Sunday 11 December 2016

In the end, trickery is no substitute for plain old hard work

Dermot Gilleece

Published 03/01/2016 | 17:00

Joe Ezar successfully predicted that he would shoot 64 in the third round of the 1936 Italian Open. Picture: Getty Images.
Joe Ezar successfully predicted that he would shoot 64 in the third round of the 1936 Italian Open. Picture: Getty Images.

At this time of year when the past acquires a rather special resonance, the prospect of a first-ever Ryder Cup in Italy in 2022 has been pressing some interesting buttons.

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One such button concerns an incident involving Christy O'Connor, who happened to celebrate his 91st birthday on December 21.

The idea of the Italians committing themselves to a reported €7m per year for 11 years so as to land golf's biennial showpiece brought to mind a situation in which their leading player arrived in Dublin without a bed to sleep in. That was when Himself stepped into the breach during the week of the 1970 Carrolls International at Woodbrook.

The player was a handsome 26-year-old named Roberto Bernardini, who was already twice a winner of the Swiss Open and was second leading individual to Canada's Al Balding when the World Cup was held in his native Rome in 1968. In the event, O'Connor made a midnight trip to Dublin Airport to collect Bernardini on the Tuesday of Carrolls week and then put him up at his home in Clontarf.

Sadly, the good deed came to nothing. The Italian was scratched from the event for failing to appear for a pre-qualifying round which he claimed he knew nothing about. "My only consolation is that I will be back in time to see Italy play West Germany in the semi-final of the [soccer] World Cup from Mexico," he said. Which brought the consolation of a 4-3 win for Italy.

At a broader level, the rich history of the Italian Open since its inauguration in 1925 has included three Irish winners - David Feherty in 1986, Ronan Rafferty (1989) and Graeme McDowell (2004).

It is events further back, however, which really capture the imagination at this juncture, 80 years on.

Joe Ezar was an American professional and trick-shot artist who made regular visits to this side of the pond. And in May 1936, he had a decidedly interesting passage back to the US on the Queen Mary, the largest passenger liner of its day.

Among those on board was the British sportswriter, Trevor Wignell, who happened to see a golf bag on his cabin bed with the name 'Joe Ezar' emblazoned on its side. Assuming it to have been left there in error, he had cause to revise this assumption when, on opening a wardrobe door, he found himself staring at the bag's owner.

Flat broke, Ezar had stowed away. And on being reported to the purser, he acquired a tourist-class cabin in return for a commitment to display his trick-shot skills on deck for the benefit of the passengers.

Three months later, he was back in Europe in markedly changed circumstances, competing in the Italian Open at Sestriere in the Alps. As the newly-crowned German Open champion, Ezar had splashed a hefty part of his winnings on a camel-hair overcoat trimmed with leather. Slung over his shoulders, he wore it everywhere and would hand it to his caddie when playing a shot.

On the evening prior to the third round, he gave a trick-shot performance of such quality as to seriously impress the club president, a non-golfer. While handing Ezar his fee, the official remarked: "With your skill, it's a wonder you don't break the course record." Henry Cotton had just set the target with successive 67s in his opening two rounds.

"How much would you give me if I do break the record?" Ezar enquired. One thousand lire for a 66, he was told, 2,000 for a 65 and 4,000 lire for a 64. "Right," said the American, "I'll do 64." When the bet was struck, Ezar asked the president for a piece of paper on which he wrote the individual scores he would make, hole by hole, en route to a 64.

Astonishingly, with the exception of the ninth and 10th holes, where he scored 4, 3 rather than his written 3, 4, Ezar accomplished the feat as predicted. And, of course, he collected the 4,000 lira, along with second-place prize money for finishing runner-up to Cotton.

I remember O'Connor engaging in forecasting of a different hue, when discussing the prospects of our leading tournament professionals back in 2005, before Rory McIlroy had exploded in earnest onto the scene, even at amateur level. His observations make fascinating reading at this remove.

"This lad McDowell is a winner," said Himself. "And I have a lot of time for Paul McGinley, mainly because of his solid attitude to the game. He's not afraid of hard work. [Pádraig] Harrington has also worked very hard. He's a very cool customer and he'll die if he doesn't do well. I worry that maybe he's too intense. The best swinger of the lot of them is Darren Clarke, who has magnificent rhythm and control. And he's swinging so much within himself, like [Ernie] Els. I always thought he had huge talent."

O'Connor's assessment of Harrington's determination was well founded. And interestingly, where the teenage Tiger Woods had Jack Nicklaus' 18 Major triumphs on his bedroom wall, Harrington had a picture of O'Connor at his parents' home in Rathfarnham. He was 15 when he first met his hero and retains vivid memories of a visit to The Garden at Royal Dublin on a bleak January day, some time later.

While a chill wind was whipping sand through Dollymount's marram grasses, Harrington watched a ball-striking genius at work. "Most people wouldn't have let their dog out," he recalled, "yet Christy was there in The Garden, hitting shots. And they were beautiful shots. That's what was fascinating to me. I figured at the time that nobody in the world could play this one particular shot - a six-iron of maybe 140 yards which he was holding onto the wind with a low draw. One after the other. Again and again. Then he hit a few fades. I don't think anybody could have played them as well."

He concluded: "It was just spectacular. Here was a man in his late 60s at the time, who still had the will to go out in that weather and hit shots."

Of such stuff are champions made.

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