Monday 24 July 2017

Harrington keeps up proud traditions of links society

At the Howth Golf Club's Captains drive-in were Breda Mullalley (Lady Captain) and Bernard Byrne (Captain). Photo: Kenneth O Halloran
At the Howth Golf Club's Captains drive-in were Breda Mullalley (Lady Captain) and Bernard Byrne (Captain). Photo: Kenneth O Halloran
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

You are a three-time Major winner, your corporate image is five star, and your name is Padraig Harrington.

So how much could you demand as an appearance fee to play in a Pro-Am? Well, it all depends on who's asking, and we can only speculate, because neither Padraig nor his agents IMG ever reveal the price of his participation in non-tournament events.

It is fair to say that you start thinking in terms of telephone numbers -- 100,000, 200,000 and upwards.

And yet the Waterford Crystal-sponsored Links Golf Society outing at Portmarnock Links tomorrow (11.0 shotgun start) will be graced by the presence of Harrington for the princely sum of... Nowt. Nada. Nothing.

In fact, if he were asked, Padraig would happily pay the €250 annual membership fee required by the Links GS to cover golf and dinner for their three winter outings in the 2010-11 season.

He doesn't have to pay because he's an honorary member -- awarded this distinction in 2007, the same year as the great Jack Nicklaus. Now there's posh!

There are a few interesting points to be made about the Links Golf Society.

First, it has been around so long -- founded in 1966 -- and it has earned so much money for charity (€9.3m in the last 14 years alone) that to an extent it's taken for granted in Irish golfing circles.

Hard to believe, but that's the sense I get, because the Links, spearheaded by the unique talents of Cecil Whelan of Hermitage GC, has quietly gone about its business for 45 years. But, quite simply, there is nothing like this society anywhere in the world.

The statistics and the names tell the story. For a start, it has been running Pro-Am events longer than the European Tour.

Constituted

The Links first played a major fund-raising Pro-Am in 1969, while the Tour, in its present form, was only constituted in 1971.

Another key aspect is that virtually every Irish player of note since 1966 has played with the Links from their amateur days through to the top level of the pro ranks.

And once they make it big, the players' loyalty to the Links remains unbroken.

Des Smyth, the President, joined as a 17-year-old amateur -- that's 40 years ago.

Harrington won the gross prize in the March 1991 outing at Royal Dublin with a 70.

John McHenry, now a consultant to the golf industry, was a professional in '91 and won the Chris de Burgh Audi Classic at Hermitage in May that year with a 71.

Former Ryder Cup star Philip Walton was joint second alongside Ian Woosnam, each of them on 73.

Woosie, in case you've forgotten, had won the Masters at Augusta the previous April.

Walton then won the AIB/Christy O'Connor International Pro-Am at Killarney -- venue for this year's Irish Open -- in June 1991, scoring 67.

Now, 20 years later, Smyth, Harrington, Walton and McHenry will tee it up at Portmarnock Links tomorrow.

Also due to play is Tour pro Peter Lawrie, another who came under the wing of the Links as an up-and-coming amateur.

Indeed, talent spotting is one of Cecil Whelan's attributes. An interesting inclusion in the draw is 14-year-old Ronan Lister from Hermitage, who competes as a guest.

The young man plays off scratch and impressed long-time Links members Willie Leggett and John Dignam when they played alongside him in the pre-Christmas outing at Baltray.

So how did all this start? The answer is: in the most innocuous way during the winter of 1966.

Cecil recalls: "How it came about was very simple really. I used to go to Baltray on a Wednesday. Paddy Finnegan would be there, and Jimmy Kinsella, and Watty Sullivan used to go up with a few people from Grange.

"Christy O'Connor Snr would play with Noel Fogarty and Nicky Lynch (ex-Sutton pro), so there was a good few pros and amateurs going up there already.

"Fogo (Noel Fogarty) was in the shop (Paddy Whelan's, Cecil's family business), and said there was a bit of an outing on at Baltray.

"In the end we had 27 amateurs and three professionals -- Senior, Watty and Jimmy Kinsella. Twenty-nine sat down to dinner and we took in IR£13 pounds and 10 shillings in old money.

"After that outing we decided to do it for charity, and as we always played on a links course -- Baltray was our base for the first eight years -- we called it the Links Society.

"The second outing was a month later. We charged IR£1 to play and we had 80 people there.

"We had IR£25 and at the end of our first season we gave Cappagh Hospital a cheque for IR£300. Bear in mind, you could buy a house for around IR£1,000 at that time, so it was good money for charity."

From there, the society just grew and grew. It wasn't all about Cecil, as he would readily admit, as a dedicated crew of committee members has done huge work behind the scenes over the last 45 years.

And without the presence, enthusiasm and input of the top Irish players, ranging from Christy Snr through Smyth and Harrington, the society could not have been anything like as successful as it has been.

Standard

"Christy Snr was fantastic," said Whelan. "He was president for 30 years and he set the standard. Because he was there, the young players wanted to be involved with us.

"In the 30 years he was never late for an outing, and never walked off the course no matter how bad the weather got.

"In fact, I remember him at an outing playing 18 holes with a slipper on one foot because he had an injury and couldn't get his golf shoe on that foot, but he never considered opting out."

The tradition of leadership provided by top players continues, with Smyth as Links president, and Harrington the vice-president. However, everyone involved recognises that Whelan is central to the success of the society. He is the arch-persuader, managing to make the Links and its hugely lucrative Pro-Celeb-Amateur events enduringly attractive.

The big names of business, the top professionals and the celebs, Irish and international, have rallied to the cause.

It must be said, particularly at this time in our history, that most of Ireland's elite business people have pumped huge sums into the Links, entering teams and paying high prices for auction items without seeking any public acknowledgement.

Among the international stars of the decades who have supported Links Pro-Ams are Bing Crosby, Val Doonican, Chris de Burgh, Bruce Forsyth, Clodagh Rodgers and Shirley Bassey.

Top internationals players who played -- for no appearance fee -- included Major champions Roberto de Vicenzo, Bobby Locke, Tom Weiskopf, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros -- and Harrington and Graeme McDowell.

An interesting note about Langer. He expressed an interest in playing a Links Pro-Am. Cecil Whelan reckoned the two-time Masters champion might be under the impression a fee would be paid. "We'd love to have him," he told Langer's manager, "but we don't pay anybody to appear."

The answer was immediate: "That's no problem. Bernhard knows all about your society and the work it does for charity. He just wants to play and it will cost you nothing."

Whelan, through Christy Snr and other Irish pros, forged great links with the European Tour as it grew and developed from 1971 onwards, and their assistance in providing players and recommendations has been unstinting.

The economic climate is tough now, but The Links still managed to generate almost €314,000 in 2010.

Tomorrow, at Portmarnock Links, it's business as usual in Year 45 of the Links GS.

Irish Independent

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