Simpson and Gourlay at Ballybunion

When the Golfing Union of Ireland President-in-waiting, Commander George Crosbie of Cork, ‘bulldozed’ his colleagues into bringing the 1937 Irish Amateur Championship to a previously ‘unknown’ Ballybunion, he couldn’t have anticipated the resounding success that would follow.

Somehow, the club committee had sensed that this was the club’s chance to make its mark on the outside golf world. With no funds to spend, they recruited Tom Simpson, an independently wealthy, eccentric, Englishman who enjoyed the luxury of being able to turn an interesting hobby into a career, while remaining indifferent to the fees he haphazardly earned in what has always been a precarious, ‘boom and bust’ profession.

Trained in law at Cambridge University, Simpson qualified as a Barrister but never practiced. He was also a respected art critic. His wildlife sketches regularly featured in Bernard Darwin’s Country Life articles. One of his several hobbies was silk needlework. He was also a collector of fine cigars, Persian rugs, walking sticks and wines. Simpson’s golf design philosophy was to allow nature to ‘talk.’

Simpson always turned up for work in a chauffer-driven, silver Rolls Royce, wearing a flowing cloak and Basque-like beret, wielding a riding crop. He never married but was often accompanied on his course visits by the accomplished lady golfer, Molly Gourlay, the winner of the English Championship on several occasions. The chauffeur spent his day polishing the Rolls and then at the appointed time, drove the glistening automobile onto a pre-designated fairway to act as valet and serve a Fortnum & Mason’s luncheon from an enormous wicker basket. Unlike Pete and Alice Dye many years later, there was no dining with the construction crew for Simpson and Gourlay. Hell, they didn’t approve of the club committee showing up to ask them intrusive questions either. If they did, they were summarily dismissed with an imperious hand wave.

Because it was their favourite picnic spot, the two, pot bunkers in the middle of the 1st fairway (back then it was the 14th) are named ‘Mrs. Simpson’s’ after Molly because the members erroneously presumed that Tom and Molly were man and wife.

Current golf architect, Tom Mackenzie of Mackenzie & Ebert says: “Simpson is an unsung hero of golf architecture. His name deserves to be mentioned alongside Harry Colt and Alister Mackenzie. That he isn’t is due to his personality and how he was perceived personally more than a fair judgment on his body of work.” Apparently, Simpson’s penchant for accepting redesign work in order to ‘correct the mistakes’ of others made him unpopular with his peers.

At Ballybunion in 1936, Simpson and Gourlay, when they finally got around to meeting the captain and committee, had the good sense to declare that they ‘could not improve on God’s work. They advised a few minor alterations and left without offering an invoice. Something similar is happening today.

Earlier this year, the membership voted overwhelmingly to lift and re-lay all 18-greens on the Old Course next winter. At the same time, course architect, Graeme Webster, has been engaged to redesign the 7th green, which off and on, over the decades has been threatened by erosion. The process of ‘dolling up’ the links is well advanced and the objective is to uplift the overall appearance by defining margins and increasing the proliferation of native, fescue grasses so necessary to maintain traditional links characteristics. However, the shot values and the way the links ‘plays’ won’t change one iota.