Sunday 18 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: We should lighten up and remind ourselves that golf is still just a game

Rory McIlroy, seen here playing in this week’s Players Championship, has just signed a multi-million dollar deal with equipment giant TaylorMade. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy, seen here playing in this week’s Players Championship, has just signed a multi-million dollar deal with equipment giant TaylorMade. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Reports of a $100m equipment deal signed by Rory McIlroy with TaylorMade brings sharply into focus the changing face of golf. Where such remarkable figures were once the preserve of select overseas practitioners, the latest beneficiary is someone we remember learning his craft as a lad on Irish terrain.

It's serious stuff. And while developments of this nature are fine for McIlroy and his fortunate brethren in the professional ranks, the trickle-down effect has been to squeeze the fun out of our favourite pursuit, especially at club level.

Granted, long-term survival requires that a club be run properly as a business. But this shouldn't mean the total disappearance of some gentle lunacy, given the hugely frustrating impact of golf on one's emotional and mental well-being.

Category-one players now behave very differently to what was familiar to me as the norm 30 years ago, when Declan Branigan was in the process of amassing six championship triumphs. By way of illustration, he recalled his last challenge at Rosses Point in the West of Ireland in 2008.

"I went down there with Barry Reddan and qualified, despite an eight at the first as a result of being late on the tee," he said. "On the Saturday evening after the qualifying, there was entertainment at the bar, which got me thinking back to when it would have been packed. Now we were the only two golfers there."

Then, explaining how he frequently managed to perform under severe, self-inflicted handicaps, he added: "In my day, there was always a good chance the other fella was feeling as bad as you were."

Young challengers for 'the West' in 2008 would have had aspirations of becoming the next Padraig Harrington, seduced by the huge financial rewards of the tournament scene. So, for better or worse, the old ways have gone.

Any golf scribe who has been around for a while tends to note these changes. For instance, Henry Longhurst began playing the game in the 1920s, when it was said that the niblick, with its heavy head of iron, was a capital club for knocking down solicitors. His image of a typical golfer was of "a red-faced white-moustached, plus-foured gentleman, presumably a colonel (Indian army rtd) hacking away in a bunker and uttering appalling and unprintable oaths. Now all, or nearly all, is sweetness and light". And those views were expressed in 1955.

My own, albeit enforced, philosophy on golf was captured beautifully by PG Wodehouse nearly a century ago, when he wrote: "Non-success at the game induces a certain amount of decent humility, which keeps a man from pluming himself on any petty triumphs he may achieve in other walks of life . . . Sudden success at golf is like the sudden acquisition of wealth. It is apt to unsettle and deteriorate the character."

Meanwhile, as a scene of memorable mischief, Mullingar GC stood apart, largely due to the antics of the late Joe Healy and his good friend Michael Duffy. A Healy classic concerned a former member, Mickey Bagnall, who returned from America during Mullingar's centenary celebrations of 1994.

The club history relates how, on that visit, Bagnall remembered an occasion when, tired and emotional in the clubhouse bar at 2.30 in the morning, he claimed he could clear three bushes situated down the first fairway. Whereupon it seemed only proper that Healy, who would become the centenary captain, got himself involved.

"I'll have a tenner you won't carry those bushes," said Healy. With the bet struck, Bagnall announced he would be using a seven-iron and a Dunlop 4 golf ball. Then, watched by a crowd of about 25, it could be said the attempt was ill met by moonlight.

Though focus has become a buzz-word around leading sportspeople these days, it would have had a rather different dimension for this particular challenge. Still, the shot was struck, eventually. "There it is along the ground," roared Healy triumphantly. "Don't anyone move. There's a ball just down there."

Someone shouted: "I have it." "What make?" enquired Healy, expecting no surprises. "Dunlop 4," said the finder. Proud of his five handicap, Bagnall was devastated, while the gathering crowed with delight.

On the following day, Bagnall was on the practice ground when greenkeeper, Finian Garry, approached him. "Mickey," he said, "that was some seven-iron you hit last night." "What do you mean?" "Longest seven-iron I've ever seen," insisted Garry. "One hundred and ninety yards if you ask me. Dunlop 4, wasn't it?"

Bagnall's response was barely audible. "Dunlop 4," he agreed. With that, he caught the ball tossed to him by Garry, knowing it was too late. Who would ever believe him?

Fitness and diet are becoming increasingly important ingredients these days, with ordinary club players slavishly attempting to ape the professionals. Which reminds me of Millennium year, when American observers positively drooled over the exemplary fitness of Tiger Woods and David Duval as the world's leading players.

That was also when a comfortably rounded Darren Clarke beat Woods to win the World Accenture Matchplay title at La Costa. With the prospect of American gymnasiums being plunged into bankruptcy, San Francisco exercise physiologist George McGlynn cautioned that golfers can be fooled about fitness. "It is not a game that requires a lot of fitness," he said. "You need only moderate levels of aerobic energy, just enough so your heartbeat doesn't interfere with muscle movement."

In the same way, the best driver is not necessarily the latest new-fangled club on the market: it's the one you can hit. But don't expect the intensely ambitious club golfer to agree.

Among the most charming of Longhurst's essays is one about Druids Hill GC in Atlanta and how its professional, Harry Simpson, reacted on seeing a junior throwing a club. "One of these days I'm going to put on a club-throwing contest to show you boys just how stupid you really look," he said.

Longhurst wrote: "After a couple of practice days, part of the first fairway was duly marked out with an out-of-bounds area on either side. Sixty contestants turned up, old and young, and there were prizes of three golf balls for different events calling for distance, altitude or accuracy, for left-handers and right-handers."

As to which club should be thrown, the scribe went on: "In fact the most effective weapon proved to be that which, I imagine, is most often thrown in earnest - namely, the putter."

So, how far do you think the putter was thrown? "The right-handed winner achieved a magnificent throw of 61 yards," wrote Longhurst. "The accuracy award went to a man who flung a mashie-niblick [seven-iron] within seven feet, eight inches of a marker at 50 yards, while the altitude record was set by a player who hurled a pitching iron about 20 feet over the top of an 80-foot pine tree."

And what of the pro? We're told that having whirled his club like an Olympic hammer-thrower, he released it at the wrong moment, launching it onto the clubhouse veranda - where he was fortunate not to kill anyone.

While I am not for a moment advocating club-throwing, maybe it's time we golfers lightened up a little. As we noted from his recent wedding, McIlroy lives in a very different world.

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