Saturday 24 February 2018

Dilemmas aplenty ahead of Amateur's return to Portmarnock

Gender issue bound to emerge for 2019 anniversary staging over the Dublin links

‘Up to now, Portmarnock’s members have been in no rush to move on the gender issue’
‘Up to now, Portmarnock’s members have been in no rush to move on the gender issue’

Dermot Gilleece

Though not currently an issue, the Royal and Ancient's decision to bring the 2019 British Amateur Championship to Portmarnock is certain to draw greater attention to the club's single-gender status. This could focus minds on the inevitability of opening its doors to women, sooner rather than later.

Set to become the lone venue outside of the UK to stage the Amateur not only once, but twice, the North Dublin links could also be the last single-gender club to stage this event. It first went there against the odds in 1949, on the foot of a decision taken by the R and A when King George was our head of state, prior to dramatic events in the autumn of 1948.

That was when Taoiseach John A Costello, himself a Portmarnock member, declared this country a republic, while on an official trip to Canada. Seven months later, the Republic of Ireland Act came into force on April 18, 1949 and as a consequence, the country's membership of the Commonwealth ended automatically and the President of Ireland became finally and unambiguously, the Irish head of state.

The possibility of a social, rather than a political problem this time around, has been averted by the fact that the 2019 decision was made almost a year ago. So it pre-dated events last May, when, in the wake of Muirfield's vote to retain its single-gender status, the R and A declared that they would no longer take the Open Championship to a club which didn't admit women. Muirfield were out in the cold.

To avert possible charges of hypocrisy, they have since indicated that the position regarding the Amateur is being reviewed by their Championship Committee. Which is how things stand. I understand that Portmarnock requested the Amateur by way of celebrating the club's 125th anniversary and it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine their own Gavin Caldwell having considerable influence on securing it, given his status as the outgoing captain of the R and A. The Island GC, a few miles down the road in Malahide, is to share the qualifying rounds.

Up to now, Portmarnock's members have been in no rush to move on the gender issue. Rather than go through the upheaval of forming a women's club affiliated to the ILGU, there appears to be far more appeal for them in the anticipated launch of the new ruling body for Irish amateur golf, incorporating both the men's and women's game.

In such circumstances, there would be no need to form a women's club; they could simply amend their constitution admitting women as ordinary members. While this is unlikely to happen for possibly three years, a formal commitment towards that objective should be sufficient to constitute a change of status. Which, for instance, could make them immediately acceptable at Government and European Tour levels as a venue for the Irish Open in 2018.

Meanwhile, the return of the Amateur revives memories of wonderful stories surrounding the 1949 staging which was won by Ireland's Max McCready, a member of Dunmurry and Sunningdale. Considerable interest centred on journalist and general toff, the Honourable Patrick Campbell, who had a remarkable fourth-round victory over international Dr Billy O'Sullivan.

Campbell appears to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Sunday Dispatch deadlines. The Championship started on a Monday and ended the following Saturday, yet the Dispatch's man saw fit to transmit his copy on the Wednesday evening, prior to Thursday's meeting with Dr O'Sullivan. So it was that in Sunday's paper, the Editor saw fit to tail the offering with the paragraph: "Patrick Campbell beat Dr O'Sullivan in the fourth round, but was knocked out by K G Thom in the fifth - and we have not heard from him since."

In the event, the honourable scribe applied himself to the challenge with a system he called "Crushing Power". This involved sessions on the practice ground "off the top of which the American competitors have already shaved a couple of inches."

He wrote: "I asked a distinguished golf correspondent to watch me playing a couple of shots. 'Just,' I said, 'to get them really drilled at the hole.' I played seven of my best and two of the ones that leave the elbows numb but not broken. 'Well,' I asked him, 'how does it feel?' He sucked his teeth carefully. 'It feels,' he said, 'like someone rubbing a knife on a plate.'

"'But the smooth lurch,' I said. 'The hands and the stomach and the kneecaps sweeping through?' 'You might be keeping goal,' he said, 'at lacrosse.' After a moment, he added: 'Mixed lacrosse.'"

Undeterred, Campbell proceeded, as he put it, "to rebuild the thing from the ground up, bringing a group of muscles into play which I'd last used while being stunned by a blow on top of the head from a PT instructor during a boxing lesson."

For all the self-mocking, he did considerably better than more fancied Irish contenders and had reason to feel suitably buoyant after wrapping up a third-round victory by the 14th. "I am a winner," he enthused, "with no one cheering more loudly than myself."

Of his 10.30am assignment with O'Sullivan, he continued: "… if I'm to run out on the first-tee tomorrow morning in racing shorts and Girl Guide's beret, almost before the first two eggs have bounced off the stop-netting, it will be difficult to tell how I'm to face up to the first six-inch putt."

"There's just one point I'd like to make clear," he informed his readers. "Should I beat Dr O'Sullivan in the morning, and subsequently smash my way through to the final, and then tear the raspberry mousse [sweater] off Frank Stranahan, I am not available for the Walker Cup. This summer, I'm thinking of embroidering a fire-screen."

Off-stage, as it were, there was also tremendous fun in the well-aimed swipes Irish Times columnist Myles na gCopaleen made at Henry Longhurst. Myles, who believed that when confronted by loose change, the only solution was to tighten it, mischievously quoted from The Sunday Times of October 28, 1949 and May 25 ,1949. In the first piece, Longhurst had complained acidly: "If we are still to play at Portmarnock . . . not only shall we for the first time be playing abroad - and may thus look forward one day to holding the championship at Le Touquet - but we shall also for the first time be compelled to arm ourselves with passports or even documents required for the identification of aliens."

Referring to Longhurst's actual report on the event seven months later, Myles quoted a sharply contrasting: "The morning round was played in glorious technicolor. The white tents and newly-painted red and white clubhouse gleamed in the sun, the sea glistened on either side of the course and the Dublin mountains shimmered purple in the background."

And there was more. "The larks sang fit to burst and a lizard sunned itself on my sleeve as I watched the ninth hole - all in splendid contrast to the pouring rain one learned there was in England," he continued. Then, as a little bonus, dear Henry saw fit to describe Portmarnock as "this great links."

Myles, meanwhile, concluded: "I will say no more on this embarrassing topic save to remark that it is just as well that Mr Longhurst personally risked the contamination of Portmarnock. Indeed he is probably still there."

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