Nice to see Walton where he belongs
Memories flooded back for Dermot Gilleece during Sunningdale show
When the European Open had its last Sunningdale staging back in 1992, most of the familiar faces were there, including Nick Faldo, who captured the title two months after a third Open victory at Muirfield. As the leading Irishman, Philip Walton shared ninth place alongside current television pundit Frank Nobilo, among others.
With the course measuring 6,607 yards on that occasion, Walton carded rounds of 66, 71, 69 and 68 to finish on 274. Last weekend over the same terrain and with the course roughly the same length at 6,618 yards, he had rounds of 71, 67, 65 and 70 for an aggregate of 273, which left him in a tie for seventh place in the Senior Open behind surprise American winner Marco Dawson.
In 1992, the Dubliner was aged 30 and nearing the peak of his powers. Now 23 years older and not nearly as tournament sharp, his ability to produce comparable scoring against similarly gifted rivals on a grand old course can be attributed largely to modern technology and enduring competitive steel.
In weather conditions ranging from charmingly benign to downright hostile, it was a real treat to see the classic heathland in its various guises. From occasional visits I've made over the years, its unique appeal as a true haven of golf seemed undiminished.
The Irish are making their mark there, in the persons of honorary member Paul McGinley and his 14-year-old son Killian, who informed me at St Andrews two weeks ago that he's enjoying the facilities, playing off a handicap of 11. Mother Allison is also a member along with their close friends Eddie and Marie Jordan. Indeed Mrs Jordan is a past lady captain.
Wonderful stories about the place come readily to mind. For all the accusations of elitism, some of which are undoubtedly valid, one remarkable gesture by the committee sets Sunningdale apart. This was the decision in 1955 to confer honorary life membership on their caddie-master, Sheridan, a native of north Berwick who, some would claim, was revered and feared in equal measure.
A charming tribute to him, written by Henry Longhurst in 1964, was reproduced in the club's centenary book in 2000. Longhurst recalled how Sheridan, on accepting the ceremonial club tie, expressed his thanks for the distinction with the memorable line: "Ah well, I've been making my own rules and regulations around here for 45 years, now."
The scribe also recounted the delicious story of the day a rather flash young man drove into Sunningdale in a suitably flash car and haughtily enquired of Sheridan if, by chance, he was the caddie-master. "No," came the curt reply. "But I happen to know that he doesn't require any caddies today."
Arthur Lees, the long-time professional at Sunningdale, seemed to have been cast from a similar mould. A particularly interesting tale about him concerned the occasion in the late 1970s when Gary Player's son Wayne was in Britain as a promising amateur, learning his craft.
Young Player happened to be practising bunker shots at Sunningdale when Lees came upon him. Having watched him for a while, the abrasive Yorkshireman could contain himself no longer. "Nay lad," he said, "you're nay doing it right." To which the teenager replied courteously: "Thank you very much indeed, but I know all I need to know about bunker play from my father."
"And who is he?" "Gary Player." The old pro paused for a moment before issuing the gentle rebuke: "And who do you think taught him all he knows?"
Peter Thomson, who won the 1960 Bowmaker Tournament there, along with the 1968 Dunlop Masters, made this eloquent assessment: "Some sites on earth are sacred, where ghosts establish residence from whence they watch over we mortals indulging ourselves. Sunningdale, with its two courses, is one such place."
Against this background, it brought a real glow to see Walton roll back the years. Among other things, his effort yielded the reward of €48,705 while ensuring him a place in next year's event at Carnoustie, where he has never had the opportunity of savouring the Open Championship. And the player with whom he shared seventh place was Jeff Maggert, his pal from Oklahoma State, where the pair of them often represented the college at various events through the American south. In fact, I can recall meeting Maggert during the Masters at Augusta National, where he made a point of asking that his best wishes be conveyed to the Malahide man.
Twenty years ago, Walton was nailing down a place in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, where he would play a crucial role for the victorious European side through a tense singles win over Jay Haas. For that contribution alone, he has been missed in recent years from the front-line of tournament golf.
Looking further back to his early amateur days, he was a player who seemed to be perfectly suited to the affectionate sobriquet Jack the Lad. As on the occasion in the summer of 1981, when he slept in a bath so as to keep expenses down to a minimum while capturing the Scottish Stroke-play title at Renfrew/Erskine near Glasgow. Or a year later, when playing for Britain and Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy in Lausanne.
That was when the Swiss laid on a splendid post-tournament party in a marquee where victory for the United States was suitably celebrated. Under strong arc lights, Walton became fascinated by the glistening, gold-threaded crest on the blazer of one of his erstwhile rivals - a young man from Chile.
As the evening progressed, he eventually felt compelled to offer the South American a swap: his own R&A blazer for the one of glistening gold. And before they parted for the night, the deal was done. So it was that Walton appeared for breakfast the following morning attired in a decidedly ill-fitting Chilean blazer, much to the disgust of colleague George Macgregor, who voiced his disapproval.
Then there was the breakthrough in 1990, when he collected £58,330 after winning the French Open in a play-off with Bernhard Langer. And on receiving a congratulatory phone call from his bank manager the following morning, he enquired mischievously: "Are you looking for a loan?"
There were times when it was tempting to view Walton as a fine player whom an unforgiving game had treated cruelly. Or perhaps it was that he failed to set himself targets commensurate with his undoubted talents.
Either way, it's nice to see him rubbing shoulders with golf's elite once more.
Sunday Indo Sport