A COLOURFUL HISTORY AND GREAT LOVE OF THE GAME
Set in the magnificent Georgian palace demesne of Archbishop Robinson with panoramic views of the historic city and its surrounding countryside, County Armagh Golf Club is surely one of the most picturesque golfing locations in Ulster.
Freestanding oaks, chestnuts, beech trees and ash trees line the impressively manicured fairways, with strategically placed bunkers leading to superb greens, many of which are defined by lush floral displays which blossom beautifully in spring and summer. And let's not forget Armagh's two stunning Cathedrals, which provide a truly enchanting backdrop to any round.
County Armagh Golf Club is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and it has been a memorable few months for a club that combines a colourful history with a great love of the game and an admirable community spirit.
With almost 800 members across all categories, it is very much a 21st century club. CAGC is though, in fact, one of the oldest in Ireland, formed in 1893 under the auspices of the Armagh Archery and Lawn Tennis Club. In that year, it was generously granted the use of the land in the demesne, rent free, by Mr George de la Prev Beresford. When the land, which spans some 350 acres, was sold in 1916 to the Diocesan Council for a very reasonable sum, the club was granted an annual tenancy at a nominal rent.
The late 50s onwards marked the most progressive period in the history of the club, and this can be attributed mainly to the vision and leadership of two men, namely PG Toner and Jim E Maxwell. They had seen the pace of golf's development and realised that, if County Armagh wished to take its place among the championship courses of the country, it must move with the times.
A feasibility study to acquire land for an 18-hole course was undertaken, with Ballyards, the Race Course and Castledillon Estate being considered. Eventually, due to the sympathetic support of Archdeacon the Rev JRM Crooks representing the Diocesan Trustees, additional land was acquired in the demesne to extend the course from nine to 18 holes with the security of tenure granted by a 40-year lease.
The design of the new 18 holes was entrusted to Don Patterson, then the professional at Warrenpoint, and Alan Smith, a course architect. The contract for building the course was awarded towards the end of 1972 to JG Duff and Co. for £26,000. A further £12,000 was later added to bring an automatic water-sprinkling system to the furthest reaches of the course.
On Saturday 3rd May 1975, over 400 people gathered around the first tee to watch the historic occasion of the opening of the new 18-hole course: 6,043 yards long, par 70. A blessing of the course by Archdeacon Crooks and the Administrator of the Catholic Cathedral, the Rev Malachy Coyle, preceded the first drive. Club Captain Harold O'Rourke addressed the assembled crowd before facing the most intimidating golf shot of his life. The spot where the ball landed is now marked with a granite plinth commemorating the occasion.
Partnering Harold on the first tee were Vice Captain Michael Lyons and, fittingly, Pat Toner and Jim Maxwell. Also writing their names into the club's history books that day were Charles Vernon (Senior) and Eithne O'Hare, winners of the inaugural 18-hole competitions.
Since that momentous opening, landscaping has matured the course, major alterations have taken place, and there have been further improvements made to many greens and tees.
Today, County Armagh Golf course is widely considered one of the best parkland courses in Ireland, with every hole featuring a different layout and requiring a variety of shots to challenge and delight every golfer whatever their handicap. Indeed, it provides an intriguing test of skill, as evidenced on occasions when the club has hosted major amateur and professional golf championships.
For Club Captain, Colm Shannon, 2018 is a very special year. “It is a great honour to be the club's Captain in the year that we have celebrated our 125th anniversary”, he commented.
“I first joined back in the early 70s when I was 11 or 12 years old and this was a 9-hole course. It was a great club then and, thanks to the efforts of the members and Captains over the years, both men and women, it is still a great club.
“County Armagh Golf Club has had a very special year in 2018 in marking its 125th anniversary”, added Colm.
“The gala ball in the Armagh City Hotel on Saturday 27 October will be an exciting climax to that and an opportunity for members and businesses that have supported the club over the years to join us in celebrating our 125th anniversary. I look forward to seeing so many old faces at this special event and, indeed, extend an invitation to all past members, friends and family to visit County Armagh Golf Club at any time.”
The club has a huge social footprint in the city and indeed further afield through its burgeoning ladies and juvenile memberships. But the drive for new members is very much in the locality.
“We aim to be the best club in Armagh county,” says Captain Colm. “That is the goal, not just in terms of its teams but from the point of view of the social life of the club and the legacy of the many fine people who have represented us over the years.”
Reflecting on the 125th anniversary, Elizabeth added, “Women have played a significant and meaningful role in County Armagh Golf Club for many years. Our Ladies' Branch is widely renowned as particularly vibrant and welcoming. Golf on the fairways is taken seriously, but enjoyment and the fostering of good relationships and lifelong friendships are also very important. Proof of this can be seen at our social events and very popular ladies' outings, which have taken us all over Ireland and even as far as the home of golf at St Andrews.”
Elizabeth continued, “Last year, we increased our numbers through the ‘Get Into Golf' initiative, and we are keen to encourage more new ladies or junior girls to join us. This year, along with our usual fixtures, we have been participating in some very special celebratory events.
“We are also approaching a period of change as the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union each consider dissolving and establishing one governing body for golf in Ireland. County Armagh Golf Club is an inclusive club where all members feel valued, so we are confident that we can retain what is good, tried, tested and traditional from the last 125 years, whilst embracing new opportunities.
“By working together to promote and enhance the club, we can ensure that we are safeguarding it for generations to come. It is a case of building on the past as we build for the future. That way, our prestigious and historic club will remain relevant and innovative for the next 125 years!”