Friday 22 September 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Survival skills key in today's world but Irish pros are in safe hands

Des Smyth is to form a crucial link for our aspiring professionals as leader of Team Golf Ireland. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Des Smyth is to form a crucial link for our aspiring professionals as leader of Team Golf Ireland. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Dermot Gilleece

Unusually frank reflections by the game's greatest champion, and soul-baring admissions by a leading Irish professional of his day, came sharply into focus last week through an exciting new development announced at GUI headquarters. Des Smyth is to form a crucial link for our aspiring professionals as leader of Team Golf Ireland.

Some years ago at Augusta, Jack Nicklaus talked of the dramatic changes he had witnessed in his craft over the course of a sparkling tournament career. Most markedly, there was the reformed image of the pro, from the overweight, cigarette-smoking artisan with the whiff of whiskey off his breath to the clean-cut, modern athlete with sharp business instincts.

Smyth's journey has been similarly instructive, from the time he embarked on a tournament career in 1974. And the wisdom of his latest appointment is there in biographical notes from the European Tour's Tournament Guide of 1980.

"The story of Des Smyth's 1979 season," it went, "could act as a symbol for every aspiring young professional on the European Tour." It then chronicled a series of remarkable achievements, including victory in the European Matchplay Championship, 16th place in the final Order of Merit and debut representative honours in the Ryder Cup and the World Cup.

This dramatic upturn in his fortunes got me thinking about the great Peter Thomson who, when asked to rate the prospects of a certain young player, replied: "What does he do with the other eight hours?" In other words, the five-time Open champion wanted to know how the youngster spent the time on tour when he wasn't playing or sleeping.

"That's a very interesting point," acknowledged Smyth. "In the days before mobile phones and social media, you were always conscious of how you handled your spare time. Some of us read books. But there were others - I could name them, but I won't - who spent too long in the bar. Guys with talent who, sadly, didn't last long on tour."

On the third weekend in August 1986, Irish golf fans were spoiled for choice. They could have been at Haggs Castle GC, Glasgow, where David Feherty had a birdie three at the second extra hole to beat Ian Baker-Finch and Christy O'Connor Jnr in a play-off for the Scottish Open title. Or they could have gone to Blairgowrie, where Claire Dowling (née Hourihane) beat Trish Johnson, also in a play-off, to capture the British Women's Strokeplay title.

I happened to be at Blairgowrie, which seemed to promise a better Irish story given the additional presence of Mary McKenna and Lillian Behan, who had been with Claire in the historic Curtis Cup triumph at Prairie Dunes, Kansas, earlier that month. It meant I remained unaware of Feherty's fascinating post-tournament antics, until his recent disclosures in Rolling Stone magazine. According to the Bangor man, whose broadcasting skills now enhance America's NBC Network, that particular victory happened to coincide with a growing dependence on painkillers and alcohol. In the event, he eventually found himself almost 50 miles away on a putting green alongside the former road manager of rock group Led Zeppelin.

"I headed into Glasgow that night to a concert and woke up two days later at Gleneagles, being poked with a stick like a dead stag," he said. "I had half of a train ticket to London that I hadn't used. So I came to London and got back to Scotland, but I had no idea how. It's still confusing to this day. Oh, and the Scottish Open trophy is still lost. God only knows where the hell it is."

When asked what had guided him towards sobriety 19 years later, he replied: "It was two things, my wife and Tom Watson. I was doing a TV thing in Canada with Jack Nicklaus and Tom, and at one point, Tom just put his hand over the camera and said, 'You're not well, are you?', and I said, 'No, I'm not'. I asked him how he knew, and he said, 'I can see it in your eyes'. And I said, 'What do you see?', and he said, 'My reflection'.

"I didn't know that Tom had a problem at that point. Very few people did. He said, 'You need to come with me when we're done here'. And I'm trying to back out. We're on Prince Edward Island, and Tom's [home is in] Kansas City. So I said, 'How am I going to get to Kansas City?'

"Then I hear this voice behind me say, 'I have a G5! [Gulfstream jet]', so I'm getting heckled by Jack Nicklaus, who sent me there with his G5, and I went with Tom and he looked after me for two or three days - and I've been sober ever since."

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Feherty describes himself as an insomniac who still struggles with depression, admitting: "I get overwhelmed by sadness several times a day and spend a lot of time in tears." But 12 years ago he had the good fortune to come into the care of the golf family, which is the way Seve Ballesteros liked to describe it, and the kindness of two giants of the game who treated a troubled Irishman as one of their own.

A measure of Irish golf's formidable production line in recent years has been the five-man representation in the victorious Walker Cup team of 2015, and Leona Maguire's status as the world's leading woman amateur. Then there was Alan Dunbar's British Amateur triumph of 2012.

Still, there hasn't been a breakthrough tournament victory on either side of the Atlantic in almost eight years, since Shane Lowry's Irish Open win of May 2009. Which prompts the thought that our young hopefuls could use some simple survival skills, outside of the sphere of coaching.

By way of making it a self-financing exercise, Smyth is hoping, with the help of director of golf, Peter Lawrie, to raise in the region of €100,000 from a pro-am at Luttrellstown Castle on Monday, July 10, the day after the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart. Lawrie, incidentally, is another one who understands the challenge, having taken five years before becoming established on tour.

Smyth believes that today's aspiring professionals are essentially "too busy to be drawn off the rails", as Feherty and others were. He added: "The iPhone allows them to watch videos and keep in touch with the world in a way that wasn't possible in my day." Yet he's also aware that failure can stem from a combination of factors not always apparent. Loneliness, for instance, is the traveller's greatest enemy. And from observing Smyth over the years, I remember being very taken by how much at ease he appeared on tour.

Even when leading the qualifiers at the Champions Tour school in Florida in 2002, he looked totally comfortable sharing a motel room with his caddie, Ray Latchford.

This is an admirable initiative by the Confederation of Golf in Ireland, with the right man at the helm. Someone who recognises, as Nicklaus once said, that the modern tournament professional is very different from his predecessors. And for today's practitioner, striking a golf ball is often the easiest hurdle to overcome.

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