Sport Golf

Saturday 23 September 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Mickelson magic at Lahinch all part of Slattery's enduring links

Incoming men's captain revels in great memories as famed Co Clare club celebrates 125 years

Pictured in period costume to mark the official launch of the 125 Year Celebrations at Lahinch Golf Club were incoming lady captain, Jacqueline Joyce and incoming men’s captain, Pádraig Slattery. Photo: Brian Arthur
Pictured in period costume to mark the official launch of the 125 Year Celebrations at Lahinch Golf Club were incoming lady captain, Jacqueline Joyce and incoming men’s captain, Pádraig Slattery. Photo: Brian Arthur

Dermot Gilleece

Though Phil Mickelson may not yet be aware of it, his long-time link to Lahinch GC was quietly enriched over the Easter weekend. That was when a left-hander more familiar around these parts claimed a rare distinction in Irish golf.

Pádraig Slattery was installed on Good Friday as captain of Lahinch in this, the club's 125th year. And he can reflect on the same honour at Mount Juliet in 1997 and on being captain of Portmarnock GC in 2005.

A remarkable treble at leading Irish clubs is further enhanced by the fact that his father, Brud, was the centenary captain of Lahinch in 1992, the year when Mickelson joined professional ranks in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

As it happens, the emotional bond from one lefty to the other, goes back a year beyond that, to the weekend preceding the Walker Cup of 1991, when Slattery witnessed wondrous magic while the American side practised at Lahinch. Ten years later, he was also present when his idol become the first player to hit a shot to the new, short eighth. And in 2002 at Mount Juliet, he saw Mickelson shoot a sparkling final round of 64 in the American Express Championship.

"As a member of the organising team at Mount Juliet, I met Phil and shook his hand," he said. "Which was enough. I then went back to admiring him from afar."

Slattery, who operates a public relations company in Dublin, joined Portmarnock as a student-member while at UCD in 1975. As an able performer off low single-figures for most of his adult life, he is known to his close friends as Sam.

"It came from watching golfers hitting off the first tee at Lahinch," he explained. "Apparently, each time they smashed a drive up the fairway, I would remark 'Big ball Sam', which was a sort of catchphrase from television's 'Shell Wonderful World of Golf' series at the time.

"From then on, people took to calling me Sam." (The phrase was commentator Bob Crosby's way of enthusing about big-hitting Sam Snead.) It was a time when Slattery, who is naturally right-handed, took to playing golf left-handed as a mirror-image of his father, a one-time South of Ireland champion who was secretary/manager of Lahinch from 1954 to 1984.

He expressed surprise when I told him that the naturally right-handed Mickelson also mirrored his father's swing. But the American couldn't have hoped to match the way Slattery's upbringing was dominated by the royal and ancient game. "I remember my father declaring one day: 'Religion and golf are at the same level in this house,'" he recalled with a smile.

It may be worth noting that Slattery senior had quit his job as a schoolteacher by that stage, leaving him sufficiently liberated not to bend the knee to the local bishop. Indeed Brud was truly irrepressible in his love of his chosen pursuit.

"As we'd be leaving the 18th green on a summer's evening, you'd see him fiddling with his grip or some other aspect of the set-up," the son reflected. "Then he'd suggest we go up the first again, just so that he could test the new feeling he had just discovered."

Meanwhile, his resourcefulness as an administrator could be gleaned from the way he would arrange a time-sheet. According to his son, it wasn't unusual to have the Manchester Martyrs, Messrs Allen, Larkin and O'Brien, listed as a three-ball which could be readily removed if the occasion arose.

With wonderful tales from the South of Ireland Championship, Lahinch was a place of endless charm and whimsy; a place where all things were possible. Like in 1973, when Dublin businessman Denis Mahony - who recently passed from us - bought a plot of land from Brud, to build a holiday home. A year later, the home was fully operational and Mahony's daughter, Ita, began a romance with the young Slattery, which culminated in an enduring marriage.

It seems that Mickelson was only slightly down the scale in his affections. "I was settled in Dublin when we heard about the visit arranged by the American Walker Cup team," he said. "It was a Saturday and they came straight off the flight into Shannon."

He went on: "Brud and I followed Mickelson, and I can still picture his play of the old, par-three 11th, where his ball landed in a little swale short of the green. We'd all been there often enough to know that the only safe escape was with a putter.

"So we were shocked to see Phil take out a wedge and chip it dead. Then he dropped another ball and did the same thing. We'd never seen anything like it. In the Walker Cup at Portmarnock the following weekend, I saw him do the same thing from an impossible lie off the back of the 18th. Stone dead.

"After that, I spent years trying to perfect that shot and through pride in wanting to be as good as Mickelson, it nearly destroyed my short game. I managed it maybe once in 20 attempts. The rest were terrible."

Back in the US after that visit, Mickelson named Lahinch as his favourite links in a magazine article, to which the club responded by making him an honorary life member. And they ensured that he would become the first player to hit a shot to the new, short eighth, which he did in a fourball in 2001 with his caddie, Jim 'Bones' Mackay, his father and Mark Calcavecchia.

Later, when the American hit an astonishing six-iron between trees onto the green at the long 13th of Augusta National on the way to a third Masters triumph in 2010, Slattery appreciated its quality better than most. He had played the course three times, the first of which in a sparkling 74 strokes on the Monday after Nick Faldo's Masters triumph of 1996.

"I have that card framed in my toilet, where I can re-live the memory on a regular basis," he said. I, too, remember that occasion but for a rather different reason.

When we met on the clubhouse lawn a few days earlier, he remarked: "Isn't it wonderful that a place like this actually exists?" Which is a reaction you could imagine from countless visitors to Lahinch, since it first enriched the golfing world 125 years ago.

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