Monday 5 December 2016

Harkins' First Flight helped get lefties off the ground

Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00

Dermot Gilleece recalls how a Tipperary native's indelible imprint on golf in America

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He was an adventurer and a motor-racing aficionado who went on to become an accomplished golfer. Then, after forming his own golf equipment company in Tennessee, he became widely acknowledged as a saviour of the left-handed game. And he was born and reared in Tipperary before emigrating to America in 1920.

Getting to know about Jack Harkins was a humbling experience at this stage of my golf-writing activities. I came across him purely by accident when researching golfing events of 1962 which will have their golden jubilee this year.

This brought me to the June 1962 issue of the magazine Irish Golf which contained a comprehensive report of the Jeyes £2,000 Tournament at Royal Dublin, where "The Amazing Mr Sheahan" emerged victorious. He, of course, was the 22-year-old Dublin medical student, David Sheahan, a member of Grange GC, who stunned the sporting world by finishing a stroke clear of South Africa's Denis Hutchinson in a strong field of tournament professionals.

Elsewhere in the magazine, there was an article titled 'Golf is big business in America' by a certain Dominic Coffey. Drawn to the sub-heading 'Tipperary to the Fore', I learned 50 years after Coffey's contemporary readers about "the remarkable Jack Harkins."

He wrote: "Jack has not seen his native land since the late twenties, having spent the intervening years working like a beaver at his golf club factory [First Flight] in Chattanooga."

The article went on: "Harkins, for the record, is the gifted genius who invented both the swing-weight scales and matched swing-weight clubs, but his crowning achievement was the steel centre golf-ball . . . In a parting message, he told me that it is his ambition to send a full, First Flight professional team to our shores to compete in the British Open and one or two other events about that time. So I promptly put in a good word for Woodbrook and the IHS [Irish Hospital Sweeps] event. It would be a wonderful scoop to have Jimmy Demaret, Gene Littler (American champion), Doug Sanders and Joe Campbell all in the hunt at Bray, and we must not forget that Arnold Palmer and Gary Player have ties with the big Chattanooga organisation."

On trying to establish why this ambitious objective never came to anything, I found two answers. The first had to do with commercial decisions involving Palmer. The other was the fact that, aged 64, Harkins died of cancer in Miami, Florida, on September 29 1964, after being "one year in and out of hospital."

According to his obituary, he got into golf club manufacture in Chattanooga having set out to market hickory shafts as a specialist line. This led to his founding the Professional Golf Company which evolved into First Flight and he was chairman of these and the Arnold Palmer Company, an off-shoot of the parent organisation.

Born in Tipperary in 1900, Harkins emigrated to Philadelphia in 1920 and spent his early years in the US racing motor cars and as a stuntman, piloting light-aircraft in shows across the southern states. He also became a very accomplished golfer and competed in local tournaments, including those organised by the Southern Seniors.

First Flight was an international company with a marketing operation in Cork handling foreign sales, and its prominence at that time can be gauged from its status as official sponsor of the PGA National Golf Club Championship.

Meanwhile, after more than 30 years in existence, America's National Association of Left-Handed Golfers (NALG) found by 1960 that in terms of producing quality players in numbers, they had effectively hit a brick wall due to the lack of proper equipment. That was when they negotiated a contract with Harkins to produce golf clubs under the label 'NALG Approved Equipment'.

So it was that for the first time in the history of the game, left-handed golfers, professionals and amateurs, had equipment equal in quality and design to that being produced for their right-handed brethren. It led to something of a breakthrough in 1961 when the Carolinas Division of the NALG launched the annual, 72-hole National Lefty-Righty Championship, by way of demonstrating that lefties were no longer second-class citizens of the golfing community.

Sadly, First Flight went into serious decline as a major manufacturer after Harkins' death. A further, significant blow was when Palmer, as the most prominent player endorsing the clubs, set his heart on a switch from First Flight to Wilson. As it happened, this planned move was pre-empted by the formidable Sears chain which offered Palmer an irresistible financial inducement to put his name on some department-store clubs.

Still thriving under the now familiar umbrella logo as one of golf's longest-enduring contracts, the deal effectively drove First Flight into bankruptcy. It is poor consolation to Harkins' survivors and those who remained loyal to his company that many of the First Flight irons designed by Toney Penna are now considered collectors' items.

Meanwhile, after that considerable digression, I return to the matter of commemorative celebrations and the fact that four Irish golf clubs, City of Derry, Clontarf, Kinsale and Waterford are having centenaries this year. Two of these are especially familiar to me from having written historical pieces about them three decades ago.

My offering on Waterford began: "It is a deliciously mischievous thought that Cromwell's infamous soldiers might have been gifted with a glimpse into the future when, according to tradition, they named the hill which rises above the bridge and bay of Waterford City in majestic beauty, Mount Misery. Only a perverse flash of inspiration could have been responsible for bestowing such a name on a stretch of land that was, many years later, to be transformed into a golf course."

For its part, the timing of Clontarf's centenary year could hardly be more appropriate in that it was the first Irish club to have a 12-hole course. Designed in two circuits of six played in opposite directions, it was the creation of the great Harry Colt, who has the West Course at Wentworth among his credits.

Those familiar with Clontarf and Colt's 18-hole course there, may be interested to know that the 12 holes were bordered by the ditch to the right of the present 18th. So the holes from 12 to 17 as we now know them, had yet to be built.

On land leased from Dublin Corporation, it was officially opened in June 1923 by the Governor General, T M Healy, whose speech, which was apparently more political than sporting, contained one memorable line. To the suggestion by the founder, Dr John Love Morrow, that he (Healy) should hit the first shot, the Governer General replied: "That is a 't' I should like to leave uncrossed, as I have never held a golf club in my hand."

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