Hurling's levels of skill and co-ordination are echoed in golf's game for life
Almost inevitably, a Kilkenny All-Ireland victory has the effect in these parts of highlighting the link between hurling and golf, as illustrated by iconic names such as DJ Carey, Tiger Woods and Eddie Keher. But on this occasion, club and sliotar are brought together in very different circumstances.
At a modest ceremony yesterday in Clontarf GC, Norman Allen was presented with the award as the Bunnies' Golfer of the Year. This is the same sportsman who scored two points for Dublin in a defeat by Cork in the 1952 All-Ireland hurling final. And he turned 86 two months ago.
Away from Donnycarney Road, Keher was among the first to offer congratulations.
"As a fellow member of the Hurlers' Golf Society, I'm delighted for him," he said. "In the company of Jimmy Gray and a few of the lads, he remains the same Norman, invariably a very popular figure."
Keher went on to express particular interest in the fact that Allen has always played golf the hurling way, right-sided with his left hand under. "If I had to take up the game all over again, that's the way I'd grip the club, with the right hand on top and a left-sided swing," he said. "I'm sure I'd have had a much better swing, doing it the Phil Mickelson way."
On which point, I'm reminded of an occasion last winter when Allen showed me some newspaper cuttings from 50 years ago. They concerned the column 'Golf Clinic by Harry Bradshaw', in which The Brad analysed the golfing techniques of leading sportspeople of the time.
Article number six concerned Allen, a long-time dual star with St Vincent's, Dublin and Leinster, who admits to having been less than honest with the revered tutor. And his subterfuge was to be seen in the adjoining photographs where he was clearly employing an orthodox grip. "I did it just to please The Brad, who wanted to change me," Allen admitted with a mischievous smile.
He continued: "In fact, Paddy Skerritt also wanted me to abandon the hurling grip, but I've never played golf any other way. And I got down to nine (handicap) at one stage, which allowed me to enter the Lord Major's Cup."
Equally interesting is that he uses an old Ping wooden driver, specially crafted for him by the late Mick Murphy, to compensate for his unorthodox grip.
In choosing to do things the Vardon way, Tipperary's Tony Wall had a successful golfing career, culminating in a five handicap. Yet he now concedes: "Though I consider myself to be a good competitor, I never mastered the skill of striking a golf ball. And that prompted me to think I might have played the game a lot better had my strong hand, the right, been at the top of the club."
Carey accepted orthodoxy, however, with a typically pragmatic view. "For me, the power in hurling is in the wrist action," he said. "When you throw up the ball, you're starting the hurling swing with your right hand, then the left hand comes in. So, the real power is in the right hand. Unfortunately for me, this leads to a hook in golf, but that's part of the problem of trying to combine two sports."
Meanwhile, Pádraig Harrington can claim responsibility for introducing the game of hurling to El Tigre during the 2000 JP McManus Classic at Limerick GC, where the Dubliner hit a golf ball with a hurley. And though Woods made no attempt to do likewise on that occasion, the nature of the game clearly appealed to him, judging by events on November 13 of that year.
In a special exhibition at Hyde Park, London, organised by one of his sponsors, the pièce de résistance by the holder of the US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship titles, was to play "keepy-uppy" with club and ball. When applying hurling technique to his final act of the show, however, things went badly awry.
Attempting to replicate the exploits of his famous Nike television advert by smashing the ball on the fly, Woods failed with all of 12 attempts. "So basically, I'm a has-been," he remarked self-deprecatingly. But Keher was among the few who understood.
"That can happen if your timing's a little off," the Kilkennyman explained. "For instance, I can remember whenever I returned from the winter break in hurling, which was longer in my day, I would get a sting in my hand from failing to hit the sweet spot. Then, after a bit of practice, it would all come back."
At around the same time, Carey gained the distinction of introducing hurling to a celebrated golfing location on the other side of the Atlantic. Having got down to seven-handicap as a member of Mount Juliet, where David Leadbetter had an academy, the Kilkenny ace learned the value of celebrity when he was invited to Lake Nona while on holiday in Florida.
Complete with hurling equipment, he ended up at the Leadbetter headquarters from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. "Se Ri Pak was also there," he recalled of a leading woman professional. "So was the American professional Mike Hulbert. And when I began hitting shots with the hurl, they were all amazed, especially Leadbetter.
"He seemed to be fascinated by the skill and co-ordination which link golf and hurling. I was hitting the ball about 70 or 80 yards with the hurl - left and right, standing still, on the run, and frees. I did everything, including trick shots. He put me on video and was so absorbed that I wondered when I was going to get my golf lesson."
When Carey eventually got around to hitting golf shots, Leadbetter remarked on his wrists being the strongest he'd ever seen. On the downside, however, a training brace was considered necessary to curtail a flying right elbow.
In 2002, when Mount Juliet played host to the American Express Championship, Carey dined at Langtons Restaurant with Rich Beem, now a golf pundit with Sky, and his wife. That was the occasion when another American professional, John Cook, became wildly excited on seeing him playing for Young Irelands against Graigue-Ballycallan in a club match at Nowlan Park. It was also when Carey and Woods were to have had a private knockabout with hurleys and sliotars in an area off the Hunter's Yard at Mount Juliet, except that it never happened.
Elsewhere for hurling's elite, however, there's always the prospect of creating new friendships and enriching keen, competitive instincts, in what Norman Allen can vouch is truly a game for life.
Sunday Indo Sport