Sunday 18 August 2019

A long road from Derry to drive in at Royal and Ancient

How a chat at Portmarnock led Gavin Caldwell to be captain at Home of Golf

Gavin Caldwell Drives In as Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club
Gavin Caldwell Drives In as Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

It began in a highly appropriate setting for a significant golfing journey. On a summer's afternoon in 1989, two kindred spirits were taking a gentle ramble around the shallow duneland of Portmarnock GC, when the subject turned to a distinctly select establishment.

As a complete surprise, Joe Carr indicated to Gavin Caldwell that he would happily propose him for membership of the Royal and Ancient. Two years later, Carr was captain of golf's most august body and in 1995, Caldwell's inclusion as a "house member" was finally confirmed, followed by full membership a year later.

Two decades on, he took further pleasure last week in describing the crucial part played by the man in the middle of what has become the most exclusive trio in Irish golf. "Shortly after that memorable walk, I told Harry McCaw of Royal Co Down what Joe had proposed," recalled Caldwell. "And his response was to offer to be my seconder."

Remarkably, McCaw then proceeded to emulate Carr by scaling the heights at St Andrews in 1994. And the wisdom of their joint support of Caldwell received the ultimate endorsement when he, too, became captain of the R and A, two months ago.

After only his sixth full week in the post, he has already been to Hong Kong to represent the R and A in a new Asian-Pacific Amateur Championship which they co-host with the Masters Tournament. And he will be in the Dominican Republic in January, for a similar Latin-American Amateur event as a further example of the global nature of his role.

Meanwhile, there have been inter-club matches representing the R and A against such opponents as Royal Co Down, Royal St George's and Royal Birkdale.

And he attended the Royal Portrush annual dinner last month on the Saturday prior to the press announcement of The Open returning there in 2019, a decision which brought a special glow to him as someone who became a member there in 1966 for holiday golf during university days in Dublin.

Reflecting on that momentous ramble around Portmarnock, he said: "I still ask myself how I was so lucky that Joe should have done such a thing. Coming from a different generation, I didn't know him any better than anybody else. And I recall how, with typical directness, he suggested I'd have to find somebody [another R and A member] to second me. So it was something of a treat when Harry raised the subject during a match between Royal Co Down and Portmarnock."

A fearsome competitor, especially in match-play, Carr considered himself a keen judge of character. And after Caldwell had sought his counsel, the Walker Cup veteran was clearly impressed at how he was handling the role as chairman of Portmarnock's organising committee for the 1991 staging. Though Caldwell had nothing to do with actually landing the event, his ultimate responsibility was heightened by being given the additional role of club captain for that year.

Born in Derry 68 years ago, he was eight when moving to Dublin where he became a boarder at Castle Park primary school in Dalkey and St Columba's College, where he could indulge his love of golf on the back-nine at Grange. He then embarked on a degree course in business studies at Trinity in October 1965 and as a category-one golfer, became a student member of Portmarnock, which he remembers as "the time of my life."

On graduating from Trinity in 1969, he trained as a stockbroker/analyst and went on to become an investment manager with the Bank of Ireland. He was then responsible for setting up Ulster Bank Investment Managers, which he continued to spearhead until his retirement in 2003. These days, he keeps his hand in with a few non-executive directorships, though one imagines these taking a back seat for the next 10 months.

Special memories from the 1991 Walker Cup include remarkable correspondence from George Herbert Walker Bush, then president of the US. As a significant gesture, President Bush asked his uncle, Lou Walker, whose father donated the original trophy in 1922, to be present at the event.

As it happened, Walker brought with him a letter from President Bush, written on White House-headed paper and addressed to the "Honorable Captain" of Portmarnock GC. It read in part: "I was named for my grandfather, George Herbert Walker, the founder of these matches. He was a fierce competitor. He loved the game of golf. He loved the United Kingdom and America..."

Though Caldwell was immediately struck by the absence of any reference to Ireland, he diplomatically held his peace. An extraordinary thing happened, however, at lunch the following day when Walker informed the host captain of a phone-call he had just received. It was from the President who realised his mistake in making no mention of Ireland in his letter. So he was sending another letter.

Sure enough, within 24 hours, a courier delivered the corrected letter from the US President which now included the line "He loved the United Kingdom, Ireland and America…"

Ancient organisations tend to have quaint traditions. So it is that a newly-elected captain of the R and A is informed of the impending honour five months before its official announcement. Which meant Caldwell having to keep mum about the news from early last December until the R and A's business meeting last May.

"I told my wife, Jane, and as a pretty close family I also decided to tell our five children," he said. Which was something of a risk, given that with four of them married, there were in-laws to consider. But the secret remained secure. "To be honest, a greater concern last December was my drive-in," Caldwell admitted, "even though the big event was still nine months away."

In the event, all went well on a glorious September morning, which began with the R and A professional, Jim Farmer, bringing the 12-handicap prospective inductee down to the practice ground beside the 16th of the Old Course. Then, at two minutes to eight, Farmer teed up Caldwell's ball on revered turf outside the majestic clubhouse.

Though the roar of the cannon sounded a fraction early, the drive was straight and true, well right of the Swilcan Bridge. "Concentration is an amazing thing," remarked Caldwell, permitting himself a satisfied smile at the memory. Shortly afterwards, a fortunate caddie returned his ball to him and was presented with a gold sovereign, currently valued at about £165.

Later, there was the opportunity of a quick exchange with five-time Irish champion, Claire Dowling, one of the first women members of the R and A. "I think Claire exemplifies how well this particular situation was handled," said her captain. "It has turned out to be a very successful transition and I think it is entirely appropriate that women should be involved on committees which determine the governance of the game. The R and A is much more than simply a golf club."

On accepting the captaincy, Joe Carr famously remarked: "All my life I had felt a romantic attachment to the Old Course, and the prospect of marriage, however temporary, was too good to decline." More pragmatist than poet, Caldwell is also relishing the honour, while remembering the man who so generously opened a door for him, 26 years ago.

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