125 years of golf celebrated by Bundoran Golf Club

As part of the 125 anniversary of golf in Bundoran, historian and club member Anthony Begley charts the club's great history from start to the present day

125 years of golf celebrated by Bundoran Golf Club

In 1894 golf was first played in Bundoran, when the Highland Hotel Company decided to build an hotel and golf course on a spectacular site overlooking Bundoran and Donegal Bay.

The company built hotels in seaside resorts such as Warrenpoint, Rostrevor and Bundoran as these towns were served by the Great Northern Railway. Their business plan was to also construct golf courses, beside the hotels, and to attract tourists to travel by rail, to play golf and stay in the hotels.

Ninety six acres were initially purchased on scenic Aughross Hill to construct a 60 bedroom hotel with billiard room, reading rooms, tennis courts and golf course. Work on the construction of the hotel commenced in 1894, but the golfers were quick off the mark and had started playing golf in 1894 before the hotel was officially opened.

Unlike today golf in the early years was the preserve of the gentry and the first President was the Duke of Abercorn from Newtownstewart Co. Tyrone, the first Captain was a local landlord James Johnston from Kinlough Co. Leitrim and chairman of the club was James Caldwell Bloomfield who lived on his estate at Castlecaldwell near Belleek Co. Fermanagh. Bloomfield had been instrumental in bringing the railway to Belleek Pottery and the line then extended to Ballyshannon and Bundoran.

Early Golf in Bundoran and a Rare Golf Inscription

The course was initially a nine-hole course and was designed by one of the most prominent Victorian designers G.L. Baillie, originally from Musselburgh in Scotland. The British Open recently won by Shane Lowery at Portrush golf course was originally designed as a nine-hole course by Baillie who also designed the world renowned Royal County Down course in Newcastle.

The first golf competition was played on the Bundoran links on Friday 24th August 1894 for the club handicap monthly prize played between the hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Annual membership for men was one guinea, ladies 10/6 and youths 5 shillings.

Bundoran became affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1895 and played their first inter-club match against County Sligo G.C. on 21st June at Rosses Point. In 1894 golf clubs were also established at County Sligo, Portmarnock, Co. Longford, Tramore, Greenisland, Fortwilliam, County Cavan and Portstewart.

The most poignant cup competed for by the early golfers was The Gordon Inglis Challenge Cup which has the following inscription: “Elected a member 4th April 1896. Won Club Cup 6th April 1896. Died 9th April 1896.” His father J. Malcolm Inglis lived in Dublin but also occupied the Lareen Estate near Kinlough and presented the cup in memory of his son Gordon who died within a week of being elected a member and of winning the club cup. This must surely rank as one of the most unusual and saddest inscriptions on a cup in the world of golf.

By 1903 C.S. Butchart, professional at Royal County Down was employed to design an 18 hole course at Bundoran. Butchart was a famous club maker and designer who planned courses in Ireland and Germany. Bundoran quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding links and by 1924 Mr. McNeill, a professional golfer, was invited to give lessons and in 1928 Leo Wallace, a winner of the Irish Professional Championship was appointed professional at Bundoran and stayed for eight years.

Legendary Harry Vardon Designed Bundoran G.C 1927

Bundoran golf club members, and the G.N R. Company, had great ambitions for the golf links and invited six times British Open Champion Harry Vardon to make improvements to the course.

Vardon came to Bundoran at Easter 1927 to design changes to the course to bring it up to championship standards. His philosophy on course design was “to give pleasure to golfers of all degrees”.

His improvements to the course at Bundoran featured the relocation of tees, resiting of greens and the opening of a number of new bunkers. His course required the golfer to have the full range of shots and his bunkers were strategically situated on the fairways and on the approaches to greens. By December 1927 “The Irish Field” golf magazine recorded that “as a result of Vardon’s skill a fine course will in future be available for visitors.” To coincide with Harry Vardon’s visit a successful Easter Open Golf event was held which attracted over 200 entries with many travelling by rail to Bundoran.

Harry Vardon and an English professional Jack Smith played an exhibition match on the Saturday against the Irish professionals Willie Nolan and William Holley. Vardon and Smith won a closely contested match by 3 and 2. A second exhibition was played on the following Tuesday. The Easter event concluded with a first class dinner in the Great Northern Hotel. On the 19th December 1928 L.J. Passmore proposed that honorary membership of Bundoran G.C. be conferred on the legendary Harry Vardon and this was seconded by Dr. P.D. Walsh. This was one of the first occasions that an Irish golf club had given honorary membership to an English professional.

Harry Vardon was delighted by the honour and in 1930 presented the club with a sterling silver cup which was called the Vardon Cup. In 1936 the course was extended and new holes built including the present 2nd, 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th. Many of the features of Harry Vardon’s course design were retained on the remaining parts of the course.

Christy O’Connor the Master Golfer at Bundoran 1951-1957

Christy O’Connor spent his formative years in Bundoran where he had his early breakthrough on the professional golf circuit. From 1951-1954 he was employed each season as professional in Bundoran and during that period, he won the Ulster Championship twice, The Irish Dunlop, the Christie Cup and the Hoey Cup. Christy married Mary Collins in 1954 and on his honeymoon won the Gleneagles Saxons Foursomes Championship where he was partnered by Bundoran member Dr. P.J. Brady.

Following his successes he was employed full time for the remainder of his time in Bundoran from 1955-1957. In 1955 he made his major breakthrough by winning the first £1,000 prize in Europe at the Swallow Penfold Tournament and the same year made the first of his ten appearances in the Ryder Cup at Palms Spring. Golf club members were delighted with his successes and in 1956 he won the Dunlop Masters one of the most prestigious tournaments in the golfing world and the Spalding Tournament.

In 1957 he was on the winning Ryder Cup team and in the singles defeated D. Finsterwald 7 and 6. Success continued in 1957 with victory in the News of the World Match Play and the Hennessy Tournament. Christy O’Connor was guest of honour at Dr. O’Callaghan’s Captain’s Dinner in the Great Northern Hotel when he was the recipient of a presentation to mark his many successes.

Club President Dr. Patrick Daly paid tribute to Christy O’Connor at the A.G.M. in 1957: “I wish him well and congratulate him on his continued success. He has shown at all times his appreciation of anything this Club has done for him and I do hope and think he will always cherish happy memories of the Bundoran G.C. which was his Alma Mater during the most formative phase of his existence as a professional golfer. I am also pleased to tell you that he has been elected an honorary member of this Club and this is the greatest honour we can bestow on a professional.”

At the annual dinner in 1958 Christy complimented the members who had been his friends and assisted him in every way. He had little thought that he would be leaving so soon; “I hope that no one feels that by doing so I am letting Bundoran Golf Club down, I like to think that I can always come back here to meet the members as friends because that is how they always treated me, as one of themselves.”

Christy moved to Killarney G.C in 1958 and later to Royal Dublin in 1959. He presented The Christy O’Connor Cup which is competed for by the members in Bundoran.

From G.N.R to C.I.E. to local ownership

The closure of the Great Northern Railway in 1957 was the end of an era. The railway had brought thousands of visitors to Bundoran and had been of great benefit to the golf club and the hotel.

C.I.E. successfully took over the running of the hotel and the golf course and this resulted in a new clubhouse and four major professional golf tournaments coming to Bundoran. Early successes for club teams included the Tirconaill Cup captained by James Cassidy in 1970.

The Donegal Inter Club League captained by Canice McCreery in 1973 and the following year a team captained by J.R. Gallogley, and in 1981 Andy Barrett captained the Donegal Inter Club League team to victory.

The leading golfer in Bundoran Jimmy Murray won the All-Ireland Seniors Championship in 1982 and 1987.

Back in the 1890s the ladies had participated in the men’s competitions and in 1901 Ms. Tynte (handicap 8) won the McVitty Cup in competition with the men. By 1927 the ladies had affiliated to the I.L.G.U. and in 1939 the Irish Ladies Championship was held at Bundoran. The golden age for the ladies was in the 1950s when they won a hat trick of Connaught Cups and five victories in the Connaught Trophy. In 1972 they again won the Connaught Trophy and in 1973 hosted the Irish Ladies Championship.

In 1977 Margaret Keon won the Connaught Senior Championship. The All-Ireland Lady Captains’ Competition was initiated by Frances McDaid in 1976 and in the same year the Pro-Am was started under Sean Meade’s captaincy. Both competitions successfully continued for many years and raised the profile of Bundoran G.C.

In February 1977 advertisements in the national newspapers indicated that C.I.E. were selling the hotel and were willing to lease the golf course, subject to a successful tender being agreed. Vincent Jennings (Captain), John McElhinney (President), Joe Roarty (Secretary) and all the council members did trojan work to secure the lease. For the first time the hotel and course were in local ownership when well-known local business men Sean and Brian McEniff purchased the property.

Brian McEniff is the owner of the hotel and golf course today, and the golf club have assumed greater responsibility than in G.N.R. and C.I.E. days for the maintenance of the course. In the 1980s Leslie Robinson was a popular professional and in 1991 his brother David Robinson became professional at Bundoran and has successfully continued to the present day. In recent years competitions like the Seniors, Ladies Alliance, Big Bullet, Little Bullet, W.A.G.S. and West Coast Challenge have provided enjoyment for local and visiting golfers.

Modern Times

Today Bundoran is a stopping point on the Wild Atlantic Way and the golf course has a magnificent setting with views of Donegal Bay, the nearby Dartry range of mountains, the spectacular Roguey Walk with the Fairy Bridges and the adjacent beaches for swimming, surfing and sunbathing.

On June 7th 2019 the professional golfers once again returned to play with amateur partners in the Bundoran G.C. Pro-Am to mark the 125th anniversary of the club. The club has produced six current professional golfers, Adam and Matthew Dunmore, Sean Donnelly, Gareth McShea, Bobby Fallon and Donal Scott which is a great tribute to David Robinson and the quality of coaching in the club.

The club has moved with the times and offers golfers a range of good-value membership options to meet the demands of a fast- changing world. A valuable feature of the golf course is that it is open all year thanks to the work of Terence McShea, greenkeeper and the greens staff.

There has been an increase of interest in young golfers thanks to the work of the junior convenors who work with school-going students and the club provides the added bonus of golf instruction for juniors and for new lady members. Bundoran golf club are also fortunate to have a fully equipped golf shop with buggies, including professional advice and instruction to cater for the various needs of local and visiting golfers.

The Club has been welcoming golfers for generations and also provides meals and snacks in the comfortable clubhouse, where experienced staff can cater for individuals and societies. Special golfing deals are on offer for large groups.

The continued growth of Bundoran Golf Club is due to the contributions of Captains, Presidents, committees, staff, sponsors, professionals and members, including current President, Eugene Deeny, Club Captain Donagh Keon and Lady Captain Fran Murphy. Golfers owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers who started Bundoran Golf club in 1894 as locals and visitors continue to enjoy a beautiful golf course with a rich history.

Club Captain Keon looking forward to year

Bundoran Club Captain for 2020, Donagh Keon, is looking forward to a good year on the fairways in Bundoran, one of the oldest clubs in the country.

"Harry Vardon, the six times Open champion, designed a course to suit all degrees of ability and with Bundoran playable 12 months of the year, we are blessed as club members," said the Captain this week.

"Looking forward we are always pro-active in seeking young golfers and great work has been done in this area by Sorcha Begley and Niall Clancy. We have a broad range of membership and we cater for all categories.

"As regards course development, work continues under the supervision of our Course Superintendent Terence McShea. Among the holes being developed include the 9th, 11th and the introduction of a three tier tee at the tricky 3rd.

"We have competitions from March to October and we thank all our local sponsors for making this possible. As well as the major events - Mens and Lady Captains Day and President's Day - we are holding a Junior and Senior Scratch Cup this year; senior handicaps 0-4 and junior 5-9," said Keon, who also paid tribute to the work of Club Professional David Robinson, who is the familiar welcoming face of the club for all visitors.

"It is a great honour to be serving as Captain this year. To have a golf club in Bundoran for 125 years is a major achievement and hopefully there will be many more years to enjoy the Bundoran fairways."

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