Friday 20 October 2017

Major expansion built on strong foundations

Dermot Gilleece

In mid-November 1990, a quiet passing of the baton took place in Irish professional golf. Three days after Darren Clarke had secured a European Tour card in the Qualifying School at Montpellier, Fred Daly died.

Though we couldn't have known it at the time, we were witnessing the emergence of a player whose international successes, especially in WGC events in the US, would help fill the enormous void left by the island's lone winner of the Open Championship. And Daly's demise lent further emphasis to the revolutionary changes which had been taking place here in the development of young talent.

Behind the 72nd green at Royal St George's last Sunday, Clarke's mind guru during a momentous week, Dr Bob Rotella, talked about contagion in an unusually positive sense. "When you look at your country," he said, "do you think the top players aren't identifying with each other and thinking 'he's from Ireland and can do this; I'm from Ireland so I can do it too?' Sure, contagion is there. Oh God yes. No question."

Mindful of the psychologist's words, you notice that only a year after Daly became the first home winner of the Irish Open in 1946, his great friend, Harry Bradshaw, captured the title. And when the Portrush man savoured an Open triumph at Hoylake in 1947, Bradshaw went close to doing the same at Royal St George's two years later, losing a play-off to Bobby Locke.

In this context, we can but speculate as to the impact an Open win by Christy O'Connor Snr might have had. The Brad, who knew him better than most, expressed the view to me that, deep down, O'Connor feared that winning the Open would change him into an international player, so dragging him away from the native patch he loved so well. This would also explain why he declined to play in the US Masters where he had a standing invitation from 1955 to 1973 as a current Ryder Cup player, though contemporaries such as Peter Alliss, Harry Weetman, Bernard Hunt and even Neil Coles, who hated flying, made the trip.

Rotella's words can also be heard echoing loudly in the background of a chat I had with Graeme McDowell after he had missed the cut on his US Masters debut in 2005. "I've been trying to put myself in (Pádraig) Harrington's way as much as possible. Pick his brains. I love the way he goes about things. For me, he's the guy who has it all worked out. He's the guy I want to be."

News of Daly's death came through to the Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando on what was the Monday of World Cup week. And David Feherty, who was there representing Ireland with Ronan Rafferty, ensured a suitable send-off by relating marvellous stories from his time as Fred's assistant at Balmoral -- "the greatest two years of my life."

One which I remember with particular affection concerned Garth McGimpsey, who went on to win 14 championships including the British Amateur of 1985 and later became a Walker Cup captain. Indeed, he recently captured the Irish Senior Amateur title by the crushing margin of six strokes.

Feherty told of an occasion in 1979 when Hal McGimpsey, Garth's father, decided that if his richly promising son was to scale the heights of amateur golf, a lesson from Daly was absolutely mandatory. So they made the pilgrimage to Balmoral, where Hal proceeded to take copious notes for future reference.

Near the end of the lesson, the old pro became seriously animated, swishing the driver vigorously with his left hand through thick grass at the edge of a fairway. "That's it! That's it!" Daly exclaimed. Whereupon Hal, convinced he and Garth were being made privy to a great golfing secret, eagerly enquired: "What is it Fred? What is it?" Only to be told: "That's the damn moss that's destroying our greens."

As it happened, the '70s was a rather bleak decade in the Irish amateur game. The glory days of Joe Carr, Tom Craddock and Jimmy Bruen were at an end and a dearth of talent could be seen in only two Walker Cup representatives over the 10 years -- Roddy Carr in 1971 and Pat Mulcare in 1975. And, of course, it was a time of great torment in the North, when the Troubles were at their height.

Attempts at achieving some sense of normality through golf were admirably positive, however, with players crossing the border for championships in both directions. But there were exceptions. Like in 1974, when the Interprovincial Championship, which should have had a Northern venue, was switched to Royal Dublin and the Home Internationals, scheduled for Royal Co Down in 1979, were abandoned altogether.

Which brings to mind a story from the '70s concerning the Connacht players Sean Flanagan and Cyril Devins. Understandable anxiety from Devins about going North for the interpros brought a memorable reply. "Just think of it," said Flanagan, a Dublin-based garda with mischief in his eyes. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to die for Connacht."

From two Walker Cup players during the '70s, Ireland delivered no fewer than six a decade later, in Philip Walton, Rafferty, Arthur Pierse, McGimpsey, John McHenry and Eoghan O'Connell. So, what happened in the meantime?

"As far I'm concerned, the big change occurred when Joe Carr became captain of the Irish team in 1979," said McGimpsey. "I first played for Ireland in 1978 and when Joe took over, he brought a freshness and a modern approach to Irish golf."

Which was, perhaps, entirely to be expected, given how progressive Carr had been during his own playing days in terms of practice, physical fitness, diet and mental preparation.

McGimpsey went on: "Up to Joe's captaincy, the Irish amateur scene wasn't taken all that seriously. But Joe instituted squad training trips to Spain, which were very significant in the development of young players such as Rafferty and Walton. And I was lucky to be part of it, too. Before that, you were looking at trials in the depth of winter in places like Carlow and Malone whereas Joe took us away to the sun, where we could play 36 holes a day for six days in a row while developing a keen sense of team spirit."

I happened to be on one of those trips in 1981 when Rafferty set a course-record 67 around Sotogrande Old and Enda McMenamin had a hole in one on what is now the short 15th at Valderrama, but was called Las Aves back then, with the nines reversed. That same year, Walton broke new ground by capturing the Spanish Amateur Open title at Torrequebrada, eastwards on the Costa del Sol.

McGimpsey also points to Irish players embarking on scholarships to American universities. Walton, for instance, went to Oklahoma State where he was mixing with such promising American talent as Scott Verplank, Bob Tway and Jeff Maggert; McHenry went to William and Mary and Clarke had a spell, albeit a short one, at Wake Forest where O'Connell later did a full degree course.

"I remember Philip joking that he came back with a degree in finger-painting," McGimpsey went on. "The important thing was that he became a seriously good player who helped my thinking, along with my putting stroke. His development contrasted sharply with my own, in that I was 23 when I first came on the scene. The upshot of it was that Ireland won the European Team Championship at Chantilly in 1983."

By then, the era of the full-time amateur had arrived in Irish golf. From a time when the top players were career amateurs, our youngsters began to view a professional career in a much more favourable light. No longer would it be necessary, as in the days of Daly, Bradshaw and O'Connor, for a player to have the financial back-up of a club job before trying his luck on the tournament circuit. Amateur internationals Des Smyth and John O'Leary made the move, while Eddie Polland, Eamonn Darcy, Christy O'Connor Jnr and David Feherty progressed through assistant-professional ranks.

Then, as a logical follow-up to squad-training in the sun, the GUI appointed former English Ryder Cup player John Garner as the country's first national coach. To understand the significance of this move, one had only to be at Royal St George's last Sunday evening listening to Godfrey Clarke relate how the newly-crowned Open champion received his first golf lessons from Garner.

The Englishman is now coaching in New Zealand from where he was understandably quick last Monday to acknowledge his early involvement with Clarke and Paul McGinley. "Darren came to me back in 1983, when he was a three handicapper on a boys' squad in Belfast and was with me for three years," recalled Garner. Asked if he ever sensed he was working with a future Major champion, Garner replied that while he could see undoubted talent, his primary objective was simply to nurture the players in his care.

Around the same time, Michael Bannon, runner-up to Rafferty in the 1980 Irish Amateur Close at Royal Co Down, was acquiring a reputation as a gifted coach at Holywood GC, several years before a youngster named McIlroy would become his most celebrated pupil.

When Garner moved on, the GUI appointed as his successor another English coach Howard Bennett, who established such a close relationship with Harrington during the amateur years that the player retained him into his professional career until Bob Torrance took over in July 1998.

In the meantime, Ireland's six-man team won the European Championship in 1987 for a second time in five years. And future stars like Clarke, Harrington and Paul McGinley could look to new heroes, such as Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam. Meanwhile, Tony Jacklin made these role models all the more heroic when captaining European Ryder Cup teams to victory over the once-dominant US.

With his appointment as head greenkeeper at Dungannon GC in 1983, Godfrey Clarke opened the door for participation by himself and his son in inter-club matches. As he pointed out last Sunday, the youngster's golfing future became a committed effort by a working-class family who had to make sacrifices, just like Kenny and Marian McDowell and Gerry and Rosie McIlroy would have to do in later years.

Of those Dungannon days before his dad moved some years later to Ballycastle GC, the son recalled: "We didn't really have a chance of winning a provincial pennant. The height of our ambition was to give the club a boost by winning a couple of rounds, but I looked upon it as terrific fun and great experience."

Father and son played in both the Senior Cup and Barton Shield but never as partners in the foursomes event. "Maybe we felt it would have put too much strain on family relations," conceded Godfrey with a chuckle.

Though he was a scratch player at 14, young Clarke was more interested in rugby at Dungannon Royal. Which lent a certain irony to his golf club having to waive a regulation to permit him to play Senior Cup and Barton Shield, given his status as a juvenile member. "When the time came to choose between a physical-contact sport or a walking pursuit, the decision was effectively made for me," Clarke recalled. "As a 15-year-old, I broke my arm during rugby training and on medical advice, golf became my sport of choice from then on."

Ireland's young amateurs of the 1980s had the best of two worlds. With no lack of competition from their peers, they could also test themselves against gifted career amateurs such as McGimpsey, Pierse, Declan Branigan, Adrian Morrow, Mark Gannon and Barry Reddan. And as a priceless by-product, they were making their own special contribution to north-south relations some time before the peace process secured a treasured prize.

"I consider myself to have dual nationality, British on one hand and Irish on the other," said McGimpsey. "There's no way around that. But there was nobody more proud of playing for Ireland than I was. Through 226 senior international matches, I was proud to be part of winning Irish teams and never had a problem in standing for the Irish national anthem.

"I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity of playing great courses throughout this island; places like Baltray, Lahinch, Portrush and Rosses Point on an annual basis. Our courses are better than anywhere in the world, which must also be hugely influential in moulding top-class talent.

"Right now, after Darren's win, people are emphasising Northern Ireland because its smallness has the effect of magnifying the achievement all the more. It makes an attractive statistic. But an equally attractive statistic, in my view, is six Majors from Ireland in the last four years. That's unbelievable -- a cause for celebration throughout the whole of the island."

Clarke's entirely predictable international debut for Ireland came at Lahinch on September 11, 1987 on the last day of the Home Internationals. And with a half-point in his singles against Scottish veteran George Macgregor, he contributed to Ireland's first Triple Crown triumph.

Three years later, he moved to professional ranks with a manager Chubby Chandler, who would become a life-long friend. Though the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock beckoned, there was nothing further to prove after a 1990 season in which he captured the Spanish Amateur, North of Ireland, South of Ireland and Irish Close titles, going through 25 matches unbeaten.

By that stage, the GUI production process was being fine-tuned year on year, while former amateur rivals found themselves playing side by side in professional ranks. Like in the World Cup at Erinvale, South Africa, in November 1996, when Clarke and Harrington teamed up for the first time.

On the eve of battle, Harrington bowed to his partner's seniority, acknowledging Clarke's decisive victory over him in the Irish Close final of 1990. "I was totally in awe of Darren at that stage," he said. "He was a fantastic player, totally unbeatable in my view."

On a more recent eve of battle at Royal St George's, Clarke turned to Rotella and asked: "How does Pádraig approach a Major?" The American replied: "He has a very quiet mind. And you, Darren, have to have a very quiet mind."

Clarke did what Harrington did, and won. Which suggested the image of this huge jigsaw in which Joe Carr put the first pieces in place, more than 30 years previously.

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport