Sunday 23 October 2016

Paul Kimmage: One hundred Majors not out for golf writing's main man

After a career of many ups and downs, the man who had little time for sport in younger years has become the 'go to' guy for countless journalists

Published 17/07/2016 | 17:00

Dermot Gilleece at work. Photo: David Conachy
Dermot Gilleece at work. Photo: David Conachy
A signed photograph given to Dermot Gilleece by one of golfs all-time greatest players, Jack Nicklaus. Photo: David Conachy

Thursday at The Open started as most days have this week, with breakfast in the Media Centre and a review of the morning papers. A piece by John Hopkins in The Times caught my eye. He was reflecting on the state of the game, and the repercussions of Brexit for The Open at Portrush in 2019, and noted - "bizarre as it might seem" - that Portmarnock had once hosted the British Amateur Championship.

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"When Portmarnock was announced to be the venue for the 1949 Amateur, Ireland was still a member of the Commonwealth, even though by the time the event was played it had become a republic, causing the late Henry Longhurst, the noted golf correspondent, to say: "If we're going to have to get our passports out to go to the Amateur, we might as well go to Deauville."

I met John a couple of hours later and tipped my hat.

"I had no idea they had once played the Amateur in Portmarnock," I said.

"Yes, it's interesting," he replied.

"And I loved that line about the passports from Longhurst."

"I got that from Dermot," he smiled.

Dermot Gilleece has been giving us the best lines in golf for as long as I can remember. It started in 1980 with his first visit to The Open and gathered pace a year later with 'Golf Gossip', a new column in The Irish Times that was soon abandoned for 'Golfing Log' at the behest of an appalled editor who noted: "Since when has The Irish Times engaged in gossip?"

'The Old Lady of D'Olier Street' was full of stuffy old farts like that. You would meet them at rugby and football internationals in the press box at Lansdowne Road and feel obliged to almost genuflect before they gave you the time of day. Dermot was different.

One of my first golf commissions in the early 1990's was a profile of Ronan Rafferty, the former European number one and enfant terrible of Irish golf. The best line was about Rafferty's sudden withdrawal from the US Open at Hazeltine in '91, when he had walked off the course during the second round after telling his playing partners he was going to the toilet: "He forgot to explain that the toilet was in a 747 bound for London."

I got it from Dermot.

There is nothing Dermot Gilleece does not know about golf. He has written four books - 'The Brad', a biography of Harry Bradshaw, 'Breaking 80: The Life and Times of Joe Carr', 'Ryder Cup 2006' and 'Touching Greatness' - as well as seven club histories. He's had dinner with Jack Nicklaus, letters from Gene Sarazen and gave an outstanding eulogy recently at the funeral of Christy O'Connor Snr.

A life member of the Association of Golf Writers, he plays the game regularly in Clontarf and is an honorary member of the Old Head of Kinsale, Wentworth, The Curragh, Beaverstown, The European Club and Elm Park. But it's here, in the week of an Open, when he really shines.

As I type these words, he's in a huddle across room fielding questions from Jaime Diaz, the best golf writer in America, and four Japanese scribes. A colleague has just jumped up from his desk:

"Where's Dermot?"


"I need to check something with him."

So it wasn't easy finding time to sit down for the interview. And as we pulled up two chairs, there was a nagging doubt in my head: 'What if the thing you most admired about Dermot Gilleece was the thing he wouldn't talk about?'

1. The cursed book

Anyway, with dusk closing in rapidly, only four golf writers remained in the clubhouse. One of them was Leonard Crawley - a Walker Cup representative and long-time golf correspondent of the Daily Telegraph - who, on looking out of the window, noticed a lone figure on the practice ground in the distance. 'See that young man, all on his own,' he said. 'When practice grounds are full of men as dedicated as him, Europe will be able to compete with the world.'

Suddenly, enthused by his own words, Crawley left his colleagues, got into his distinctive, black Mercedes and drove out over the course to where the young man was hitting shots. There, he lowered the window of his car and said, 'I am Leonard Crawley and I want you to know your efforts have been noted. I can assure you that your dedication will be rewarded.' With that, he wound up the window and drove away.

About then minutes later, the young man arrived in the clubhouse, with his bag of clubs cradled in his arms and tears streaming down his face. He wanted to know where the man in the black Mercedes had gone... and why he had seen fit to drive over his clubs, smashing every one of them.

Dermot Gilleece, 'Touching Greatness'

Paul Kimmage: Dermot, I've often wondered if your true hero in life, the man you most wanted to be, was Leonard Crawley.

Dermot Gilleece (horrified): No, never! Pat Ward-Thomas maybe, but not Leonard Crawley!

PK: I've always loved that story about Crawley.

DG: It's great, isn't it?

PK: But Ward-Thomas was your hero?

DG: Yeah, there was a lyrical quality to the way he wrote about golf. He wrote a line once about the view from the highest point in County Sligo Golf Club: "I stood on the second green and looked out at the fairways running like crumpled ribbons." Think about that line: "Running like crumpled ribbons."

PK: Yeah, nice.

DG: He was writing for an audience, largely, who didn't have television. He was painting the pictures for them, and he did it so beautifully. But he really captured me in terms of golf writing, and I suppose I fell in love with golf writing before I fell in love with golf. When I read these guys I thought: 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to be writing about a sport that produces this sort of literature.' And that's what captivated me.

PK: We're at Royal Troon this week for the 145th Open, your 100th Major championship as a journalist.

DG: Yeah.

PK: How did you feel walking in here on Tuesday?

DG: Well, once I got here and got into it, it was effectively just another Major.

PK: There was no reflection on the journey?

DG: Truthfully, no.

PK: Just another day at the office?

DG: No, no, no, the Open has always been very special, but it gets bigger every year and your thoughts as you approach it are dominated not by work, but by logistics: 'Where am I going to stay? How far is it from the course? Where's the car park?' But you settle in and get the buzz of the thing and then it takes off.

PK: What's the buzz?

DG: I'm a traditionalist. I'm very conscious of the history behind this event and how the great players have responded to winning it. They were all moved by it. They all saw it as something special. I was chatting to Nick Price at St Andrews last year and he said: "Do you know what? There is nothing like this place. You stand on the first tee and look down the fairway and all you see are the ghosts of the players who have gone before." And I was immediately conscious that I share those views. You're part of something that is very special in the game of golf in that it is the game of golf. And what we're seeing here this week is another manifestation of that - a different venue but the same ethos.

PK: Tell me about your first Major.

DG: My first major was Muirfield in 1980. I remember it for Jack Nicklaus.

PK: He won that year?

DG: No, Tom Watson won.

PK: So why Nicklaus?

DG: Two golfers in my life have impressed me hugely and made me slightly apprehensive of their presence - Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy. I see those two as very special people. Different. They are not normal to me. Nicklaus is the only sportsman I've ever met who has never abused the word 'great': when he uses it, he means it, and he doesn't use it very often. I suppose it's basic integrity. Muirfield was the first time I saw him in the flesh and I was just blown away by the presence of the man. It was a month after the US Open at Baltusrol - his fourth US Open win - and an important one, because it had equalled the record of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. Somebody asked how he had celebrated, and he said: "I took the family out to McDonald's."

"And then?"

"And then we went home."

And for no reason at all - just to answer the unspoken question - he said: "You don't have to drink to celebrate, you know." Now this was the puritan in Nicklaus coming out but, as you know, it had a special resonance for me.

PK: Did he drink?

DG: Oh, he did. He does. I drank with him . . . well, I didn't drink with him, but he drank in my company. But everything with him would be moderate.

PK: What is it about McIlroy?

DG: Well, I have this theory about great people - Brian O'Driscoll would probably come into this as well - it's a Mozartian type of thing. They're different. They're special. We shouldn't expect the normal things from them, and we shouldn't expect them to behave in normal ways. Rory McIlroy is a lot like that. It didn't surprise me, for instance, that he had changed his management company twice and eventually decided to go his own way, because that's the way he is. I had some very open and casual conversations with Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros over the years, but I could never see myself getting marginally close to McIlroy or to Nicklaus. There's a basic reserve there that you are never going to break down.

PK: That's interesting.

DG: Yeah.

PK: I want to talk to you further about your relationships with these guys but talk to me about you, first. Tell me about your parents.

DG: My father, James Philip - Jim - was from Ballygar in County Galway. He fought with Collins in the War of Independence and became a second lieutenant when the Free State was formed. He was on manoeuvres in Donegal when he met my mother, Rita Baker, a Derry woman. They married in 1929 and he was demobbed from the army in 1931 as part of large-scale Government cut-backs.

PK: Demobbed?

DG: Demobilised. I'm assuming he got some sort of payment because he opened a garage in Rathcoole, County Dublin, until the outbreak of World War II, when he went back into the army as a captain.

PK: Where were you born?

DG: I was born in Rathcoole in 1940. My father reopened the garage in 1946 and then we moved to Strokestown in County Roscommon and he opened a hardware/bar/general store, but that only lasted two years. We did great business but were never paid and moved to Dublin in '51, a house in Cadogan Road (Fairview).

PK: How many siblings?

DG: Six. Colm was the eldest, then Brendan, Noel, Maureen, myself, Grainne and Declan.

PK: What are your first memories?

DG: I have wonderful memories of Rathcoole and running over open fields. Noel, my older brother, was the dreamer of the family. He wrote plays and we would perform them in a theatre - the 'Rock Theatre' - in our back garden. I remember once, when I was no more than six or seven, I had this line: "Ahh this is the room, the library. Now, let me see, where can that cur-sed book be?" It wasn't "that cursed book," it was "that cur-sed book" - proper articulation.

PK: (laughs) What sort of relationship did you have with your parents? Your dad was obviously an interesting man?

DG: I was close to my mother but wouldn't have had a close relationship with my father. He was a man's man - he mixed with men, went to the pub with men - and I would have been much closer to my brothers. I adored them. I adored Noel. My father never worked again after we came to Dublin. He became very arthritic and we were living hand-to-mouth - and I'm sure that weighed on him.

PK: What schools did you attend?

DG: I went to Scoil Mhuire in Marino and got a corporation scholarship for 'Joey's' (St Joseph's CBS) - a huge thing at the time because it meant getting a secondary education. And I have no doubt I would not have got a secondary education but for that scholarship.

PK: What about sport?

DG: I wasn't sporting at all but used to force myself to try and play hurling - I was very attracted to hurling. I didn't have any natural co-ordination but I was physically big for my age, and my claim to fame was that I was vice-captain of the St Vincent's under 16 team to Des Foley. But it doesn't get any better than that as far as my boyhood achievements are concerned.

PK: (Laughs.)

DG: I didn't play soccer but I was good at snooker and used to play in the local billiard hall in Fairview Strand - or 'Halla na M'billiard', as the Brothers used to scornfully refer to it. This was a dreadful den of iniquity, the classic misspent youth.

PK: In their eyes?

DG: In their eyes.

PK: What about following sport?

DG: I had a passing interest. I didn't have a sporting upbringing at all and only really took an interest in sport when I started working at it.

PK: Dublin won the All-Ireland in '58. Kevin Heffernan, a Vincent's man, was captain. Did that not register?

DG: Oh, it did. You see I'm wrong when I say I had no real interest, I had interest in specific things - the Dublin team, the Vincent's team. My first All-Ireland was in 1953 - Galway were playing Cork in the hurling final - I went with my dad and thought it was disastrous when Galway were beaten. The '50s were also about listening to heavyweight boxing fights from the States late into the night. But the only place I can ever remember watching any sport was Croke Park. The Railway Cup finals in hurling and football on St Patrick's day is some of the most beautiful things I can remember.

PK: Beautiful in what sense?

DG: It encapsulated everything that was important to me about Ireland - the pageantry, the colour, the national anthem, the Artane band - all of that stuff was huge to me, coming from an all-Irish school. And there were games on Friday nights and you'd get 25,000 there: the Tuam Stars with Purcell and Stockwell; Glen Rovers, Austin Stacks and the Vincent's boys - Heffo, Norman Allen, Des Ferguson - iconic names.

PK: This is a completely different portrait to the one you presented a moment ago.

DG: What do you mean?

PK: You didn't seem that into sport.

DG: I wasn't into playing it, that's what I'm saying. I mean, I look at my grandson now, Harry, and he's a seriously good footballer at 10 years of age. I see other kids and they're besotted by it. I wasn't into it like that, but maybe I'm presenting it wrong.

PK: Maybe I'm interpreting it wrong.

DG: Sport was there but it wasn't important to me. I was probably more into movies. I joined the Irish Press in 1958 and became a sports writer but I can't remember saying to them that I liked sport, or was interested in it, but something happened to me that . . . (Long pause) . . . There's a huge split in my life that I find very difficult to put together. There were things that happened prior to it, and things that happened after it, and they were very different lives. And I'm trying to get a clear picture of what happened prior to it, but it's difficult to do.

2. The good old days

In the late fifties, when I was a trainee journalist in the now sadly defunct Irish Press Group, part of my job involved running messages for senior members of the staff. These included regular trips to the local bookmaker on Burgh Quay, placing bets for the group's main racing expert, Maurice Ring. Though Ring enjoyed only moderate success, I was still fascinated by the notion of using one's expertise to make handy money. So I ventured to ask him why it was that he didn't quit working and take up punting full-time. Peering at me over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, he paused for a moment before saying gravely: "Young man, you must remember that horses are only human." And I knew exactly what he meant.

Dermot Gilleece, 'Touching Greatness'

PK: Tell me about your path to journalism.

DG: There was no path. When you did the Leaving Cert in Dublin in 1958, your job opportunities if you weren't going to university were Aer Lingus, the civil service, the ESB or the Corpo (Dublin Corporation). You did exams for some of those and you didn't for others, but they were your options. I remember, for instance, knowing that if you were 20 years in the civil service as a junior executive you would rise to £1,000 a year - they were the sort of aspirations I had.

PK: How did you come to join the Irish Press?

DG: My first job was serving petrol in the LSE motor company in North Frederick Street. From there I got a job in the Dublin fruit market - a company called Larry Reilly's - selling fruit to Moore Street traders. And then, in October, I got a call from the school: apparently the Irish Press had decided to embark on a new process of recruiting journalists and had written to various schools inviting applicants to be sent forward for interview. I was sent from Joey's and got a job as a copy boy - running messages and putting bets on horses for Maurice Ring.

PK: (Laughs.)

DG: They paid me three pounds 13 shillings a week. I gave my mother the three quid and kept the 13 shillings for myself and wondered how I was going to spend it. I was running up and down the stairs for various departments and after about year of doing that there was a vacancy in sport. I mean, you ask about this great burning desire to do things - it wasn't like that. A door opened:

"Will you take the job?"

"I will."

And six months later they made me a junior journalist and I began to learn how to write.

PK: Do you remember your first reporting job?

DG: When I was a copy boy I did a lot of Dublin GAA matches - Fingallians versus Skerries Harps, stuff like that. It got me four paragraphs in the Irish Press on Monday morning.

PK: What about a byline?

DG: You didn't get a byline until you were at least two years on the road. One of my first big assignments was the Irish Hospital Sweeps Tournament at Woodbrook - an 18-hole play-off between Christy O'Connor and Ken Bousfield on a Monday morning. I imagine I was sent because nobody else would do it, because it was embarrassing really - I had never seen a golf tournament before. I'm not even sure if I had ever seen a golf course.

PK: An interesting starting point when you consider what happened.

DG: Yeah, there was a certain karma attached to it.

PK: So you've never seen this game before, you've no idea how it works and you're reporting on Christy O'Connor - even at that stage, a legend of the game.

DG: The Irish Press had an astonishing capacity for throwing you in at the deep end. I covered horse racing without ever having seen a race before. They made me the coursing correspondent at 22 and I knew nothing about dogs! It wasn't an ideal way of treating the public, letting gobshites like me loose on them.

PK: (Laughs)

DG: But most of my life in journalism has to do with coping. And I learned.

PK: Christy won the play-off.

DG: Yeah.

PK: Have you got the report?

DG: No, and I wouldn't want to read it.

PK: Why?

DG: Because it would be terrible.

PK: It doesn't matter - it's the start.

DG: I don't like terrible starts.

PK: You wouldn't even be a small bit curious?

DG: No. No. No. No. No.

PK: (Laughs)

DG: I think you can understand why. There was a period later in my life when I was afraid to look at the paper, days during the early 1970s when I didn't know whether I had worked (the day before) until I went to the local newsagent and checked the paper. I wouldn't want to see any of that stuff. It would be too painful.

PK: Sure.

DG: I had a lovely surprise last year - a letter from Eddie Keher. His mother, I think, had died and they were cleaning out her house and found a copy of the Irish Press from 1963, when he scored 14 points - a record - in the All-Ireland final against . . . was it Waterford?

PK: I'll check.

DG: I think I met him on the Monday morning and they gave it a reasonable showing - 'Dermot Gilleece meets Eddie Keher' - but Jesus, it was dreadful! I was three years on the road at this stage and considered to be fairly promising but, by any standards, it was poor.

PK: You were 23 at the time and Keher was a star. Was there a buzz from that?

DG: There was a certain status about writing for a paper, and that was important at the time I suspect, but all of the main jobs were gone: Mick Dunne was the GAA man, Sean Diffley was the rugby man, Vincent Mathers was the soccer man, Tony Power was racing. So I was a sort of general factotum or handyman.

PK: How did you join the Daily Mail?

DG: There was a national strike of printers in 1965 and journalistic staff got a month's protective notice. I was 25 and single and decided I would conquer Fleet Street. I left Dublin on a Friday afternoon in June and by the following Monday I was working for Hayters, a sports agency in Shoe Lane.

PK: What were your first impressions of London?

DG: Oh, it was wonderful. These were the swinging sixties - anything went. I was single and fancy-free and had a few quid in my pocket.

PK: It was a big move.

DG: It didn't seem like that. I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Holland Park and didn't feel inferior in any sense. I was known as Patrick O'Kelly in Fleet Street - the word had gone around that there was an Irishman working for Hayters and they couldn't get their heads around Dermot Gilleece.

PK: (Laughs)

DG: On my first day, I was told to go down to Craven Cottage and interview the manager of Fulham. I found my way to the ground and met Vic Buckingham in his office with his secretary sitting on his knee.

PK: (Laughs) The good old days.

DG: The good old days.

PK: Did you write that?

DG: Write what?

PK: That the secretary was sitting on his knee?

DG: Are you joking? But I finished up getting three or four stories in the London Evening Standard, and the London Evening News, which is basically what Hayters wanted. They wanted me to prove that I had the ability to generate stories - that was their business.

PK: How did you get the job with the Mail?

DG: I was in Hayters in late November and a call came through from the sports editor of the Daily Mail. He wanted to talk to Patrick O'Kelly and it got a great laugh: "There's no Patrick O'Kelly here." I met him the next day at the Daily Mail offices on Fleet Street. He had copies of all the Irish papers in front of him and started asking me: "What do you think of this fellow?" It might have been Sean Diffley. "And what do you think of so-and-so?"

PK: So these are journalists?

DG: Yeah. So I said: "Well, what do you mean?" He replied: "We're going to appoint a man in Dublin and you might be able to advise us." And I'm sitting there for five minutes listening to this and suddenly the penny drops.

"Why? Is there a job?"

"There is," he said.

"Would there be one for me?"

"Are you interested?"


"It's yours."

So I got the job and came back to Dublin in November '65 as Republic of Ireland sports correspondent for the Daily Mail.

PK: Wow.

DG: I was now on fairly serious money in relative terms and was only a short time back in Dublin when I bought myself a Jaguar - a 3.8 automatic Mark II. A lovely car, a serious machine, and I can still remember the registration - ZW 7230.

PK: You've always liked cars?

DG: Yeah, I always felt - and maybe this is just an excuse - that it was related to the garage and being reared with oil on my fingernails.

PK: Where were you living?

DG: I went back to Cadogan Road. You didn't move out in those days - there was no reason to I suppose - and I was able to take my folks out in the Jag. My mother liked it, but was fearful that people might think we were rich.

PK: Your father wasn't impressed?

DG: No, he probably thought this was another flash thing I was doing. Maybe he was right - six months later, on an icy winter's night, I wrapped it around a lamppost on the North Strand. There was drink taken. I was devastated.

PK: Were you hurt?

DG: The only thing hurt was pride. The guards came and looked in the window and were contemplating whether I should be summonsed or not, and I clearly remember one of them saying: "He's done enough damage for one night." I suppose that's when the problems started to arise.

PK: You were five years at the Mail when you married in 1970.

DG: Yeah.

PK: How did you meet Kathy?

DG: I met her in a pub - Colman's in Rathgar. She was wearing a white binny dress and looked particularly fetching. We were married the following March, went to France on our honeymoon and came back to Cadogan Road. By this stage my parents were dead and my sister had married. I bought out the rest of the family and that was our first home.

PK: When were the kids born?

DG: Tara was born in March '71 and Mark was born in October '77.

PK: The year you stopped drinking?

DG: Four months before I stopped drinking.

PK: Do you want to talk about that?

DG: I don't want to be dishonest, and I do not like the idea of drunks being indulged. I had a problem, I dealt with it, and I came out the other side. And what I am today is very much a consequence of that. I became a driven person when I left down the glass. Why do you think at 75 years of age I'm still doing this? There has to be a reason. It's not normal for people to be as enthused and driven at my age as I am. Would you agree?

PK: Totally.

DG: So there has to be a reason. I've been trying to find that reason and I think that's what it is. I feel that.

PK: Okay, well try and join the dots for me.

DG: There was a lot in my growing-up that tells me now, on reflection, that I was a bad subject for booze. I was always hypersensitive, I was very insecure, I had low self-esteem in a lot of circumstances and was generally shy. And when you are struggling to find your way in the world, and it generally happens socially - going to dances, meeting girls - the first thing you'll be told is: 'Have a drink. You'll be grand.' Initially it's a crutch, and then the crutch becomes one of dependency, and it goes on to a point where you basically can't function without it.

PK: Give me an example.

DG: I got a call one morning in the early '70s from Bryan Webster, the sports editor of the Mail. Matt Busby was coming to Dublin that afternoon and there was a rumour that he was about to sign Henry Newton from Everton. "Ask him if it's true," he said. I put down the phone and had myself convinced within minutes that I couldn't possibly confront Matt Busby without taking a drink. So I went to the off licence and bought a naggin of whiskey. I thought to myself, 'Jesus! I'm really hooked'.

PK: Wow.

DG: This is the point that people find difficult to appreciate. How can you knowingly destroy yourself, they ask. And the truth is you don't have any control. I would have cut off my right arm to stop drinking. I swore to Kathy I would stop - I made several attempts to stop, but I just physically wasn't capable of doing it.

PK: What was the point of no return?

DG: The catalyst essentially is that your thinking has to change. You have to accept that you can't drink anymore, at all, anything. And I was fortunate enough in meeting people who cared enough to help me. Dave Guiney (a sportswriter) was one of them. Nicky Rackard was another.

PK: The hurler?

DG: Nicky Rackard called to my house, and there were others. They showed me that there was a way out and it was like I was operating from a totally clean canvas. I had no idea where I was going to go, or what I was going to do. I didn't really know about where I had been. I was deeply saddened by the wasted years but I had come out the other side. It was a chance to start again.

3. Touching Greatness.

Having played in the US the previous week, Ballesteros came to Dublin via London and, as my luck would have it, the only newspaper he could lay his hands on during the flight here was the one I wrote for at that time, and he became extremely angry after reading what he viewed as a very unfair piece by your humble scribe. Indeed, he was still seething when he was met at Dublin Airport by Paddy Rossi of the sponsoring company, Carrolls. 'Who this man Gilleechay?' he stormed, brandishing a copy of the offending paper. 'Why he do this to me?'

Dermot Gilleece, 'Touching Greatness'

PK: You left the Daily Mail in June '79?

DG: Yeah, I became a victim of the winter of discontent and the Mail decided to close their Irish operation. I was two years sober and that was fortunate because I wouldn't have fancied my chances of employment had it happened a couple of years earlier. There wasn't a queue, but I felt I'd get a job.

PK: Five months later you joined the Irish Independent.

DG: I remember the interview (smiles). Conor O'Brien, a former editor of the Sunday Independent, was on the interview panel and I thought there was a chance he might have heard something second-hand, so I decided to front up. I said: "Incidentally Conor, I developed a bit of a booze problem but I quit two years ago, and I think I'm in good shape at the moment." And I'll never forget his reply. He said: "The way the unions have this place sewn-up Dermot, short of arson, embezzlement or murder, there's no way you can be fired from here. Your boozing would be the least of our problems."

PK: (Laughs)

DG: He was Conor O'Brien, but was known as Conor 'News' O'Brien.

PK: As distinct from Conor 'Cruise'.

DG: Yeah.

PK: (Laughs)

DG: So I was essentially a number two on everything, but I threw myself into it and really worked my tail off. I knew that if I worked hard, and really applied myself to getting back into the mainstream again, that deep down I was good enough to make it. And then, 16 months after I had joined the Indo, Gerry Noone offered me a job at The Irish Times.

PK: Golf correspondent.

DG: I had a lot of soul-searching to do, because I didn't really know that much about golf. The money was the same. It was simply a change of job. Why should I take it? I talked to David Jones, the professional at Bangor, and asked his advice. He said: "You can write, and that's enough to start with. And you can learn how to play if you want to justify that." And that's exactly what I did. I took the job and learned how to play golf.

PK: Do you remember your first piece?

DG: For The Irish Times? I think my daughter told me it was a piece from Spain.

PK: Are you sure?

DG: No, I'm not sure.

PK: I'll read you the opening par: "Growing unease among players and officials, regarding the general structure of handicapping in these islands, will be reflected in the discussions between the four home golf unions at St Andrews on Saturday. This unique meeting, at the home of golf, will also attempt to throw fresh light on the thorny problem of amateur status."

DG: I remember that case, yeah. And that year I saw St Andrews for the first time. I went to Young Tom Morris's grave and did all the tourist bits and was blown away by it. It was a huge part of my golfing education and I completely bought into it. It wasn't just the game, it was the players and the wonderful stories. And there was a certain civility about the way the game was played.

PK: Here's another piece you wrote on April 3: "Severiano Ballesteros will be asked next week by Carroll's tournament director, Pat Heneghan, to reconsider his exorbitant demands for appearance money this season, so that it would be possible for the brilliant young Spaniard to make another challenge in the £100,000 Irish Open Golf Championship at Portmarnock in August. Heneghan plans to meet Ballesteros in Augusta, Georgia, where the player will be defending the US Masters title."

DG: Yeah.

PK: Do you remember what his exorbitant demands were?

DG: Was it $25,000?

PK: Exactly, plus $5,000 extra if he won, plus another $5,000 if he won a Major again before turning up.

DG: Jesus, he was a hoor!

PK: (Laughs)

DG: He was. But he knew his worth. I'll never forget Joe Flanagan, who succeeded Heneghan as the tournament director of Carrolls. He said: "Once you have Seve you can build a tournament." And Seve knew that. And the other guy I would put into that category would be Greg Norman. There was more substance to Seve but Norman put bums on seats. Seve put bums on seats.

PK: Did Faldo?

DG: Faldo would have been more attractive to the purists of the game - club golfers who were serious about their golf would have adored looking at Faldo. Although the thing that always struck me about him was his extraordinary temperament, his competitive steel. We saw it at St Andrews in 1990 at The Open when he broke Norman in the third round, and we saw it in spades at Augusta in '96.

PK: One of my favourite quotes about Norman was from Johnny Miller: "Greg is a very interesting guy to watch. It's like a car race. You want to see the best drivers win, but a lot of people in the stands want to see a car wreck. They don't want to see anybody die or hurt, but they love to see wrecks. And Norman gives us a lot of wrecks."

DG: (Laughs)

PK: You interviewed Norman a year after that Masters

DG: Yes, in Dubai.

PK: You wrote about it in Touching Greatness: 'It fascinated me that one of (Norman's) first reflections on the 60th Masters involved a total rejection of the Faldo factor. He claimed the identity of his final-round playing partner was of no consequence, despite some bitter experiences, notably in the 1990 Open and the 1992 Johnnie Walker Championship. Having turned for reassurance to Laura (his wife), he fixed me with his penetrating, pale blue eyes. "When I awoke that Sunday morning - and Laura will testify to this - I was calm, I was cool and I was relaxed," he said. "We did all the normal things. There wasn't one thing in my head that was likely to throw me."'

DG: Yeah.

PK: It's the lying I find interesting. This is what he says about it 20 years later: "I knew deep down Sunday morning I wasn't feeling great. I was completely off."

DG: But is it a lie? I don't think so. I think he had to convince himself of that because he was still competing in 1997. He couldn't afford to think otherwise.

PK: That's a good point.

DG: That's the thing that's often difficult to cope with when you're talking to great players - they will spin you things that they know are not true. Harrington is the best I've ever heard at doing it. He gives you answers that boost his self-confidence. He uses press conferences as psychology exercises!

PK: (Laughs.)

DG: You have to make up your own mind about these guys - you see them and you sense it and you know.

PK: Tell me more of what you know about Harrington.

DG: Harrington gave me a lovely swansong to my career. I had been writing about moral victories and looking at nearly men for years - Des Smyth tied fourth here in 1982, Christy Junior tied third at Royal St Georges in 1985, Eamonn Darcy tied fifth at Birkdale in 1991, David Feherty fourth at Turnberry in 1994. The difference with Harrington was his mental strength. I don't think I have ever seen - and this is a pretty wide thing to say - such heroism in any sporting environment as Harrington on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie.

PK: That is a wide thing to say.

DG: Think about it. The shame! To have the Claret Jug in your hands and do that! If it were me, I'd have thrown the club there and just ran for the nearest exit to bury my head. And what happens? He pitches from 49 yards to five feet and holes the putt for a six - probably the greatest six we have ever seen in Major golf! That's the thing I remember about Harrington. Forget about the play-off and what happened after. That one hole captures everything about him.

PK: What about Rory?

DG: I first saw Rory in Portmarnock when he was 13 at a Darren Clarke Foundation weekend. I'd heard about him - he had won the President's Prize the previous July in Hollywood - but I couldn't believe how small he was. I remember on one of the par 3s - I think it was the seventh - Clarke said: "Ok Rory, show us what you've got." And he hit a seven-iron to about 10 feet. But I didn't see any hope for him. I thought: 'This kid's too small.'

PK: Really?

DG: He really was small. He had this pixie face and the shock of hair and this was 2002, when the power game was very much in vogue and balls were going 300 yards. And then, two years later, he won the West of Ireland Championship and started to grow and that's when everything changed. I like Rory as a person, but that's as far as I could go with him in terms of a relationship. And obviously there's a huge gap in our age.

PK: I loved the story about him stopping for you in a buggy last year and inviting you on.

DG: That was at the Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya. First of all, he said, "hello Dermot" - and then "get on".

PK: I thought that reflected really well on him.

DG: That's the way he is. He's not going to do it for everybody, because he can't, but I like him. He's special. I've met Jason Day and talked to him and found him a very likeable guy. He's the world number one now, but I could easily find myself having a nice casual conversation with him, but I could never imagine that with Rory. I'd have to have an agenda when I talk to Rory. He has that awe about him.

PK: Like Nicklaus.

DG: Yeah. I've met Watson and Trevino and Palmer and Miller, and I didn't feel in any way overawed. But Rory has this aura about him.

PK: You've met a lot of famous golfers. Give me five you would invite to dinner.

DG: What sort of a dinner is it? A social occasion or a Flash Harry job?

PK: What's a Flash Harry job?

DG: A vehicle for showing off.

PK: No, it's five champions you'd want to have dinner with.

DG: Well, unquestionably one of the warmest champions I've ever met was Gene Sarazen. And 'The Brad' (Harry Bradshaw) would be another one I'd love to have at the table - he'd fill us with his stories. I wouldn't have Nicklaus, because it would be an evening of chat and fun, and he wouldn't fit either of those requirements.

PK: That's fine.

DG: I'd have Lee Trevino there, we'd have some fun with him, and I'd have Des Smyth, because I've always liked Des as a person. I wouldn't have Harrington - I like him, but he'd dominate the talk and nobody would get in a word.

PK: (Laughs.)

DG: And I think I'd have to have Rory because of what I think of him - he would probably be more of an observer than a participant, but I'd like to see how he interacted with the others. How many is that?

PK: We have the five: Sarazen, The Brad, Trevino, Des, Rory.

DG: No, Des will have to go - sorry Des - Seve has to be there.

PK: "Who is this man Gilleechay?"

DG (laughs): "Why he do these things to me?"

PK: You've a photo of him at home with Kathy?

DG: Yeah, that was taken at The Heritage - he was always very amenable with things like that. And there's a sentimental aspect in choosing him too, because he was very much part of my career. I mean, I could have had a whole career around Seve if I had retired in '98 or '99, and I would have been happy with that, but then we had this extraordinary Irish thing.

PK: OK, so 100 Majors. How do they break down?

DG: There are some gaps here and there but it's 37 Opens, 24 Masters, 24 US Opens and 15 PGAs.

PK: I'm going to ask you to pick five.

DG: Five! You're killing me. What about the Irish guys?

PK: Sorry, you have to pick five.

DG: Okay, well, I'll take Seve at the Open in '84, Tiger at the 2000 US Open and Harrington at Oakland Hills (PGA) in 2008, because I thought that was unbelievably impressive. I'll take Rory's PGA win at Kiawah in 2012 and Faldo at the Masters in '96.

PK: What about you? What do you regard as your greatest achievement?

DG: To have grabbed a second chance at life, no question.

PK: Yeah, that makes sense. Well done.

DG: Is that it?

PK: Yeah.

DG (exhales): Jesus! They don't call this Gone with the Wind for nothing.

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