Sport Golf

Wednesday 26 June 2019

November yields a bountiful harvest

IMG blazed a trail with the Big Three that golfers still follow in search of sun and cash

Gary Player with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the start of the 2014 Masters: 'It's been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here' Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Gary Player with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the start of the 2014 Masters: 'It's been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here' Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

When there's a serious nip in the air and it seems appropriate to stuff mittens alongside the wet-gear, you know it's time for tournament golfers to follow the sun. They've been doing it for decades, with this year's itinerary taking them from Spain to China, then on to Turkey, South Africa and Dubai in successive weeks.

Travel was a lot more arduous for Europeans when invitations arrived for the inaugural Venezuelan Open, 60 years ago. And Japan must have been especially daunting when Ireland's Hugh Boyle broke new ground by becoming the first player from these islands to win there, with victory in the 1966 Yomiuri Open.

Born in 1936 in Omeath, Co Louth, Boyle developed his considerable skills as professional at Wimbledon GC in London from where he made golfing headlines by covering Dalmahoy East in a stunning 61 strokes in 1965. A year later, he won the Daks Tournament and Ryder Cup honours followed in Houston in 1967 when he also partnered Christy O'Connor in the World Cup in Mexico City.

By that stage, Mark McCormack, as founder of the International Management Group (IMG), had seen the enormous financial potential of such end-of-season travel. And his most significant move was an assault by his powerhouse clients, the "Big Three" of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, on the Australian Open.

Between them, they dominated the event between 1962 and 1978, during which time Player had seven victories and Nicklaus six. In fact Nicklaus, Player and Palmer were successive Australian Open champions in 1964, '65 and '66.

Only three years ago in the company of Palmer and Nicklaus at Augusta National, Player recalled: "It's been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here. We went across the world . . . I don't think there's ever been three athletes in the history of any sports who have travelled together and been together so much, not just in the United States, but across the world, and had an association like we've had."

Individually, they also travelled with other IMG clients, as was memorably the case in 1970 when Palmer was joined at a Dunlop event in Australia by Tony Jacklin, the reigning US Open champion. CBS commentator Ben Wright, who doubled as golf correspondent of the Financial Times, was also present when they attended a function hosted by Sir John Kerr, the Governor General of Australia.

As recounted by Myles Dungan in his book Preferred Lies, the function lived down to their worst expectations. In fact all three were on the verge of leaving when a spectacularly attractive blonde made a grand entrance. At the time, she was the wife of an Australian cabinet minister, but would go on to achieve international fame through further, highly-publicised liaisons.

In the event, Palmer, Jacklin and Wright surrounded the elegantly-clad goddess when they sat down to dinner, vying to be the most appealing conversationalist. That was when, without warning, she rose six inches from her seat thereby mesmerising them with a very fetching décolletage.

The mood suddenly changed, however, when she turned to Palmer and Jacklin saying: "Sorry boys. I've got to let one go." Whereupon she proceeded to thunderously break wind, apparently much to her relief. Wright later remarked that never can the ardour of three admiring males have been so summarily suppressed.

Back to the Venezuelan Open which was launched in February 1957 at Caracas CC, where the remarkable Belgian, Flory van Donck, became the inaugural winner. And when it was staged again later that year, American Al Besselink triumphed, before it settled into a regular November slot on the international calendar.

Its distinguished roll of honour included such luminaries as Art Wall, David Graham and Jacklin, before a richly-gifted 18-year-old from Newry gained the distinction of becoming the first Irish player to win a tournament in South America. In fact, it marked a breakthrough triumph for Ronan Rafferty in what would become a notable if relatively short career.

Having turned professional the previous autumn as a hugely-gifted product of the Irish amateur system, Rafferty shocked his many admirers when failing to secure a player's card in the 1981 qualifying school.

As a newly-signed client of IMG, however, he discovered that a plan-B was already in place. So it was that he headed immediately to the 1981/'82 winter circuit in South Africa, where he did sufficiently well to gain exempt European Tour status that way.

It was also through his management group that he found himself in Venezuela towards the end of November 1982. By then, Rafferty's European Tour appearances included the Cacharel Under 25 Championship in which he was tied fourth behind a promising young Welshman by the name of Ian Woosnam.

Indeed by the standards of the day, the rookie Rafferty performed admirably, reaching 48th in the money list with earnings of £10,064. He wasn't to know, however, that a tidy bonus still lay in wait in a far-off land. The setting would be the charmingly named Lagunita CC, established in Caracas in 1957 with a par of 70 and overall yardage of 6,907.

In the event, a closing round of 70 was sufficient to give the Ulsterman a one-stroke victory on 272 - eight-under par - from the American journeyman, Lee Carter. Especially notable, however, was that the third-placed finisher, a stroke further back, was another American, Andy North, who was then in between his US Open victories of 1978 and 1985. And further down the leaderboard was yet another prominent American, Calvin Peete.

From a fund of $50,000, a measure of Rafferty's $7,000 reward was that it matched the sort of money Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer had each received for sharing 13th place behind Tom Watson in the Open Championship at Royal Troon earlier that year. For the gifted teenager, however, its true value extended way beyond monetary worth.

"I now know I can win under pressure, and that's a marvellous feeling for a professional golfer," was his reaction afterwards. "I played really well and was thrilled with the way I remained in control during the final round. It's a fantastic feeling."

With two rounds of 66, he opened up a four-stroke lead over North and Carter at the halfway stage. A level-par 70 on the Saturday then kept him on eight-under for the championship and maintained his edge over the chasing Americans.

Crucially, Rafferty had the competitive steel to start and finish well in the final round. Two putts delivered a calming birdie on the 520-yard opening hole and with a two-stroke lead going down the par-four 72nd, a solid, eight-iron approach left him 20 feet from the flag. Though the challenging Carter sank a 25-footer for a closing birdie, Rafferty still had sufficient in hand to take the title with a two-putt par.

It would be 18 years before the next Irish victory in South America was achieved by Pádraig Harrington in the Sao Paulo Open on April 2 of Millennium Year. That led to a Masters trip down Magnolia Lane the following day for the Dubliner, just as Rafferty had experienced 10 years previously.

When the 19th century poet Thomas Hood decried November as a month of "no shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees", he could hardly have imagined its transformed appeal a century later. Especially as a time of serious bounty for the world's tournament golfers.

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