Thursday 30 October 2014

Legends demise points to wider problems

Prospect of a healthy pension has lost its gloss for senior pros

Dermot Gilleece

Published 09/03/2014 | 17:00

6 March 2014; Des Smyth, Ireland, pictured after he was named as one of the first two vice captains for The 2014 European Ryder Cup contest against the United States in Gleneagles Golf Course, Scotland, this September. Government Buildings, Merrion Square, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Des Smyth - announced this week as one of the first two vice-captains for the 2014 European Ryder Cup team - still relished applying club to ball

With a wicked edge to his customary charm, Peter Alliss could bring the reality of professional golf more starkly into focus than we're likely to observe these days around the lucrative top tournaments.

And one such reflection concerning retirement is prompted by the demise of an iconic event which launched the seniors' scene in the US 34 years ago.

Alliss got the story from Richard Dimbleby, a celebrated colleague at the BBC who happened to be in the Outer Hebrides compiling some material for the series Down Your Way.

There, in a row of beautifully maintained crofters' cottages, one stood apart because of its decidedly tatty condition, highlighted by an overgrown garden and empty bottles of beer and Scotch whisky lying about the place. Its elderly occupant sat in a rocking chair just outside the front door.

Bidding him good morning, Dimbleby suggested that in the midst of austerity, he seemed to be living the good life. With an ample supply of baccy and booze, the old Scot lit his pipe, took a swig of Glenlivet and replied: "Aye, I'm very lucky. I've got a daughter, Aggie, and she's what you'd call a whore. She's in Glasgow and sends me 50 pounds a week. Aye. She's a good lass, Aggie."

Pausing for another swig of his favourite tipple, the crofter went on: "I've also got a boy, Jamie. He's an assistant golf pro at one of those swanky clubs in Edinburgh."

"A golfer; that must be a great joy to you," suggested Dimbleby.

"Indeed aye. He's a good boy, Jamie. Sends me 15 shillings a week." Then the crofter sighed heavily before adding: "Och mon, I wish he were a whore, too."

Without suggesting that golf's senior professionals should encourage anything quite so extreme, the prospect of a healthy pension has lost much of its gloss, certainly on this side of the pond.

"When the crash came in Europe, we had a drop in our seniors tournaments from around 20 down to 13," says Des Smyth. "We're struggling. As things stand, we don't play a tournament in Europe until June."

His appointment as one of Paul McGinley's vice-captains for the forthcoming Ryder Cup at Gleneagles revives memories of the Irish Open on an August weekend at Portmarnock in 1979, when Smyth was announced as a wild-card choice on the first European Ryder Cup team. And even with a backroom challenge to consider, he still relishes applying club to ball.

Which makes the departure of the Mutual Liberty Legends of Golf all the more of a loss. It means that for the first time since he gained a Champions Tour card in November 2002, Smyth will not be competing in the US this year.

And it's the competition and the friendships he'll miss, rather than the money. Still, it is interesting to note that he earned an impressive total of $777,444 from nine appearances in the Legends from 2004 to 2013.

Smyth takes considerable pride from having his own engraved stones on a walkway to the front of the clubhouse at the Westin Resort in Savannah, which played host to the event since 2003.

"It's really a beautiful place and we played at a lovely time of the year," he continued about the late-April slot in the schedule.

"If asked to name the most financially productive place where I've ever played golf, I'd have to say Savannah, Georgia. If I ever go back on holiday, I'll make a point of staying at that hotel and checking out my three stones in front of the clubhouse."

Apart from capturing the showpiece in 2005 for the biggest victory ($382,000) of his tournament career, he sacrificed the main event in later stagings so as to partner Mark James to victory in the Raphael Division (ages 50 to 69) in 2011 and 2012 for individual prizes of $60,000 on each occasion.

The Legends was first staged in 1978, leading to the formation of the US Seniors Tour two years later. Christy O'Connor Snr graced it four times between 1979 and his last appearance in 1986, when he partnered Doug Sanders. And the fourball format was retained until 2002 when it was accorded full tour status as a 72-hole singles tournament until 2007, inclusive.

This was to become the stage for Smyth's greatest triumph. And it is interesting to note that when the fourball format was resumed in 2008, victory went to the partnership of Tom Watson and Andy North, who will be opposing Smyth once more as captain and vice-captain of the US Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles.

Meanwhile, legends will gather no more in the formidable shadow of the Talmadge Suspension Bridge, rising 185 feet above the Savannah River. But in the build-up to Gleneagles, Smyth is set to discover that there's always a challenge in golf for its committed practitioners.

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