Wednesday 11 December 2019

Pockets of joy and sadness from Conwy to Down

Newcastle links was venue for memorable pre-war Irish Open, says Dermot Gilleece

European Tour chief executive George O'Grady
European Tour chief executive George O'Grady
Arthur Lees, back row left, with the British Ryder Cup team in 1951

Dermot Gilleece

Longevity, Liverpool FC and a laconic Yorkshireman named Lees figure in unlikely links with recent golfing events on both sides of the Atlantic. And one of them concerns an Irish Open champion who happened to win a soccer medal in North Wales.

Conwy GC is special to the Irish amateur game as the venue where, under the captaincy of George Crosbie, the men's team finally captured the elusive triple crown away from home for the first time. That was in 1990, the centenary of the host club.

As it happens, this is the golden jubilee of the death of George Duncan, who was professional at Conwy from 1902 to 1905 and went on to become the inaugural winner of the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1927.

Born in 1883, Duncan's connection with aspiring Premier League champions, Liverpool, was less fruitful than that of former Anfield favourite and fellow Scot, Alan Hansen, who was similarly gifted at both football and golf. Still, Duncan the footballer was offered a contract by his native Aberdeen and went on to impress Liverpool in a trial a few years later.

Indeed his footballing skills were such that he scored the winning goal for Conwy FC in a North Wales Cup final replay, though his golfing employers were not impressed. In fact, the professional's penchant for absenting himself from club duties on Saturday afternoons prompted so many complaints from members as to cost him his job.

Not that Duncan had any cause for regret. After serving in World War I, his return to competitive action was marked by an astonishing victory in the 1920 Open Championship at Royal St George's. There, from an apparently hopeless position of 13 strokes behind Abe Mitchell after two rounds of 80, Duncan rallied magnificently with 71 and 72 on the final day to win by two strokes.

During the recent announcement of Royal Co Down as next year's Irish Open venue, George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, noted that when the event was last staged at Newcastle in 1939, the winner was Arthur Lees, later professional at O'Grady's club, Sunningdale. That was where the Yorkshireman became famous for dryly observing to a shifty opponent: "If you mark your ball again, it'll be a gimme."

His Royal Co Down performance was especially notable for being overshadowed by that of the remarkable Jimmy Bruen, then a lad of 19. Such was Bruen's display in the Open Championship at St Andrews two weeks previously, that Laddie Lucas was moved to write in the Sunday Express: "In the risk of having a shower of controversy poured on my head, I make bold to say that Bruen was the best player in the field."

Lucas added: "In three years' time he will, I believe, be standing out in golf as emphatically as Bobby Jones did in his day." Praise indeed, which Bruen seemed to underline when opening his challenge at Royal Co Down with a course-record 66. Then came a 74 to leave him a stroke clear of Lees and a professional field at the halfway stage.

Bruen again rewarded his supporters on the final day with a morning 75 before the strain eventually took its toll. In the afternoon he slipped to a closing 81 which was still good enough to give him fifth place behind Lees, and a stroke clear of future Open champion Max Faulkner. So while Lees got the cash and the trophy, Bruen remained the player of the championship.

Meanwhile in broadcasting, nobody challenges the longevity of 83-year-old Peter Alliss who, in the current issue of America's Golf World, quashes rumours that the recent Masters was likely his last. "I sometimes say that to friends, but I don't really mean it," said the golfing voice of the BBC, who now walks with the aid of a cane.

Hailing this as good news for his countless fans, the magazine then provided a sample of the Alliss craft. Having been asked on air by colleague Hazel Irvine at Augusta to summarise the day's events, he replied whimsically: "Pockets of joy and sadness". Then added: "I always get quite emotional at the final round of a Major championship. Because if you love the game as I have all my life, you know the sadness of it and the joy of it."

And of course with Alliss, there's always humour, sometimes of the black variety. As in this memorable story of when his father, Percy, was professional at Ferndown GC. It had to do with an abrasive dentist, a mysterious visitor and the club secretary, Wyn Williams, who fancied himself as something of an expert on nurturing greens.

None too impressed with the secretary's greenkeeping efforts, the retired dentist watched intently as Williams and a rather gaunt young man walked around the 18th. Here and there, apparently on selected areas of the putting surface, they stopped to sprinkle a white powder from a small square box.

Unable to contain himself, the dentist followed them into the bar, walked straight up to the official and demanded: "Well, what bloody muck are you putting on the greens now?"

Alliss recalled: "There followed the loudest silence I have ever heard." "Er," stammered the secretary, "may I introduce Mr Donaldson. His father wished to have his ashes scattered around the 18th green at Ferndown and we have complied with his wishes." Ouch!

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