Thursday 23 January 2020

Dermot Gilleece: 'Unearthed gems offer a glimpse into bygone era'

The Christmas sermon is undoubtedly a valid concept. (stock photo)
The Christmas sermon is undoubtedly a valid concept. (stock photo)

Dermot Gilleece

It seemed a highly appropriate thought, given the time of year and the nature of our gathering. I refer to the words of Bernard Darwin from 'A Christmas Sermon', written back in 1913: "The undoubted fact is that many of us do not like being told of our golfing mistakes, any more than we do of those we make in more serious walks of life."

Seven of us, including the winners of 13 senior championships, were at The Island GC last week for a pre-Christmas lunch. And remarkably, there was no settling of old scores, even in jest.

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Declan Branigan, Mark Gannon and Rupert Staunton were the competitive dignitaries, followed by Mark's brother, Frank, twice a winner of the Mullingar Scratch Trophy. Our little group was completed by local members John Grant and Don Sutton, and yours truly.

As a price to be borne by the serious golfers, I warned that payment would take the form of a Christmas story concerning their chosen pursuit. None, as it happened, was forthcoming, though Frank Gannon did very much better by producing an innocuous-looking booklet, frayed around its dark green edges.

"It's an autograph book, belonging to my aunt Mary, my dad's sister," he explained. She, he went on, was entrusted with managing the family's Golf Hotel in Baltray, before it was sold for £7,000 to Co Louth GC around this time in 1943.

Going through this remarkable little item was like experiencing social media from another era. It might have been Mary's mobile phone, for the gems it contained. Like the one with the date-line, 'Portmarnock 26th May '49'. "To Mary," it reads, "Thank you for coming out. Frank Stranahan."

The 27-year-old American with the gym-sculptured body, was competing in the British Amateur Championship as arguably the world's best at that time. Heir to the Champion Spark-Plug company in Toledo, Ohio, he had been joint runner-up to Jimmy Demaret in the 1947 Masters. Stranahan's great rival, Joe Carr, is also there, along with entries from Henry Longhurst and the distinguished tennis commentator, Dan Maskell.

Two weeks ago in these columns, I mentioned hearing the voice of the great Australian soprano and champion golfer, Joan Hammond, in Dublin's Theatre Royal in 1956. There she was, with two entries in Mary's book. The first was from the South Beach Hotel in Troon in 1952 and the second from her appearance at the Gate Cinema, Drogheda, in January 1954.

Just about every leading tournament professional from the post-war period made Mary's pages, including Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Eric Brown, Arthur Lees, Norman von Nida, Leopoldo Ruiz, Dai Rees, Fred Daly and Harry Bradshaw. And from a programme cutting titled 'International Trophy and Canada Cup 1960', there's the unmistakeable signature of Arnold Palmer.

Her close friendship with local golfing heroine, Clarrie Reddan, is also evident in an entry from the British Women's Championship at Gullane in 1947. That was when the great Babe Zaharias beat Ms Reddan in one of the earlier rounds before going on to capture the title.

Clarrie later told me: "Babe was great, a really nice girl, and we were all terribly sad about the way she died [of cancer in 1956]. Unlike the rest of us, she was a complete athlete who could have been good at any sport, because of all the exercises she did." Naturally, the Babe also made it into Mary's book, along with Jean Donald and Helen Holm, among others.

Yet the most famous entry of the time was essentially a non-golfer. Given the huge, international success of John Ford's movie, The Quiet Man, there must have been tremendous excitement at Baltray over the visit in June 1955 of a much-loved Irish actor. "To Mary Gannon," reads the entry on page one, "All my good wishes. Barry Fitzgerald."

Meanwhile, in the absence of a fresh festive story, I'm reminded of a charming tale from Pleasington GC in Lancashire, where a patient devotee named Alec, eventually received notice that his membership had been approved after a wait of eight years. No Christmas present could have meant more to him, as he headed to the club for his first game.

In the event, he was about to play from just in front of the yellow markers on the first tee when a chap approached him, enquiring: "Excuse me, are you a member?" Indignant at the rude interruption, Alec replied: "I am, as a matter of fact. I just joined today and this is my first round."

"Well, don't you know the rules? You're supposed to tee off, level with or behind the yellow markers," he was admonished. "Who are you?" asked Alec. "I just happen to be the president," came the snippy reply.

"Well," said the resourceful newcomer, "if you'll stop bothering me, I can get on with playing my second shot."

Though the great day is almost upon us, there is the assurance from Darwin that time need not be a barrier to the bestowing of a priceless gift on a golfing friend. But the matter must be handled with extreme delicacy.

In 'A Christmas Sermon', the scribe was responding to the urging of a friend of his who complained that "golfers are not what Mr Yellowplush called 'beneviolent'; they never tell him what he is doing wrong in his shots, nor do they tell each other."

There are celebrated stories, of course, of outrageous gamesmanship thinly disguised as advice. Like telling an opponent in a crucial match: "Your ball-striking has improved out of all recognition since you acquired that little pause at the top of the backswing." Needless to remark, there was no pause. And so with devilish cunning, the seeds of mental turmoil had been planted.

This is not to say that advice should be ruled out altogether. One valuable tip that remained with me from professional Bobby Browne was to employ a very weak left hand when pitching.

Darwin pointed out: "When a perfect stranger shall tap me on the shoulder and say: 'Excuse me, sir, but you would play much better if you did not tie yourself into such a ridiculous and complicated knot,' then, even though it be Christmas time, I shall think that the system of promiscuous benevolence has gone too far."

His advice to the adviser was: "The champion who is kind enough to throw a word to us must remember, if he be a conscientious man, that a great responsibility rests upon him. It scarcely matters how nonsensical his advice, if we have confidence in him we shall hit the ball for a while; but when the next bad time comes, as come it must, his lightly spoken word may do great harm, because we shall persist in following it with blind, unquestioning faith.

"So, whatever the great man says, he should add with all the emphasis of which he is capable: 'The moment you begin to hit the ball, forget what I told you and never think of it again.'"

The Christmas sermon is undoubtedly a valid concept. For us lesser mortals, however, my gift to you comes from the memoriam card of former Clontarf professional, Joe Craddock. It reads: "Left arm straight . . . Eye on the ball . . . Do this and you'll solve it all . . . Head well down . . . You'll hear me beg . . . Then hit it hard . . . It's not an egg."

Happy Christmas!

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