Saturday 20 January 2018

Journey's end for Links but cherished legacy lives on

A unique union of golf and goodwill is about to be broken, says Dermot Gilleece

A haphazard gathering which grew into a remarkable force for good will have its final outing at The K Club on Tuesday. After 45 years, Cecil Whelan and the Links Golfing Society are to close the shutters on what became a unique window into Irish charitable endeavour.

Often described as indefatigable, Whelan is bowing reluctantly to anno domini. Where we might expect him to be planning something special for a golden jubilee five years hence, he believes that at 76, it could be tempting fate to look that far ahead. And sadly, in the current financial climate, his timing would appear to be correct.

It all began on a crisp October day in 1966, when three Irish professionals, Christy O'Connor Snr, Watty Sullivan and Jimmy Kinsella, joined 27 amateurs for a get-together of golfing friends at Baltray. When the amateurs had each chipped ten shillings (64 cent) into a pool, the total of €17.28 in today's money was used to buy prizes for the professionals.

Later on, someone suggested over dinner that they should do it again. Better still, they'd donate whatever was raised at the next outing to charity. And given the terrain on which they had just played, they would call themselves the Links Golfing Society.

On the matter of electing officers, Dublin businessman Whelan became a unanimous choice as honorary secretary, a role he retains to this day. "At the end of our first season, we gave a cheque for £300 to Cappagh Orthopaedic Hospital," he recalled. Nor was there any argument about the inaugural president given O'Connor's status in European golf, especially after finishing eagle, birdie, eagle to win the Carrolls International Tournament over his home course, Royal Dublin, only a few months previously.

I learned of occasions when Himself would be almost overcome with emotion on visits to Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, notably when a nurse pointed out a little boy who had undergone major heart surgery that morning. There were also visits to Cappagh where he and Whelan met an enchanting baby girl they described as a little princess, only to be told she had no more than three months to live because of a rare bone disease.

Determined to do what he could to help, O'Connor presided over a society which raised more than €12 million over the following years for sick children in hospitals in the Dublin area.

The society's activities expanded significantly in 1971 with the staging of an international pro-am, which became the biggest of its kind in Europe. Fixed for the day after the Open Championship each year, it was a huge fundraiser which attracted top players such as Roberto De Vicenzo, Hubert Green, Tony Jacklin, Ernie Els, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price among 27 Major champions.

Arguably their most memorable occasion was the Christy O'Connor Pro-Am at Whelan's home club, Hermitage, in 1976. With Bing Crosby and his sons Nathaniel and Harry in the field, top professional prize went to the 1969 US Open champion, Orville Moody, who carded a course-record 65. Invariably, the professionals responded to the quiet persistence of Whelan or simply to honour "Himself".

Des Smyth took over as president in 1996, by which stage the society had been steered to an unrivalled place among European golfing charities. Since then, a further €9 million has been raised, of which more than €1 million has gone to Our Lady's Hospital, while corporate tickets donated by the European Tour for the 2006 Ryder Cup raised in excess of €800,000 for the purchase of 20 mini-ambulances, which were distributed throughout the country.

"Our supporters have been exceptional but we have to accept that the money's simply not there anymore," said Whelan. So the society is bowing out with wonderful memories and the gratitude of countless beneficiaries.

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