Time won't stand still as County Louth celebrates 125th anniversary
A new look for County Louth, which now boasts a fine short game area in front of the clubhouse and a new car park on the site of the tennis courts

A new look for County Louth, which now boasts a fine short game area in front of the clubhouse and a new car park on the site of the tennis courts

County Louth is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year by hosting two championships and unveiling a spectacular new short game area.

But those are not the only changes happening in Baltray, which has hosted the 72-hole East of Ireland Championship since Joe Carr won the first of his 12 titles in May, 1941.

A view of the short game area under construction. Picture:  Spogardvandervaart.com

A view of the short game area under construction. Picture: Spogardvandervaart.com

Sadly, the "East" has lost some of its prestige in recent years with our top internationals and other "full-time" amateurs preferring to compete for more kudos — and World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) points — in clashing events such as the  Scottish Men’s Open Championship or St Andrew Links Trophy.

County Louth and Leinster Golf are determined to reverse that worrying trend, and while a date change has been ruled out for now given the difficulty of finding a suitable slot in the calendar, they have decided to make the "East" a four-day tournament this year.

Rather than playing two rounds over the weekend, followed by 36 holes on the bank holiday Monday for those making the cut, this year's championship will start on Friday, June 3 with the top 42 and ties after 54 holes qualifying for the final round on Monday, June 5.

As County Louth's general manager, Liam Murphy explained: "We want to attract a higher quality field than we have attracted in the last number of years. So we have reduced the field from 156 to 132 and by guaranteeing everyone three rounds, we hope we might entice more overseas players to make the trip.

"With just one round on Monday, we will have an earlier finish for those who might be flying out that evening.

"We clash with the Scottish Amateur Open this year but we have been in touch with some foreign golf federations to see if they are interested in sending players. It's worth giving it a shot."

As for the date, Murphy and Leinster Golf are waiting to see how the move to a 54-hole cut goes.

Given that many top players will still skip the "East" to play in the Scottish Amateur Open at Western Gailes from June 2-4 before heading on to the Home of Golf for the St Andrews Links Trophy from June 9-11, only an influx of elite players from abroad will improve the field.

Crowds watching the action during the final round of the 2016 East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club. 6 June 2016. Picture by  Pat Cashman

Crowds watching the action during the final round of the 2016 East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club. 6 June 2016. Picture by Pat Cashman

"It's very difficult," confessed Joe McNamara, Honorary Secretary of Leinster Golf.  "While the St Andrews Links Trophy does not take start until the following Friday, we are still going to be constrained by it and we still clash with the Scottish Men's Open. 

"We sat down with the GUI and discussed holding the event shortly after the Irish Amateur Open, which is being played from May 11-14. 

"But they didn't think it would have been of much benefit to us, coming so soon after the championship at Royal County Down and it is also very difficult to get a course in championship condition in mid-May."

As a compromise, it was decided to reduce the field size and guarantee everyone three rounds.

"We're contacting federations overseas to see if they are interested in sending players, but we know that if this doesn't work out of the next year or two, we will have to consider stronger moves," McNamara said when asked about a date change.

Working amateurs will complain that must now take an extra day off due to the Friday start, but with the leaders now going off last on Sunday and Monday, it should prove more attractive for spectators.

A move to September, which is considered too late in the season to make the event relevant for those seeking to impress selectors, has not been entirely ruled out though there is a fear that should they give up the June bank holiday, they might never get it back again.

As things stand, County Louth is actively seeking a new sponsor for the event given that CityNorth Hotel has ended its sponsorship agreement.

Whatever about the "East", County Louth will host the first of five successive Irish Women's Open Strokeplay Championships from May 12-14.

Founded in 1892, the club is synonymous with women's golf given that two of its greatest players were Clarrie Reddan and Philomena Garvey.

By staging the Irish Women's Open Strokeplay at Baltray until 2021, the ILGU is strengthening its links with two of Irish golf's most iconic players.

The new car park on the site of the tennis courts

The new car park on the site of the tennis courts

A native of Baltray, Clarrie won her only Irish title in Killarney in 1936 and went on to become the first Irishwoman to be selected for the Curtis Cup team in 1938, winning both her matches. 

She was picked again in 1948 along with Philomena Garvey, who went on to make six Curtis Cup appearances in a storied career that brought her the British Ladies title and no fewer than fifteen Irish championships.

Those who make the trip to Baltray for the Irish Women's Open or the "East" will find a transformed County Louth Golf Club.

Danish golf course architect Philip Spogard of Spogard & Vandervaart has re-landscaped the entrance to the club, replacing the "parkland" look with marram planting to complement the new short game zone.

Spogard has created the new facility in the area beyond the putting green; a spot traditionally used as an overflow car park during the East.

Removing the barrier that separated the putting green from the course, means the new facility now blends in seamlessly with the rest of the links, adding greatly to the aesthetics.

Marram grass planting around the clubhouse

Marram grass planting around the clubhouse

Spogard & Vandervaart, who are also drawing up ambitious plans to radically redesign Laytown and Bettystown on the other side of the Boyne, were initially retained by Baltray in 2012 to updated Tom Simpson's 1938 design. 

As a result, changes have been carried out to the second and fifth greens and a second green has been built at the 17th, offering the members the option of incorporating this 165-yard, par-three into the championship course.

The new 17th has been enhanced recently by the addition of two new bunkers, and according to the club, the hole has received favourable reviews from the members.

The new entrance to the club and short game area are hugely impressive additions and the club estimates the cost of all the recent improvements to the course and the area around the clubhouse at €400,000.

"We have transformed the driveway and entrance to the club with new marram planting, created a new car park on the right-hand side where the tennis courts used to be, taken down all the trees and constructed a new short game area beyond the putting green,"  Murphy explained.

"The new practice area has two pitching greens with a total area of 5,000 square yards and with all the brush, shrubbery and trees removed from that area, there is much closer connection now with the golf course, which gives the area a totally different aspect."

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent's Thursday "Tee to Green" supplement on 9 February 2017