Sport Golf

Sunday 21 January 2018

Dowling makes Sandwich cut

Dermot Gilleece

Claire Dowling was walking down the second fairway, carefully close to the ropes, when a marshal approached her. As a natural reaction, she froze, thinking she had transgressed some obscure regulation. Her anxiety gradually eased, however, when he smiled and said: "I know you. You were on the Curtis Cup team here in 1988."

As it happened, this wasn't an especially warm memory for the five-time Irish champion who, as Claire Hourihane, suffered the indignity of going through those matches without getting a game.

Now, after a lapse of 22 years, she was back on a return visit to Royal St George's in an entirely different capacity. Having passed the Royal and Ancient rules exam in February last year with a 'merit' score of over 80 per cent, she is an official referee at the Open.

And from an observer's role on Thursday, she joined the front-line troops on Friday with responsibility for the three-ball of George Coetzee, Andy Smith and Brad Kennedy.

"Ironic, isn't it," suggested the one-time pride of Woodbrook GC who is now a two-handicap member of Copt Heath in Birmingham, where she lives.

"I was amazed at that marshal remembering me. Obviously not playing in the 1988 team was very disappointing at the time but when I reflected on it afterwards, I held no grudge against the captain Diane Bailey."

These weren't idle words, even allowing for the fact that the British and Irish team won by 11-7 on that occasion. After being named non-playing captain of the 1999 Vagliano Trophy team, she suspected that advice from a certain source could be invaluable towards doing the job well. And the person she turned to was none other than Bailey.

Dowling's emotional security has served her well through the years and clearly impressed the Rules of Golf committee.

"From being on five teams with Diane, I knew how difficult some of her decisions must have been," she recalled. "And I would like to think that I can apply the same sort of objectivity to my referring decisions."

Her move into this potentially contentious area was suggested by colleagues on the English Women's Golf Association where she had served on the handicapping committee.

"I refereed at the English Strokeplay and Matchplay Championships last year and at this year's English Mid-Amateur," she added. "But being asked to officiate at the Open is obviously very special."

Those players quick to gripe when a ruling goes against them, might do well to consider the extensive preparation Dowling and her colleagues did before applying their knowledge to various incidents. And judging from last year, when there were 210 rules decisions during the Open at St Andrews, incidents are certain to be numerous.

"After arriving here last Monday, I walked the course that afternoon and again on Tuesday and Wednesday to familiarise myself with possible problem areas," she said. "Then we had a full rules briefing on Wednesday."

To be chosen as a referee in the Open Championship is clearly an honour. But to be a woman in what is generally viewed as very much a man's world, reflects enormous credit on the esteem in which Dowling is held in these parts. In the process, the game of golf has finally found a way of making amends at what was once a decidedly hostile location for her.

Labour of love for Watson

Looking into the weather-beaten face, you could see the sparkle in Tom Watson's eyes at the possibility of rolling back the years just one more time. In a heavy sweater tight around the neck, he was an American totally comfortable with his surroundings, even to the point of discussing the wind direction with course superintendent, Graham Royden.

When I mentioned Christy O'Connor Jnr and his 1985 run of seven birdies here from the fourth to the 10th, Watson smiled. "You know the 10th is my favourite hole on the course," he said, referring to the 415-yard par four with its elevated green which falls away on all sides, especially off the back.

As it happened, in warmer temperatures on Friday, he went one better than O'Connor at the short 160-yard sixth, where a four-iron shot popped obligingly into the hole. "The kids are hitting six," he said self-depracatingly.

It represented yet another notable double for the indefatigable 61-year-old. Thirty one years ago, he had a hole in one at the short fourth at Baltusrol in the first round of the US Open.

Irish aces are just the ticket

Inveterate golf fan, Tony Ryan from Manchester, arrived at Royal St George's certain that his Open admission ticket could never be matched.

He happens to possess ticket number 000001 as first in the queue for the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, where he had it signed by the champion Pádraig Harrington, and by the winner of the amateur medal Rory McIlroy. None of which can be repeated, because the R and A have changed their numbering system.

Striking a blow for Monaghan

Though it couldn't be considered an invasion just yet, Monaghan people are carving out quite a golfing identity for themselves in Kent. Among their growing number is a young man named Jake McGuigan, son of a rather useful pugilist from Clones.

When observers expressed surprise at former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan walking the fairways here, he explained: "I live about 30 miles away and my son, Jake, is a member of Royal St George's."

McGuigan is something of a Johnny-come-lately to these parts compared with fellow countyman, Michael McGuirk, who bought Prince's Golf Club around 30 years ago.

And the Monaghan native, who made his fortune working in the building trade in London where he emigrated as a 17-year-old, acquired an unexpected interest in Royal St George's last week.

His son Franny, the resident professional at Prince's, eagled the 18th at his own club in final Open qualifying to earn a place in the field where he joined another Open debutant, American Kevin Streelman, and Australia's Matthew Millar over the first two rounds. "This was a nice surprise because I expected the qualifiers to grouped together," he said. "And unlike a lot of other players, I have the advantage of home comforts."

Sadly, home cooking failed to see McGuirk through to the weekend. But it could be said that, in the McGuigan tradition, he struck a blow for Monaghan.

Nothing rusty in Alliss' memory

Peter Alliss, the BBC's voice of golf for more than 50 years, has been recalling his favourite Opens in between filling his customary place in the TV commentary booth.

Among them was Hoylake 1947, his first one. "I went there with my father who was playing, but I didn't get through qualifying. Some of my most powerful memories are of the spectators -- almost all male and uniformly dressed in heavy coats and trilbies.

"The winner was Fred Daly -- the last Irishman to win until Pádraig Harrington in 2007 -- who played with an old rusty putter that would horrify a modern pro."

Langer always

a stand-up guy

After receiving a lifetime achievement award at the annual Golf Writers' Dinner here, Bernhard Langer told a joke. It reminded me of the climactic stage of the 1995 Smurfit European Open at The K Club where, after holing an eagle putt to get into a play-off with Barry Lane, he became unusually animated, dancing with delight.

When I remarked on these antics after he had gone on to win, Langer feigned offence when replying: "Are Germans not supposed to become excited?"

Langer's joke had to do with a club golfer on whom the notorious 13th hole at his home course inflicted relentless grief and, in accordance with his dying wish, his wife agreed to spread his ashes over this scene of torment.

As Langer recounted it: "When the time came, a couple of hundred people had gathered around. And after her husband had been cremated, she had the urn in her hands and as she opened the urn to get the ashes out, a gust of wind came to blow him out of bounds." End of joke.

The really amusing bit was the polite response of his audience, who were clearly taken with Langer's decidedly clinical approach to humour. Tommy Cooper he isn't, though he remains a charming man.

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