Monday 24 July 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Famous names add new prestige as ILGU event settles in at Baltray

Sinead Heraty, chief executive of the ILGU. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Heraty, chief executive of the ILGU. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

It is hoped that a spiritual bond between two of our greatest-ever players, will inspire the Irish Women's Open Stroke-play Championship towards a fruitful and exciting future at Baltray. In fact the illustrious east-coast links is to host the event for the next five years, starting this coming Friday.

This year's winner will receive the Clarrie Reddan-Philomena Garvey Trophy, by way of honouring this iconic duo from Co Louth GC. "Phil and I were lucky to have had golf as a huge part of our lives," said Mrs Reddan, when I interviewed her in 2006 to mark her 90th birthday. "And we always got on great together."

Ms Garvey enjoyed an extended link to the game, as an employee in the sports department of Clerys store in Dublin until 1988. She passed away in May 2009, two years after her long-time friend had departed to those divot-free fairways in the sky.

The idea of honouring both women stemmed from a recent chat between Clarrie's son, Barry, and Ms Garvey's niece, Eileen. "We decided to approach the club about what we might do," said Barry, a former Irish international and past captain and president of Co Louth. This led to meetings with the ILGU, who welcomed the proposal as a perfect way of promoting a championship which was launched in 1993 to mark the Union's centenary.

"We believe that the quality of the venue, its proximity to Dublin and the accommodation in the area, will hold significant appeal for overseas players," said Sinead Heraty, chief executive of the ILGU. "You don't have to sell Baltray."

The objective is that the championship should achieve comparable status to the Scottish Women's Open Stroke-play, which has become familiar as the Helen Holm Trophy, in honour of an outstanding exponent from those parts. In the same way, the ILGU thought it appropriate to retain the championship's national title.

As it happens, Mrs Reddan spoke of being "very honoured" to have been paired with the Scot in the top foursomes of the 1938 Curtis Cup matches at Essex CC, Massachusetts. "Helen was a lovely golfer and you couldn't have played with a nicer person," she said. In fact the reigning British champion, encouraged her Irish partner with "marvellous" and "great shot, Clarrie" as they beat the crack American pairing of Estelle Page and Maureen Orcutt by two holes in a memorable match.

Ms Garvey was a truly remarkable talent, as reflected in 15 Irish Close titles from 1946 and 1970. The last of those came seven years after her 14th, during which time she had a four-year flirtation with the professional game between 1964 and 1968.

The highlight of her career, however, was beating the redoubtable Jessie Valentine at Gleneagles to capture the 1957 British Championship in which she was runner-up on four occasions. She was also a losing quarter-finalist in the US Women's Open in 1950.

Meanwhile, away from the fairways, she won many admirers for her principled stance against the LGU when, as a virtually automatic choice in the 1958 Curtis Cup side, she refused to wear controversially-changed apparel. For reasons that were never explained, the blazer badge for the 1958 matches was altered from one consisting of the rose, thistle, leek and shamrock, representing the four home unions, to one dominated by the Union Jack.

Insisting that she didn't intend "any slight or offence to Great Britain", Ms Garvey declined to wear the changed emblem. Paul Garvey's fine biography of the player informs us that while the Irish union supported her, Molly Gourlay, chairperson of the LGU, responded: "The council has considered this and decided there is no reason to change their decision."

So Ms Garvey didn't play. And the integrity of the LGU's stance on the matter can be measured by the fact that the old badge was restored for the 1960 matches at Lindrick, where the Co Louth player returned to the side for the last of six appearances.

The whole divisive affair became something of a cause celebre in the newspapers of the day, one of which carried a poem ending with the lines - 'With a love of land / That made Ireland thrill / What a gesture grand / We salute you Phil.' Henry Cotton described her as "the finest woman golfer I've ever seen."

With such inspirational figures as herself and Mrs Reddan, it is hard to imagine anything other than significant success for this new chapter in the Stroke-play Championship's relatively short history.

Unfortunatly, college duties in the US preclude Olivia Mahaffey from defending the title, but the field of 81 includes Lisa Maguire, the 2009 champion. Meanwhile, a look through the various handicaps indicates the remarkable rise in standards here, which sees Ireland (through Leona Maguire and Mahaffey), the United States and Spain as the only three countries with two players each in the top-10 of the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR).

It is widely acknowledged that the Maguire twins have been hugely influential in achieving this boost for the Irish women's game. Following Lisa's success, Leona won this particular title two years later, while their remarkable achievements elsewhere undoubtedly inspired many contemporaries.

Next weekend's field includes as many as 38 players off scratch or better, with 27 of them off plus-handicaps. Among these are England's Gemma Clewes and Clandeboye's Jessica Ross, both off plus-four, Germany's Ava Bergner and Scotland's Eilidh Briggs off plus-three and Irish challengers Paula Grant (Lisburn) and Maria Dunne (Skerries) also off plus-three. The host club will be represented by the accomplished Deirdre Smith.

As in the professional game, world ranking points are a crucial element of the women's amateur scene. In this context, the ILGU are conscious of the Irish Open Stroke-play having a lower WAGR ranking (D), than the Irish Girls Open Stroke-play (C). And again, as with the pros, such status is generally determined by the quality of the field.

With players being offered the prospect of familiarity with a top venue, it is anticipated that Baltray will allow the ILGU bridge that gap. Indeed proud locals can't imagine anything other than growing success, now that their own Clarrie and Phil at the head of things.

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