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George Baillie (1852 - ):
Pioneer of Ulster golf


George Baillie was one of the most significant figures in the early days of golf all over Ireland though most especially in Ulster, a game which, though not unknown Ireland before the late Victorian era, nevertheless enjoyed an almost explosive expansion from the 1880s. As player, course designer, and administrator, Baillie was very much at the centre of this development.

George Lockhart Baillie was born at Inveresk, near Musselburgh, East Lothian, Scotland, some five miles east of Edinburgh. Musselburgh is notable for various sports, not least archery and horse racing, but perhaps especially golf: one local golf club has been deemed the oldest continually-played course in the world. Baillie is known to have played golf from an early age; it was certainly a lifelong enthusiasm.

Baillie moved to Ireland in his capacity as a schoolteacher, appointed an English master at Belfast Royal Academy, the oldest school in the city. The oldest golf club in the city, if not the entire island of Ireland, is generally held to be the Royal Belfast Golf Club (golfing as an activity has though been traced back several centuries) one of whose founders,Thomas Sinclair, contacted Baillie with his plans. Land was acquired at Holywood, on the North Down coast near Holywood, and initially a six-hole course was laid out (at the time what are now called “holes” were often known as “greens”). Baillie was elected Honorary Secretary of the new club and remained in that position until 1888.

Baillie became vigorously involved in the development of golf in Ireland and especially the North-East (largely, what is now Northern Ireland). He went on a “personal crusade” in the words of one researcher, to establish golf courses in Ireland and became a prolific designer, certainly in Ulster. In 1888 he played a leading role in the foundation, layout and organisation of “The County Golf Club” later named Royal Portrush Golf Club. The historian of this club relates that early in 1888, two golf enthusiasts based in Belfast visited the County Golf Club at Portrush and were impressed by the site with its sandy hills and dunes, well adaptable to the game; they noted also the proximity of a railway terminus. A suitable site, triangular in shape and measuring some 40 acres, was obtained through the auspices of landowner Lord Antrim. The terrain for this new “Green”, as golf courses were then often known, was described in the Belfast News Letter of 2 April as very suited to hazards “of the bunker type” and on 21 April 1888 a meeting was held at Portrush’s Northern Counties Hotel, attended by several dozen golf enthusiasts. A Provisional Committee of the County Golf Club was elected, with the Earl of Antrim as Honorary President, JS Alexander JP as Captain, WC Lawrence JP as Honorary Treasurer and as Honorary Secretary pro tem, GL Baillie. This way of founding and developing new courses is fairly typical of the actions of that pioneering golf era. 

In 1889 he was appointed Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of County Down GC at the original meeting. He was a founder member of this great club at Newcastle, which later became Royal County Down GC and where he created the first nine holes. When Old Tom Morris, the celebrated Scottish golfer, was later engaged (“in a mixture of enthusiasm and parsimony…for a sum not to exceed £4” according to one historian of the club) to advise on a second nine, he is reported to have said “I wonder why they send for me; this Mr. Baillie kens mair aboot laying golf links than I dae." 

One detail mentioned above should be highlighted: the role of the burgeoning railway network. As one researcher has it: “The railway system in Ireland was expanding rapidly and many train stations were soon followed by a hotel being built within easy (geographical) access. When the hotel was functioning a golf course often followed.” Of many instances Newcastle is one of the most striking examples: not only is the adjacent Royal County Down course dominated by the resplendent Slieve Donard Hotel, so the view over Dundrum Bay is punctuated by the central tower of that hotel piercing the horizon. Baillie would organise golf outings, enabling enthusiasts to enjoy overnight golfing excursions to outstanding new courses, staying in luxurious hotels, travelling by first class rail. He has been described as possibly the first tour operator in Ireland.

One list of Ulster and other Irish courses associated with Baillie in their formation includes besides those mentioned above, Bundoran, Larne, Knock, Magilligan, Greenore, New Galloway in Scotland, Lisburn, Spa, Scrabo, Toome, Omagh, Kirkistown Castle, Leopardstown and Castlerock.

In 1871 (possibly later) he married Christina Archibald of Inveresk; there were at least two children, a girl and a boy.

 



Born: 1852
Died:
Richard Froggatt
Bibliography:
JL Bamford: Royal Portrush Golf Club, A History (RPGC, 1988) and conversation with the author; www.agsgolfvacations.com; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/edinburgh_and_east/7949045.stm; www.royalcountydown.org