Thursday 23 January 2020

Dermot Gilleece: 'Golfers strike the right note to stay in tune when off course'

Singer Johnny Mathis in his heyday. Photo: PA
Singer Johnny Mathis in his heyday. Photo: PA

Dermot Gilleece

From the 'gods' in Dublin's Theatre Royal back in 1956, I listened to the thrilling voice of a champion golfer, without being aware of it. The occasion was our annual pre-Christmas family outing to Handel's Messiah, and one of the soloists was the celebrated Australian soprano, Joan Hammond.

Golf and music have formed charming links through the decades, not least because of the appealing nature of the sport as daytime relaxation for night-time performers. And according to Kiri Te Kanawa, there is the considerable bonus that it's "good for the breathing."

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Indeed its scope knows no boundaries. With suitable apologies, one imagines, to the non-golfing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a Canadian school of music devised an opera titled 'The Master's Stroke', in which the leading character was Don Giannuari.

Half-man and half-god, he was inspired by the celebrated American tour player of the same name, though the original of the species spelled his surname 'January'. In the event, the Canadian creation hadn't lost a golf match in 400 years.

On a very different level, there were the golfing activities of Johnny Mathis, who gave us some delightful versions of popular Christmas music such as 'When a Child is Born' and 'Winter Wonderland'. Peter Alliss tells a lovely story of the time he attended a performance of Mathis at the Wakefield Theatre Club.

The singer then joined the professional for a game of golf the following day at Moor Allerton GC where, according to Alliss, the dreaded eighth hole climbs uphill into the prevailing wind, making "its 580 yards seem like eight miles." Describing Mathis as an enthusiastic golfer, the professional also noted that he was a very fine hurdler and high-jumper in his younger days.

He went on: "He hit his first one clean out of bounds. 'Give me another ball, caddie.' Another new Titleist appeared, the paper torn off and the ball carefully placed on the tee. That sailed over the road, over the trees, never to be seen again. 'Another please.' Same procedure only this time even further out. 'Another one.' Up into the bushes on the right somewhere."

As Alliss and the other member of the group moved forward, they didn't notice their celebrated guest holding back a bit. Suddenly, this beautiful voice soared over the punishing terrain, singing the scale and ending on the highest note. Whereupon with obvious relief, Mathis exclaimed: "Thank God I can still sing."

Hammond first saw the light in Sydney in 1912, a vintage year for golfers in that it also marked the birth of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Having learned the game as a child, her interest in it was heightened when she went to work as a sports reporter on the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Winner of three New South Wales women's titles, she represented her country in matches against Britain and New Zealand. And when the Australian LGU raised sufficient money in 1936 to allow her continue her musical studies in Europe, she was rather proud of being a two-handicapper, "the lowest of any woman player in the country."

Despite all that success, however, she insisted: "There was never any difficulty in choosing between singing and golf. Singing was my first love." Yet she later saw fit to repay what she perceived as a significant debt to golf, by giving concerts to help finance overseas trips by Australian women players. She died in 1996.

Though Te Kanawa claims to have retired from golf, she showed some admirable skills during a game at Wentworth GC, filmed by the BBC in December 1980. Interestingly, it happened in association with a televised concert in which she performed the soprano aria, 'Rejoi ce', from The Messiah.

Later, she was greatly gratified on being appointed president of Brocket Hall GC in England. "I believe that there are only a few women who have been given this role in the golf world, so I am especially proud to be counted amongst them," she said.

Back with Don Giannuari, we discover that in his determination to maintain an unbeaten record on the fairways, he killed a course marshal. It is not mentioned whether he went on to kill several others, as would appear mandatory for a villain in grand opera.

'The Master's Stroke' was actually the fifth opera collaboration between librettist, Michael Cavanagh, and composer, Neil Weisensel. A "comedic opera about golf," it has been described as a "shrill, overblown, two-and-a-half-hour marriage of golf's foibles to Greek myth, Mozart's Don Giovanni and the nasty, contemporary world of fame, fortune and misguided justice."

It was premiered around the Millennium by a large cast from the University of Manitoba School of Music Opera Workshop. As a consequence of his dastardly exploits, the Don is about to be expelled from the PGA, to which the hierarchy on Mount Olympus take grave exception.

In the event, the culmination of a lengthy trial has him playing a match against Betsy, the Goddess of Pointless Sports, which turns out to be an epic battle that remains tied on the 18th green. You will have gathered that in the best tradition of grand opera, it is suitably far-fetched stuff.

Meanwhile, 12 months ago, Woburn GC were at an advanced stage in their plans to host the Women's British Open last August. Which, curiously, led to a complaint to the Royal Mail about second-class post arriving too quickly. So they contacted the service's complaints division seeking an explanation.

When the importance of the championship was being emphasised, the voice on the other end interjected: "I know, I know. I won it in 1991." Global Golf Post informed us that the Royal Mail's complaints officer happened to be Penny Grice-Whittaker.

As a former tournament professional who had serious aspirations as a singer, she dyed her hair from honey-blonde to brunette. "I wanted folk coming to see me not because I used to be a golfer, but because they heard our act is good," she explained.

Though she received £25,000 for her British win, she later found herself belting out hits from Elvis Presley to Kylie Minogue, on the North of England club circuit for £250-a-night. "Unlike the men, women golfers have to look the part as well as play, and unfortunately, I was never made for the catwalk," said the married woman with two children.

All of which informs us that appealing sounds from golfers can extend beyond the crisp contact of sphere on sweet-spot. And we can come to admire them all the more, for it.

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