independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Linking Waterville, Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis

Thanks to men like Jay Connolly, the links has flourished, says Dermot Gilleece

A mischievous grin bordered on smugness as Jay Connolly recalled the occasion when he outsmarted an aspiring young airline executive by the name of Michael O'Leary. As it happened, the story became the highpoint of last week's annual awards ceremony for the Ireland Golf Tour Operator Association (IGTOA) in the Hotel Europe in Killarney.

In the process, Connolly achieved the remarkable feat of linking Waterville, Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis in the same sentence. Which was worthy of his status as a former US army helicopter captain who fought in Vietnam before going on, via Wall Street, to become a key figure in golf in the south-west.

As a member of Winged Foot GC in New York State, he spearheaded the purchase of Waterville GC from John A Mulcahy in 1986, along with fellow members Leeda O'Grady Fletcher, Jay F Higgins, Richard F Leahy, James J McEntee and John W Meriwether. And the way the club has flourished since then earned Connolly the IGTOA's Jerry Donworth Award for Outstanding Contribution to Golf.

It is always a delight to go back to Waterville, not least for the memories it prompts of remarkable happenings during the Kerrygold Classic in 1975 to '77. This was when the pro-am format attracted such luminaries as Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Telly Savalas and Robert Shaw.

I remember 1975, standing in the locker room talking to Shaw whose latest movie The Sting was in Irish cinemas at the time. And he explained how he had based the Northern Irish accent of his character, Doyle Lonnegan, on a mixture of Danny Blanchflower and Ian Paisley.

A year later, we had Tony Jacklin's extraordinary £2,000 jackpot in the main event. His five-year exemption into the US Open having expired, Jacklin was booked for Monday sectional qualifying in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, as 54-hole leader, he needed special permission to be first off in the final round. After a closing 70, he later learned of his one-stroke triumph while 35,000 feet in the air over Newfoundland, en route from Shannon to New York.

Tom Fazio has presided over a brilliant upgrading of the links, and there's the bronze of Payne Stewart facing the clubhouse behind the ninth green. But nothing else at Waterville seemed to have changed. There was the familiar warmth of Noel Cronin's welcome, as a secretary-manager with a diplomat's gift for information and discretion.

As a marvel of modern-day technology involving the use of two satellites, a transatlantic radio programme was being transmitted from the upstairs bar. Matty Adams, the celebrated American golf broadcaster, informed me he was reaching an audience of 32 million on PGA Tour radio. And his listeners were being enticed to come golfing in Ireland, through interviewees Denis Kane, chairman of IGTOA, and Fáilte Ireland's Tony Lenehan.

Born in Long Island with an Irish background in Fermanagh and Cork, Jay Connolly first caught sight of Waterville when playing in the Jack Mulcahy Classic in 1983. "With Vietnam very much in the past by then, I was in Wall Street with Salomen Brothers [investment bankers]," he recalled, proudly wearing eight service medals across his chest.

When he returned here in 1986, it was with a view to purchasing the only proprietary links course in this country at the time, along with Waterville Lake Hotel, Waterville House and extensive fishing and hunting rights.

Not long afterwards, the consortium decided to offload the hotel, which was where Michael O'Leary entered the picture as negotiator for the Ryan family who, Connolly was aware, had the secret backing of Club Med.

As he remembered it, O'Leary fired the first salvo by effectively suggesting, "Just give us the keys." By way of indicating his own

business acumen, however, Connolly delighted in adding: "In those days I was known to cry with one eye. And with the deal finally done, we could focus 100 per cent on golf."

But what of Lindbergh? "During the negotiations, I happened to mention that according to Lindbergh's log when he flew the Atlantic in 1927, he circled over Portmagee [14 miles from Waterville] before heading overland to the Fastnet Lighthouse and on to Paris. So he would probably have flown over the site of the Waterville Lake Hotel."

With that, Connolly proceeded to deliver the coup de grace, suggesting the plane's tail number was R-X-211, when in fact it was N-X-211.

"Michael O'Leary admitted he had no idea what RX stood for, so I told him it stood for Ryan Aeronautical Experimental, the company which built the Spirit of St Louis [in fact Ryan Airlines built the plane]. He swallowed the hook and the deal was done."

The disposal of prized possessions into non-Irish hands hasn't always delivered the most desirable outcome. But Waterville GC can be safely highlighted as a particularly fine exception.

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