Sunday 25 August 2019

Farewell to Irish golf's driving force

Padraig O hUiginn was an indomitable negotiator who brought the sport to new heights, writes Dermot Gilleece

Ciaran Ó hUiginn carries his father Padraig’s coffin. Photos: Frank McGrath
Ciaran Ó hUiginn carries his father Padraig’s coffin. Photos: Frank McGrath
Conor Haughey and former government minister Nora Owen. Photos: Frank McGrath
Sean FitzPatrick. Photos: Frank McGrath
Denis O’Brien. Photos: Frank McGrath
Mary Cosgrave. Photos: Frank McGrath
Mike Murphy and Oliver Barry. Photos: Frank McGrath

Dermot Gilleece

When it was established that Ireland would host the 2006 Ryder Cup, a European Tour official called me aside and asked if I could write the name of Padraig O hUiginn for him.

The Gaelic spelling of Higgins posed understandable difficulties for an Englishman and the Tour wasn't about to insult a man it viewed as having been central to the Irish bid.

Later, when all the key elements were in place for the biggest sporting event to take place on this island, a handsome postscript was written to the work of our indomitable negotiator.

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He was accorded the distinction of being made a life vice-president of the PGA European Tour "in recognition of his pivotal role in cultivating professional golf in Ireland".

Yet this was only part of his contribution to the game. He established the Irish Golf Trust, which evolved into Sport Ireland, and having been responsible for reviving the Irish Women's Open, he brought the inaugural Women's World Cup to Adare Manor in 2000. Finally, in 2011, the Solheim Cup was staged at Killeen Castle, largely through his endeavours.

He began playing golf "when the children had grown up a bit". And on weekends home from Brussels after Ireland's accession to the EEC, Saturday mornings would be enjoyed at Edmondstown Golf Club in the company of John Healy and Michael Mills, the country's foremost political commentators of the time.

His talent as a negotiator is captured beautifully in the story of how the Seve Trophy came to Druids Glen in April 2002. He recalled meeting Manuel Ballesteros at the Irish Seniors Pro-Am at Tulfarris and enquiring if younger brother Seve had a venue for the next Seve Trophy. On being told he hadn't, O hUiginn informed Manuel that Druids Glen would be prepared to stage the tournament.

"Manuel then asked me to write down the proposal and he would give it to Seve," he said. "We had no paper, as we had just come off the course and were having a drink, so I wrote the proposal on a beer mat and included my name and telephone number.

"A few months later, I had a phone call from Seve's manager in Barcelona asking if the beer-mat message was genuine. I assured him it was."

Physical assurance came within a week, when John Dully, chief executive of Failte Ireland, flew to Barcelona and negotiated what proved to be a very successful event.

Arguably the finest tribute accorded to O hUiginn in golfing circles came from Ken Schofield, the executive director of the European Tour.

When I reminded the Scot of certain things my fellow-countryman had claimed in the context of the Ryder Cup bid, he replied: "I would suggest that anything Padraig said to you would be pretty close to the mark."

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

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