Famous sons bring lustre to parent clubs
In its centenary year, the Balmoral club can look back with pride, says Dermot Gilleece
A measure of golf's dramatic growth in these islands during the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I is that more than 150 clubs, 35 of them Irish, were established between 1901 and 1914. They included Balmoral and Newtownstewart, who celebrate centenaries this year.
Balmoral's founding is especially interesting, not least for the fact that Europe had already been more than two months officially at war when the brave decision was taken to spend £8,000 on land for a new course on the Lisburn Road, three miles from Belfast. And there's its lengthy link to Fred Daly.
When the matter of club centenaries arises, it is a safe bet that none will match the most spectacular launch in the history of golf. This remains the preserve of Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, where the opening shot was hit in 1926.
The honour at the 115-yard, par-three first, which has since become the 165-yard fifth, went to the club secretary, Claude Wayne, who proceeded to bag himself a most improbable ace. This led to a hole-in-one club being formed within Bel-Air and now, when somebody performs the feat, the drinks for members and their guests are on the house. Which sounds like a splendid idea.
Still, Balmoral is not short on distinctions. Among them is having been home to four prospective Ryder Cup representatives. They were Daly, Norman Drew, Eddie Polland and David Feherty.
Feherty claims to have relished his relatively short time there as an assistant professional. And it may have been from Daly that he gleaned this advice for amateurs aiming to play in a pro-am, such as that which precedes the Irish Open.
"If possible, get one of the tour caddies whose man isn't in the pro-am," he urged. "For a surprisingly modest sum, you'll get someone who is used to being screamed at, blamed for the weather, the rate of inflation and some of those hard-to-explain skin rashes."
Drew was a juvenile when he joined Balmoral in 1945 and happened to be there in early July 1947 when word came through that Daly had won the Open Championship at Hoylake. Indeed he remembers being bought a celebratory soft drink by Dorothy Forster, a future Irish international.
"There was a tree, which Michael Craigan [future international] and myself used to climb to look down on the golfers," Drew recalled.
"I remember seeing Fred playing with Douglas Bader, the famous fighter pilot with artificial legs. He was a great character. I remember seeing him slip on the way down to cross the wee burn at the 10th hole. And when Fred rushed over to help him up, Bader snapped: 'I can get up my bloody self'. That heightened my interest in him."
Drew went on: "I also remember Fred playing with Joe Louis, the boxer. In fact, his pro shop had photographs of nearly all the top celebrities of the time. Balmoral were good to Fred. They gave him a pension. That's why I could never understand him giving his Open medal to Portrush. If someone is giving you a pension . . . he should have given his medal to Balmoral."
In fact, Daly and Balmoral were good for each other, just like Harry Bradshaw at Portmarnock and Christy O'Connor at Royal Dublin. In the wake of World War II, when the primary function of a club professional was to tend the needs of his members, Balmoral gave Daly plenty of time for practice while being very supportive of his tournament activities.
As a reward, he became the first Irish winner of the Open. And the club celebrated his triumph in a grand manner, with a banquet for 300 guests at the King's Hall, close by. There, as winner also of the British Matchplay title that year, Daly was presented with a cheque, in recognition of the "lustre you have brought to Irish golf."
There would be further triumphs on both sides of the Irish Sea, but not when Balmoral played
host to the Irish Professional Championship in 1951. That particular event went to Daly's great friend, Bradshaw, with a splendid aggregate of 280. It also marked the best tournament performance by Co Sligo professional, John McGonigle, who died recently at his home in Rosses Point.
With rounds of 73, 70, 70 and 73, McGonigle finished third, six strokes behind The Brad. His finest competitive round, however, would come three years later in qualifying for the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. With a course-record 65 at Hillside, including nine single-putts, no five and no two, the Donegal native became the lead story on Pathé Newsreel that week, 60 years ago. And no matter that the magic deserted him in the championship proper.
As a gifted teacher, he liked to pass on the advice of no less a figure than Gene Sarazen, who once told him: "Too many players are afraid to lose what they haven't got."
But the clever ones, like he and his great friend Christy O'Connor, also knew when they were out of their depth. As in 1953 at Carnoustie, where they made a point of heading out to watch Ben Hogan in The Open. Nine holes was enough. "This fella's out of my league," said McGonigle, crestfallen.
Yet one imagines a nod of approval from Hogan at Johnny's later emergence among the greatest golf coaches these islands have ever seen.