Open welcome reaps its reward
Royal Co Down's new friendly approach to visitors contrasts with aloof elitism of yore, says Dermot Gilleece
There's been a marvellous warmth about Royal Co Down these last few days, which could come as something of a surprise to those visiting golf enthusiasts of a certain age. They would remember a somewhat forbidding establishment, cold, stuffy and generally perceived as unwelcoming.
Indeed the one-time image seemed to be captured perfectly by a story I recall about the club's relationship with Royal Troon. It went along the lines that the west Scottish establishment saw fit to post a notice around their locker-room to the effect that all visitors were welcome, except those from Royal Co Down.
What is certain is that there is no love lost between them, as evidenced by the fact that a one-time annual match between the clubs was abandoned in acrimonious circumstances, roughly 30 years ago. And I understand the fault didn't lie with Co Down.
Since then, profound changes around the Newcastle venue have made it the perfect host for an Irish Open return for the first time since 1939. Traditional golfing values have been complemented by a level of efficiency which, often in severely hostile weather, are making this a memorable experience.
Kenneth McCaw, the current captain, positively glowed with the excitement of the occasion as he scanned the tournament scene from the back of the 10th tee. That, and the general buzz around the holiday town, exemplified the benefits accruing from a community working closely towards a common objective.
McCaw plays off nine-handicap and works in financial services in Belfast. And in terms of the administrative side of the game, he could be seen as golfing aristocracy. His grandfather was captain of Royal Co Down; his father, Harry, was twice captain there while becoming only the second Irishman after Joe Carr to be honoured with captaincy of the Royal and Ancient (Portmarnock's Gavin Caldwell is set to become the third); and his mother was chairman of the Ladies Golf Union.
My mention of Troon didn't surprise him. In fact he laughed heartily. "I'm not entirely sure if that sign existed or not," he said. "But I've done a lot of travelling, representing Royal Co Down at different events over the last few years, and I would like to think that my relationship with other clubs is extremely strong. Funnily enough, Troon is a club that I haven't been to, but that's simply because I haven't been invited."
I told him of my own experiences at his club, going back to the Irish Close Championship of 1980, when the media facilities consisted of a decidedly spartan visitors' changing room with a urinal at one end, which, curiously, seemed to meet with the approval of the GUI at that time. And I recounted gradual change over the years, culminating in the Close Championship of 1996, when Peter Lawrie emerged victorious and 'Buster' Holland was the most welcoming of club captains. Indeed a friendship which I established with Dr Holland at that time endures to this day.
Further change was evident in successive stagings of the Senior British Open in 2000 and 2001 and, of course, a splendid Walker Cup in 2007.
It must be stated that through all their stuffiness, there was never the suggestion of religious bigotry. Rather, the problem had to do with perceived elitism, not uncommon among certain golfing establishments in these islands. Feelings of exclusion were rendered all the more acute by the awareness of Co Down as one of the most beautiful and testing links courses imaginable.
To my suggestion that the club's attitude sometimes bordered on the offensive, McCaw replied: "I'm very sorry to hear that Royal Co Down was seen to be a stuffy, unwelcoming club in the past. As a member for 30 years, I've never really thought of us as a closed shop, though from the outside world, you're not the first person to ask me the questions you're asking.
"If that perception did exist, it's important it doesn't exist now. Offensive is a loaded word . . . I can't talk for the 1970s and '80s, because I wasn't old enough to have any influence in the club back then. But I can now assure you of a definite consciousness within the club that we have an important role, not only in the golfing world but in the local community as well. And being custodians of one of the finest links courses in the world is very much a part of that. The last thing you want to do is to keep it to yourself.
"I know we have worked hard as a club to have open arms. Putting it another way, the doors here should be open. We should be seen as a welcoming club and I'm delighted to think that perceptions have changed.
"I think it's essentially been a generational thing and it's important that Royal Co Down should embrace the significant changes that are happening in the world of golf. It's important that we position ourselves to reflect our world standing. To opt out of that would mean taking a backward step, contrary to our best interests."
Was there any sense in which the current mood reflected the general changes in Northern Ireland, politically and socially? "Perception can be a difficult thing," McCaw replied. "Clearly the changes that have happened since the Troubles have been to everyone's benefit. We have a lot of visitors, about 10,000 rounds per year, and it's important that they have a County Down experience. That's why we built the Murlough Room [named after Murlough Bay nearby] which is essentially a facility for visitors. We also have catering, bar and changing facilities which didn't really exist 25 years ago.
"We want our visitors to feel that they're being well looked after, as opposed to a time when they would be arriving here and changing in their cars or in a coach. Mind you, we weren't the only links course where that applied."
As products of the same golfing era in the latter end of the 19th century, their membership structure is similar to that at Royal Portrush. Apart from the main golf clubs, there are Royal Co Down Ladies and Royal Portrush Ladies, and for local members, there are the Mourne Club and Rathmore GC. So on all levels, neither can be questioned on the equality issue.
"The Northern Ireland Executive approached us about staging the Irish Open," said McCaw. "We didn't seek it in any way but were delighted to accept." And what of The Open, which has been raised as a possibility here by Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell? "I don't think it's something that's on the radar at the present moment," he said. "We haven't been approached, though if the scenario came about, we would obviously discuss it.
"We believe the course would be strong enough but a major consideration would be whether the infrastructural facilities here would allow us to stage such an event. Meanwhile, the Irish Open has been important in terms of keeping ourselves up there. We would expect a significant boost out of this."
As for any possible changes to the course, he was quite happy to accept the view of Jack Nicklaus who, after finishing third in the 2001 Senior British Open here, remarked: "You don't change a course like this, no more than you would want to change St Andrews, which was built a long time ago. These courses still stand the test of time."
Then, as if to emphasise the standard of my amenities here as opposed to 35 years ago, he said with a smile: "At least you don't have to change in a public toilet." And while he walked away, I was left with the parting words: "This is a very, very different club now."
And thousands of charmed visitors to the Irish Open could appreciate that difference.
Sunday Indo Sport