Tony Cunningham on the legacy of the West

County Sligo Golf Club has provided a wonderful backdrop for the West of Ireland again this year. Photo: Golffile | Thos Caffrey

In September 1588, three ships from the Spanish Armada sank during violent storms along the coast of Sligo. La Lavia, La Juliana and the Santa Maria de Vison were lost off Streedagh Strand.

It’s an historic part of the world for many reasons, close to Rosses Point where WB Yeats spent his summer holidays at Elsinore House.

The Northwest coast is also one of the surfing capitals of Europe, with Bundoran and Strandhill providing the ideal escapes for water sport enthusiasts.


But for one weekend each year County Sligo Golf Club becomes the central hub, Easter and the Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland Amateur Open Championship are intrinsically linked. This year’s renewal holds special significance, it’s the Centenary event and it concludes today on the picturesque links.

“I always do, I have always had a great feeling at this time of the year,” said former County Sligo Golf Club President and Captain Tony Cunningham.

“There is a buzz that comes in around Easter time. Even though I spent an awful amount of time away from home I always tried to get home for Easter as often as I could.

“There was always a buzz there, and a buzz in the village as well. It was lovely to see that there. To watch these men competing with each other through terrible conditions, through great conditions. It will be always part of me.”

The 83-year-old grew up just down the road from County Sligo Golf Club, which is also referred to as Rosses Point by the locals.

Cunningham has watched Shane Lowry being crowned West of Ireland Amateur champion as recently as 2008 while he was also on course for Rory McIlory’s back-to-back heroics in 2005 and 2006.

Just over a decade earlier, a young Padraig Harrington was forging a name for himself in his early career and Cunningham had a sweeping brush in hand, helping him on his way.

“I remember 1994, it was the year that Padraig Harrington won the West of Ireland and it was early that year, end of March or early April but we had horrendous weather,” said Cunningham.

“On the Wednesday night before the West of Ireland there was a storm and the following day I was with Sean Hosty and we were marking the Ground Under Repair. When we came to the 14th hole the bridge across the little stream was gone.

“The fairway was covered in seaweed from the storm the night before. You can imagine the panic trying to get the place ready for the following day. The course was not in good condition. We had a problem with over-sanding previous to that.

“Then on the Saturday night the weather was very poor right up until the Sunday. We had a very bad hail storm between 5pm and 6pm on the Saturday. I remember myself and the late Fred Perry, who was very involved with it as well, we had two sweeping brushes out on the 18th green, sweeping the hailstones so Padraig could putt.”

And even then, the town of Rosses Point had changed a lot from the days when Cunningham was in his teens.

It was mostly cottages that had dotted the surrounds, there was a makeshift swimming pool at Dead Man’s Point with two diving boards and the local football team played alongside the golf course.

And while County Sligo Golf Course was the hive of activity, the youngsters in the town would invariably end up playing golf too. Cunningham followed suit in 1963.

“I started when I was 23 and I joined in a very unusual way. I got a letter from my old school teacher that he proposed me for membership of the golf club,” said Cunningham.

“I was away a lot and when I came home I was to pay my fee. I was in the merchant navy and I would only be home about every three months or so but I kept up my membership of the golf club because I played golf for most of the time I would be at home.

“I played a little bit when I was a young lad because I used to caddie on the golf course. Most of the local lads all started playing golf by caddying. And then they would pick up from the golfers when they were playing.

“It was the way they learned the game and a lot of very good golfers came from that. In fact a couple of the golfers that came from that went to England and turned professional.”

County Sligo Golf Club was originally designed by George Combe, the founding Honorary Secretary of the GUI, in 1894.

It was a nine hole layout but that was extended to 18 by William Campbell and then in 1927 Harry Colt reversed the direction of the course in his redesign.

In the shadows of Ben Bulben, it provides a unique test for even the best amateur golfers and last year Bray’s Alan Fahy took home the prize.

He held his nerve over three crucial putts in the closing stretch to stave off the challenge of Galway’s Liam Nolan in the decider.

And while the Masters in Augusta dominated the professional golfing landscape this week, the men’s section of the Bridgestone Order of Merit also kicked off in Rosses Point on Friday.

The field has been whittled down now and today’s winner of the West of Ireland Amateur  Open Championship will go down in history.

“The one thing about the West was the Easter weekend was a weekend when people came for the whole weekend,” said Cunningham.

“They would come on a Friday and stay until the Tuesday when the final was over. That went on for many many years. There was a lot of stories told about it. The card games at night, staying up a little bit too late, fellas being inebriated. That kind of thing used to go on.

“The one thing that I always remember is, as we had a club license, on a Good Friday in the club the place would be absolutely packed because you couldn’t get a drink anywhere else and they were all in the golf club.”

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