unlike that slide in the rankings.
Now – rough with the smooth – the first six holes are a tad quiet. You could say the optimum round commences on the 7th from which point you will play one of the better 12 hole stretches in Ireland.
But the opening holes introduce you to the surprisingly small greens and often narrow fairways. This is no push-over and nor should it be with its championship credentials. The list of events held here saw many of the biggest names in Irish golf head west… McIlroy, McGinley and Clarke among them. There are many tales of heroic match play comebacks: The 16–year old McIlroy was 4 up with 5 to play during the 2005 Irish Amateur Close… but Sean McTernan took him to the 18th.
Once you arrive at the 7th you’ll find a sweeter rhythm… and once you step onto 11 and see the fairway rising hard and fast, with only the tip of Croagh Patrick visible, you know things are moving up a gear. The two par fives on the back nine (15 and 18) are excellent holes on the risk/reward scale, but the bigger drama comes on the two short par fours that play over 16 and 17. Reachable? Not for mortals but it doesn’t stop us trying, does it! On 17, the fairway slopes steeply right, down to an old stone wall. Many an over-enthusiastic golfer who has found themselves with an impossible stance has wished the wall that vanished from the course was here and not on the 11th.
Westport also boasts the necessary facilities (driving range, short game area and practice green) and there’s a pitch & putt course too, which is attracting a good number of younger golfers and beginners.
The final word should go to the 530–yard (white tees) par five 15th, which is included in the Irish Golfer’s list of the 100 Best Golf Holes in Ireland. The tee sits well above Clew Bay, with the sea dividing tee and fairway. It is no simple thing to reach the other side. The hole then curves gently left and you will need something special to get home in two. Most players lay up short of the fairway hollow and leave themselves with a delicate pitch towards Ireland’s holiest mountain and a green that even up-close, looks small.
Westport Golf Club is fighting its way back into the limelight with green fees already up 22 per cent this year and strong numbers for societies and corporate days. As the five-year plan unfolds, the course returns to its best and the club becomes more innovative, you may just find yourself steering your way to the west.