Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish love story

Scratch cups have always held a special place in the hearts of both fans and players and they can still be a huge boon for any club.

Rory McIlroy cut his teeth in Mullingar Scratch Cup. Photo: Backbench
Rory McIlroy cut his teeth in Mullingar Scratch Cup. Photo: Backbench

William S Callahan

No matter where or when, a scratch cup remains a major feather in every golfer's cap.

The senior scratch cup circuit may not be what it once was, but the prestige remains. To put your name alongside the greats at Mullingar, for example, is still a thrill worth chasing.

Tournaments such as Mullingar and the Midlands Scratch Cup at Carlow were among the biggest events in Ireland during the glory years, when legends like Joe Carr sprinkled the place with his own, particular magic dust.

Carr won six times at Carlow and was the very first champion at Mullingar, when the tournament began in 1963. It was a different time, of course, an era in which professional golf was still growing its appeal. Career amateurs like Carr ensured the amateur game was as prestigious, if not more so, than the pro game.

To see golf back then was not as simple as turning on the television. And when Walker Cup players and future Ryder Cup stars came to play in your town, there was only one place to be.

"It was a chance to witness the cream of golf," recalls Chris Garry, who caddied for Carr when he won at Mullingar in 1963. "It was a time when golf was exclusive. We, as a club, helped to make it more inclusive."

By the mid-1960s, the GUI's championship scene in Ireland was well established, but beyond the major national match play tournaments, there was a dearth of stroke play competition. Scratch cups filled a void - and not just for players.

"It opened up a whole new audience for the club," says Garry. "The scratch cup broke down barriers."

Golf, as a sport, was beginning to emerge from the shadows. In places like Mullingar, it was about to go mainstream. And the field grew stronger each year as players traversed the Irish Sea.

England's Peter Townsend, a two-time Ryder Cup player, completed back-to-back victories in 1965 and 1966. Townsend's feat has not been equalled in the 54-year history of the Mullingar Scratch Cup, although Rory McIlroy might well have clinched the double had Gareth Shaw not pipped him in a playoff in 2005.

If you trace the history of golf along a line that runs from Townsend's win in 1966 through to McIlroy's triumph 40 years later, the graph is always rising. There have been dips in the last decade and the scratch cup has struggled to find a home in club calendars. The experience in Mullingar has been exceptional, but there is more to it than the headline figures. As a social occasion within the club and a promotional tool beyond it, the scratch cup can be a boon for any club.

As well as being a focal point for the season, there is a chance to present your course to a wider audience and give the club's business a timely boost. It gives a club an opportunity to attract sponsors and build new relationships. From a marketing point of view, it's invaluable.

"It's created great interest in the game locally," says Mullingar's Chris Garry. "You see the same people coming back every year to watch. It means a lot to the club and it means a lot in terms of tourism because you have people staying in Mullingar for the weekend."

Within the club, it also helped to bring people together as the ladies' section were involved from the start and played a huge role in the success of the scratch cup.

Undoubtedly, the 72-hole challenge over two days at Mullingar is a unique one and the August bank holiday weekend has become a festival for golf over the years. The roll of honour includes names like Harrington, McGinley and Lowry because it is such a true test.

And the scratch cup format is just as true a test for players at junior and intermediate level. The Headfort Junior Scratch Cup, played over 36 holes in one day on the Old and New courses, is as demanding as they come.

"Competing at Headfort is a great test of your playing ability, both physically and mentally. The courses and facilities are presented immaculately and it's a really good showcase for the club, giving competitors a feel for what it's like to play at a top-level amateur event," says Greenore's Sean Murphy, who won at Headfort in 2016.

As the golfing landscape has changed, the volume of tournaments has increased. Ireland's top amateurs regularly travel abroad, taking in events as far away as Argentina and South Africa.

Scratch cups no longer have a void to fill, but they have a value for clubs that goes beyond the name on the trophy.

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