An unquenchable community spirit and 18 fantastic links holes should be enough to overcome the financial hurdles and allow Carne Golf Links to host the 2015 Irish Seniors Open on the European Senior Tour next June.
The remote County Mayo course, which now boasts 27 holes following the addition to a new nine to the original 18 designed by Eddie Hackett, left European Tour officials open-mouthed at the spectacular nature of the challenge when they visited the links just outside Belmullet earlier this week.
European Ryder Cup Director Richard Hills and the Tour’s Commercial Director James Finnigan, were blown away according to director Eamon Mangan, who helped set up the non-profit company that runs Carne Golf Links for the benefit of the entire community.
“They said that in their job they were lucky enough to play some of the greatest courses in the world but they had never seen anything like it,” Eamon said. “It would be arrogant to say were have the best 18 holes in the country, but I would say there aren’t 18 more spectacular holes in the country.”
It will cost €500,000 to bring the Irish Seniors Open to Mayo but if half that amount can be raised through local sponsorship, the Tour will cover the balance.
It’s a small price to pay to bring a major tournament to the home county of An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at a time when the Tour needs as much government support as possible to grow the Irish Open on the main tour.
The Irish Seniors Open has not been played since 2010 but with huge multi-nationals in the Mayo area such as Coca Cola and Shell, as well as the major international companies in the health and pharmaceutical sectors, it should be possible to find the cash to get the ball rolling.
If thing prove difficult in the short term, it may mean postponing the event until 2016, pushing another planned Connacht staging at County Sligo Golf Club into 2017.
However, Mayo County Manager Peter Hynes — assisted by the dynamic Joanne Grehan, CEO of Mayo County Enterprise Board — has been highly pro-active in getting things moving.
“I can’t say enough about Peter Hynes,” says Eamon. “Or Joanne. They have been absolutely fantastic.”
Fantastic aptly describes Carne Golf Links, which is a testament to the community spirit that typifies life in the remote but spectacularly beautiful west of Ireland.
The original 18 holes were designed by Eddie Hackett and built on a shoestring budget over a period of seven years in the early nineties.
In the two decades since they were first played upon, they have grown in stature, their charm owing as much to the rugged, remote beauty of the area as to the wonderfully natural course of which Hackett believed “that ultimately there will be no better links in the country, or, I doubt, anywhere."
Nine new holes — the Kilmore nine — opened for light play in July 2013, forming an additional loop through the most spectacular dunes on the 280 acre property. They further enhance what is already considered to be one of the greatest courses in Ireland, at a time when good news stories are few and far between in the industry.
The new nine was the first significant Irish new-build project since the economic crash of 2008 and they are holes that underwent a long gestation period, having first been suggested by Hackett himself the year before he died in 1996.
American designer and overseas club member Jim Engh put together an initial routing in 2004, some of which was used when Irish-based architect Ally McIntosh was engaged by Carne in 2010 to produce what became the final layout and design.
At a time when many other courses in Ireland are struggling to make ends meet, Carne has once again returned to sustainable first principles by building a high quality golf course on a very low budget and by using environmentally friendly methods that respect the unique landscape.
As with the original 18 holes, the construction was overseen primarily by a small and local work-force whose passion for the project has ultimately played a large part in its success. The desire to provide even better facilities for the surrounding community has been a driving force.
The venue regularly hosts the Shell Pro-Am on the PGA Irish Region schedule — captured this year by Delgany’s Mark Staunton with rounds of 71 and 67.
As for a staging of the Irish Seniors Open, a composite course will be used with the original back nine and the new nine forming what should be wonderful test for Europe's senior stars.
Carne’s commitment will require an upgrade to the clubhouse the provision of catering for the pros and their families, which coupled with some course work will bring their outlay to around €100,000.
As for accommodation, there are 140 hotel beds in Belmullet between the Broadhaven Hotel and boutique Talbot Hotel, not to mention many local B&Bs. The Mount Falcon House Hotel in Ballina is also likely to come on board as a sponsor.
An early June date is on the cards but whenever it takes place, the event represents a major achievement for a course that had very humble beginnings.
“This tract of land was going to be subdivided by the land commission in 1985 and it was too good to let go,” Eamon explains. “There were only around 70 members of Belmullet Golf Club at the time and they didn’t want to be strangled with debt so about 10 us got together and we got State funding for an interest free loan and got the begging bowl out. Indeed we have had the begging bowl out every since.
“So hopefully when all of us that are involved pass on, we’ll leave behind something that will be of benefit to the community.
“The links is pwned by Erris Tourism because when the land became available and the golf club didn’t express an interest in buying it, ten of us set up a company called Erris Tourism Holdings Ltd.
“It’s a non-profit company. We signed on the dotted line to say there is no dividend to any director and it’s run on a voluntary basis. The whole purpose of it is to enhance the tourist traffic out here.
“This tour event is one of those things that would go a long way towards helping us to do that.”
Around 11,000 golfers played Carne this year, spending €225,000 and boosting local businesses.
“We have dropped back a bit but we are climbing back up again,” Eamon says. “The golf links makes a big contribution to the area in terms of B&Bs, hotels, restaurants and pubs.
“During the good old days of the boom we took in €440,000 a year but it is slowly coming back and next year we hope to be op to around the €300,000 mark.”
Local children are now taking up the game in an area where Gaelic football is still king.
Mayo last won the Sam Maguire in 1951 and while they have appeared in seven finals since 1989, they have lost them all.
No wonder Eamon was smiling when the Ryder Cup trophy made an appearance in Carne this week.
An email arrived in my in-box with a picture of Eamon holding Samuel Ryder’s precious gold chalice.
The subject line read: “The wrong Sam for Mayo!!”
Perhaps 2015 will turn out to be a huge year, with big ball and small.