Sunday 18 August 2019

Bamford journeys back seven decades in the swing of a club

Ian Bamford. Photo: Darren Kidd
Ian Bamford. Photo: Darren Kidd

Dermot Gilleece

Looking down the 574 yards of the second hole at Royal Portrush in the company of Ian Bamford on a beautiful sunny afternoon, the charming weather was smugly accepted as almost the norm for Irish golf these days. Our reason for being there had to do, naturally, with the return of The Open Championship to the iconic Dunluce stretch after a lapse of 68 years.

"It wasn't like this back in 1951," said Bamford. "In fact, the weather was absolutely foul for the final round on the Friday afternoon. The rough was drenched with rain and Max Faulkner's extrication of a third shot from the right of the 18th was amazing.

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"I wasn't far away, and could see that the ball was completely buried," he went on. "He made a scythe-like motion with a full swing and the ball came out as desired. And he managed to make the par putt which secured The Open by two strokes."

It seemed like an ideal way to link the present with the past. Bamford was 17 back then and on the threshold of a fine amateur career which delivered victories in the North of Ireland Championship of 1954 and 1972 on either side of the 1957 Irish Amateur Open, all on his home course of Royal Portrush.

Since then, a move into the game's administration from a home in Belfast culminated in presidency of the GUI in 1993 when his various assignments included a memorable dinner with Gene Sarazen at The K Club. And he became captain of Royal Portrush in 2002/2003.

His enthusiasm for the revisionary work of architect Martin Ebert hasn't diminished an enduring admiration for the masterly layout of the great Harry Colt. As a retired judge, Bamford would be especially conscious of Colt, the Hastings solicitor, turning his back on the law to become one of golf's most celebrated course designers. Sadly, he was too frail to attend the '51 Open and was aged 82 when he died in November of that year.

Bamford pointed out a new bunker on the left of the par-five second, just beyond 300 yards. Then, further on, there was the more significant change of a newly-located green, 40 yards further on and back left, where the putting surface replicates Colt's much-admired original contours.

"I called into Norman Drew the other evening," he said. "When I suggested I could get him a ticket for one of the days of The Open, he replied: 'Look Ian, thanks very much but it's not on. I'm just not up to it.'

"Norman won the Ulster Boys in 1949 and John Glover won the British Boys the following year and both of them got into The Open. They were golfing colleagues of mine at the time, though I wasn't as good as them and I imagine I was a little jealous of the fact that they got in and I didn't.

"Stevie [Stevenson, Portrush professional PG] was coaching me at the time and by way of having me usefully occupied as a spectator, he told me to go out and watch Jimmy Adams of Wentworth. 'He's the best swinger of them all,' was his verdict."

The legal profession seemed well represented at the '51 Open. "We were allowed to walk the fairways behind the players except in certain areas and the whole operation was controlled by a chief marshal," Bamford continued. "He was Major Robin Wray, a Coleraine solicitor who served in World War II and used a megaphone to control the growing crowds which still amounted to no more than 8,000 for the third and fourth rounds on the Friday.

"By today's standards, the organisation was probably a bit haphazard. There were no changes to the course which was then a par 73, but I seem to remember the clubhouse being touched up a bit, and they opened a mixed bar which was mischievously named the 'Bird Cage.' It had no shortage of customers, including my dad who was a club member playing off single figures."

Out on the course, our buggy swept us down to the famous fifth hole, appropriately named 'White Rocks', after its stunning backdrop. Then came the short sixth, 'Harry Colt's', from where a pathway to the right took us to the back tee on the magnificent, new seventh, a par-five of 592 yards.

Looking down the serpentine fairway, Bamford declared: "If the wind blows here, not even Dustin Johnson will make it in two." Down on the right at driving distance, a large bunker could be seen as a nod to 'Big Nellie', the original of the species on the old 17th which is now departed.

Then we took in the new eighth, a 434-yard dog-leg par four with a steep dune-bank running down the left-hand side, inviting a big hitter to bite off as much as he dares. On the forward tee, a flock of red-beaked oyster catchers had gathered and further into the distance was a delightful view of the Royal Court Hotel.

"I wonder what Rory will make of these new holes," Bamford mused. "I can still remember vividly the North of Ireland in 2005 when he did that 61 in qualifying. I was on roving duties for the Ulster Branch and saw every shot of his homeward journey of 28, which was the best nine holes of golf I've ever witnessed.

"It started with an eagle three at 10, followed by a two at the short 11th. Then came pars at the 12th and 13th before he proceeded to birdie the remaining five holes. Gradually, word got to the clubhouse about what he was doing and the gallery began to grow with every passing hole.

"It had grown to such a size by the 17th that I had to stop the players to allow the crowd to settle. That's where Rory over-hit his pitch a little to leave himself a tricky six-footer, but he managed to hole it. Then came a mid-iron on the 18th to 30 feet past the pin and again, the putt went down. Amazing."

As we drove over the flattened terrain where the 17th and 18th holes once lay, Bamford recalled some of the remarkable shots the winner, Faulkner, had played. Among them was a glorious escape from a cavernous, greenside bunker on the old 12th - now the 14th - and a third-round recovery from close to the out-of-bounds fence to the left of the old 16th, now the last.

"I remember other shots, like the one the Argentinian genius, Antonio Cerda, hit to two feet on the 10th," he continued. "But most of all, I remember the pride we all felt in what had happened in this small town on the Antrim coast."

He concluded: "To be honest, I doubted if the Open would ever come back. But here it is, and I can't wait to see the stars of today follow in the footsteps of players who captivated my youth."

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