County Sligo GM David O’Donovan says its all systems go for the West

Mark McGowan

The view from above the 17th green at County Sligo Golf Club

Mark McGowan

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The Connolly Motors West of Ireland Championship at County Sligo Golf Club is the traditional start to the Golf Ireland Championship season and it’s now just two days away as the tournament qualifier takes place on Wednesday with the Championship outright starting on Friday.

After a two-year trial period where we saw three rounds of strokeplay and the leading 16 players battling out the Championship over two days of matchplay, Golf Ireland have opted to return to the traditional two rounds with 64 advancing and it’s a decision that County Sligo Golf Club General Manager David O’Donovan welcomes.

“Look, I think everybody wants to go back to the old traditional format,” he said, “I think it’s the one that works for the members here, but also for the people who watch golf because they can pick a match and go and follow it or they can pick four matches and say ‘I’ll go and watch golf at eight o’clock, 10 o’clock, two o’clock.’ I know I’m going to be watching.

“I know what it is – It’s man against man, to a certain extent, it’s not man against the course. No disrespect to any strokeplay winners, but I think when it comes to a matchplay event – and we’re now one of the only ones that is matchplay – I think for viewing and for people around the area, I think it brings more clarity to what’s happening.”

The West of Ireland Championship is very important, not just to County Sligo Golf Club itself, but to the entire local and extended communities who’ve got to witness some of the best players in the world on the rise and the competition’s roll of honour is the envy of large tournaments worldwide with the names ‘Padraig Harrington’, ‘Rory McIlroy’, and ‘Shane Lowry’ among those etched into the history as former winners.

And O’Donovan is once again expecting strong crowds as the latest batch of challengers line up to carve out their own piece of history on the Rosses Point links.

“Traditionally here, an awful lot of our members would take Tuesday [the final day which sees the two semi-finals followed by the final] as a day’s holiday because they’ve always watched the West,” he said. “So you’ve traditionally got this cohort of people – both members and non-members – who always come out here on Tuesday.”

The weather on the west coast can be challenging even at the height of summer, and last year’s staging saw some of the worst conditions you’re likely to encounter, but that doesn’t put off the hardened diehards who flock to support the best up-and-coming talent, especially if there are one or two of their own to get behind.

“We’ve always had very, very good crowds here for the West, especially if you have anyone local or anyone going well that’s well known in the area, I think that entices even more people to come out,” O’Donovan said, “people come out in hail, rain, and sunshine. It won’t bother them. They’ll go out and watch golf because they’re golf enthusiasts. And I think that’s the one thing you can take from people who come to the West of Ireland.”

And in many ways, it’s double the fun for the local golf supporters as County Sligo will also host the Irish Amateur Open in May, and getting both the course and the clubhouse ready for the heavy influx of traffic is something that’s presented its own challenges.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s busy on the outside of things because you’re trying to get a golf course ready and you’re trying to get clubhouse ready,” he explains. “We’ve done renovation jobs on the ladies’ locker room, men’s locker room, the hallway, the shop, and then on the golf course side, you know, we always try to have the full golf course open from about the 16th of March, roughly 10 days before the West of Ireland Qualifier kicks off.

“We’ve done a lot of work this winter and we’ve done it in-house. We levelled two tee boxes and re-turfed them on number eight and number 13, and we’ve revetted, I think it’s 15 or 16 bunkers. So I think the players will see new challenges out there, but I also think that there’s a fairness out there because a lot of the rough has been cut back and we’re grading our rough for the season ahead and at the moment everything’s at a level where it’s very, very manageable.

“So come, the West lads will be able to hit the golf ball anywhere, but I think once you see the Irish Amateur, a few weeks later, I think you’re going to see a little bit of the rough starting to grow if we get a bit of heat in the ground.”

Due to Easter falling early in 2024 – and the West of Ireland Championship has always been held over the Easter weekend – it was possible for both Championships to be held at County Sligo, however this presents fresh challenges for the grounds staff.

“I think the biggest one is the wear and tear of the golf course because on specific tee boxes, you’ve got a huge amount of wear, especially the par-3s. So, one of the things we have spoken to Golf Ireland about was to look at the tee placings on the four par-3s just so we use some of them for the West and then we can kind of push out to another section of it come the Irish Amateur.

“We won’t have much recovery in those four or five weeks, but we’ll overseed greens on the Monday after the West and they’ll be top-dressed at least twice if not three times, just to bring them up and get the firmness in them. The key for us is to get a bit of growth, you know, with the soil temperatures so low at the moment, you know, we’re not getting a whole lot of growth out there.

“If we get a little bit of growth and a bit of heat in the ground, that takes care of one of the challenges, but another big challenge is within the clubhouse.

“You know, the key is catering and making sure that all the players are fed and watered and get back out on the golf course because there isn’t a huge number of places available for food in the village. So, it’s a very busy week for the staff upstairs.”

Despite the short interval between both tournaments, one being part matchplay and the other being fully strokeplay means that the course can be presented in differing fashions even though O’Donovan feels that anybody who plays the West of Ireland first will have a slight advantage when they return six weeks later.

“If they arrive here on the ninth of May, they’re not going to find a totally different golf course. If you’ve been here and you’ve played in the West, you’ve got three or four practice rounds under your belt in probably similar enough conditions.

“You’ll have the rough up a little bit more, hopefully a little bit more definition in color, but generally the golf course should play very, very similarly.

“You’re going to have the course set up very fairly – we’re not there to punish the golfer – but I think you’ll see more challenging pins during the West because you’ve got the match play, whereas when you get to the stroke play side of the Irish Am, I think you’re going to see it very safe.

“We don’t want to see fellows going out there shooting rounds of 83 and 84. We want to see three or four-under, you know, the winner shooting 10-under over four days or something like that would be ideal.

“That means the golf course has won to me because if these fellows are coming off +5 and +6, then they should be doing this in their sleep. But you’ll see…”

Before parting, O’Donovan paid tribute to the County Sligo membership without whose support neither tournament would be possible.

“I think that, you know, and the members here give up an awful lot. I think, you know, a big thank you has to go to the members here to facilitate the golf that takes place this year. You know, you’re in a situation where they’re basically losing their golf course for seven days in April and five days in May. So you’re 12 days gone with their playing season.

A lot of them will go and watch it. A lot of them will help volunteer wise. I think it is always important to remember that it’s a members’ club first.”

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