Friday 24 November 2017

Irish golf will never be the same without master craftsman Mick

The sport will not see the like of the skilled club maker again

Golf club craftsman Mick Murphy was also a fine player, having even faced Christy O’Connor Snr in the Irish Professional Championship in 1978
Golf club craftsman Mick Murphy was also a fine player, having even faced Christy O’Connor Snr in the Irish Professional Championship in 1978

Dermot Gilleece

When the Irish Open returned to Portmarnock in 1986, a significant attraction beside the practice ground was the Mizuno mobile workshop. That was where I came across Mick Murphy, grinning mischievously just before he handed a well-worn wedge to one of the Japanese technicians.

"This is a hoor of a job and I'd prefer him doing it than me," he said. With its face badly in need of re-grooving, nobody would have known better than Murphy, the laborious nature of the task, cutting patiently into the head with a hammer and chisel to create each new groove.

With his passing last weekend, Irish golf lost arguably its last great craftsman. And he was also a fine player, good enough as a 44-year-old to have taken Christy O'Connor Snr to a three-hole aggregate play-off for the Irish Professional Championship in 1978 at Royal Dublin, where they were level on 286 after 72 holes.

As it happened, Murphy's short game failed him over the play-off holes of 15, 16 and 17, causing Himself to acknowledge afterwards: "Mick played well but, I suppose, in a way, he gave it to me." A 10th national title allowed O'Connor to equal the record set by Harry Bradshaw at Ballybunion 21 years previously.

As the professional at Baltinglass, Murphy made 11 appearances in the Irish Open, the most successful of which was tied 67th in 1985, appropriately at Royal Dublin where he began caddying as a 10-year-old. It was as a club-maker, however, that he scaled the golfing heights, producing miracles of craftsmanship from a modest workshop to the rear of his home in Vernon Avenue, Clontarf.

Close friendships were established, not only with his fellow professionals, but among North Dublin golfers of a certain age, many of whom probably still have a Murphy club in their possession, albeit discarded in some old pile since golf was changed irreversibly by the arrival of the ubiquitous metal-wood.

Happily, some are still in use. A club colleague of mine continues to weave occasional magic with a set of 'Murphy' irons, which be bought second-hand from Royal Dublin professional, Leonard Owens, about 30 years ago. Another golfing colleague uses a persimmon seven-wood of similar vintage, beautifully refurbished by Murphy, who also did a lovely job on an old Cobra Baffler which I still have in my possession.

We are reflecting on a time when access was gained to a wonderful world, largely through word of mouth. It revealed itself in a most unlikely setting, down a narrow lane at the back of the Murphy home where the first thing to catch the eye were lines of freshly lacquered clubs, drying on their supports.

"I'll tell you a good story about that," said Anto Birney, the former caddie-master at Royal Dublin who soldiered with Murphy as far back as the 1950s when they were part of a workforce of about 15, manufacturing golf clubs for the Fred Smyth company on Bull Island.

Sadly, Birney was recently diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Yet the very thought of happy times with Murphy instantly brightened his mood. Mind you, there was also the considerable lift last week of a rather special letter carrying the US Presidential seal. "The postman must have got a shock and, to be honest, I thought it was a joke," he said. "Then I read the letter and realised it was the real thing. I was sick telling everyone how I caddied for Bill Clinton, and he hasn't forgotten me."

The letter read: "Dear Anto. I heard you're going through a difficult time. I'm deeply grateful for your kindness to me over the years and will always remember our rounds at Royal Dublin. I'm praying that you'll gain comfort and strength from the love of your family and friends and I send my warmest wishes. Sincerely, Bill Clinton. PS. Hang in there."

Royal Dublin's golfing family is a very close-knit one, and Birney and Mick Murphy were at the heart of it. "Working at Smyths, I used to fit the grips to the clubs and Mick would sand and polish the woods," Birney recalled. "After applying a coat of lacquer, he'd buff the head, over and over, until he had it gleaming. It was only on a visit to the US some years later that he discovered the pros there didn't use any brushes. They simply dipped the heads into a tin of lacquer and let them drip-dry, which was to save Mick hours of polishing."

He went on: "I caddied for him at Dundalk where he won the Irish Assistants' Championship. And when we were driving home, he made a point of telling me that he was the only married assistant. Funny. To be honest, I don't know why none of the other assistants were married, but it seemed to matter to Mick.

"Later, I caddied for him all over England and was on his bag for the British Open at Birkdale in 1976 when Johnny Miller won and Seve [Ballesteros] first appeared on the scene. Another time, Mick partnered Lee Trevino in the Open and outscored him in that particular round."

In club-making, however, Murphy became the professionals' professional. Birney recalled how he would travel to pro-ams up and down the country with the boot of his car packed with heads, shafts and complete clubs, all to order. "He'd then drive home with more money than the fella that won it," said Birney. "He was unique, a one-off."

It was a role dictated by fate. When the Smyth company folded in the 1960s, Murphy went out on his own. "There were loads of old clubs lying around, ready for the scrapheap, and Mick, quick enough, simply took them home," said his friend. "From that point onwards, every professional golfer I knew used to send their stuff to Mick, pros like Nicky Lynch [Sutton] and the Kinsellas. It was work only he could do and the pros knew it.

"Then, when he'd be away playing, my young lad, Gary, stood in for him. And every time Mick would return home after a week or two away, Gary would have a fistful of money for him. And Mick wouldn't be big into banks or the post office or that. He'd rather stick cash under a mat."

Birney recalled that when the workshop went on fire, the suspicion was that much more than golf equipment was destroyed. And again, the Royal Dublin family rallied around, with past captain Art McGann organising a fundraising golf day to get him back on his feet.

Old friends bade farewell to Mick Murphy last week, knowing they would never see his like again. Not least because of the way they make golf clubs these days, with shining persimmon a relic of old decency.

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