Monday 19 August 2019

Portmarnock ready to change ways

‘From gentler times, there are stories of professionals becoming guests and ultimately long-time friends of residents in the Portmarnock area’
‘From gentler times, there are stories of professionals becoming guests and ultimately long-time friends of residents in the Portmarnock area’

Dermot Gilleece

There will be inescapable irony for Portmarnock's members as hosts to the Amateur Championship from June 17 to 22. Landing such a significant prize to celebrate the club's 125th year, comes with an awareness that it won't happen again, unless they change their single-gender status.

Indications, however, are that change may be on the way. Though there's a reluctance to be pushed into opening their doors to women, the alternative means banishment from the shop window of international competition.

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This much was emphasised by the R and A on Friday. "If Portmarnock were to retain their current status, we wouldn't be awarding events like this in the future," said Duncan Weir, executive director of their Golf Development and Amateur Events. "That's the black and white of it."

The decision regarding the Amateur was made prior to the amalgamation of the R and A with the Ladies' Golf Union. It then became my view that Portmarnock owed it to the nation to do what was necessary to make itself acceptable for major events. It's part of their responsibility as custodians of the most complete venue on this island.

They could even be depriving the nation of The Open Championship, which has to be a possibility, given the important events the R and A have staged here over the years. Indeed it was a very live issue in the wake of the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock, when Hoylake and Carnoustie had yet to return to the Open rota.

History tells us that the R and A's focus has always been on these islands as a whole, irrespective of political divisions. Consider this. In 1949, 1950 and 1951, the British Amateur, British Women's and The Open were staged at Portmarnock, Royal Co Down and Royal Portrush. Over the next six weeks, the same three events will be staged at the same three Irish venues, albeit in a different sequence.

On this occasion, an entry of 288 will be reduced to 64 through stroke-play qualifying at The Island and Portmarnock. The youngest challenger is English 15-year-old, Josh Hill, and the oldest is the 57-year-old American, Gene Elliott.

From gentler times, there are stories of tournament professionals becoming guests and ultimately long-time friends of residents in the Portmarnock area, during Irish Open week. These days, however, only an amateur event can make such happenings possible.

Which gives a charming dimension to the challenge by Kenya's top amateur, Samuel Chege. He will be playing as a consequence of a conversation a month ago between Portmarnock member, Eric O'Brien, and his Kenyan-based sister, Rosemary.

As a member of the Karen Country Club, established on the lands of Danish Baroness, Karen Blixen, who was immortalised by Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa, she happened to be refereeing in a tournament won by Chege in Nairobi.

"Seeing Samuel shoot a seven-under round, it struck her that he was good enough to be in the Portmarnock field," said O'Brien, a former Irish international. "The upshot of our chat was to set about organising accommodation. We arranged for him to stay with another Portmarnock member, PJ McAllister, at his home in Malahide and he will have practice rounds with fellow competitors, Geoff Lenehan and Conor Purcell from our club."

The 26-year-old Kenyan qualifies through his amateur ranking of 606th in the world. It will be Chege's first venture outside Africa, but the continent has a rich history in this event. In fact, Jovan Rebula of South Africa beat Ireland's Purcell and Robin Dawson en route to last year's title. The 21-year-old nephew of Ernie Els will sacrifice defending so as to compete in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

As a delightful postscript to this story, O'Brien can reflect on having attended the 1949 Amateur at Portmarnock where, as an eight-year-old, he travelled with his parents who were supporting Mick Power of Muskerry. In the event, from an original entry of 204, Power lost a tie-hole quarter-final to the gifted American, Willie 'The Wedge' Turnesa, who was ultimately beaten by Max McCready in the final.

Belfast-born McCready became a squadron-leader in the RAF and a member of the Dunmurry and Sunningdale clubs. And it could be said that he won the hard way, given that he thrashed no less a rival than the American, Frank Stranahan, by 4 and 3 in the quarter-finals.

Here was a player clearly having a week in the sun, given that he lost all his matches in two Walker Cup appearances and had his only other notable success in the 1948 Jamaica Amateur. Meanwhile, we can take it that Stranahan's departure wasn't mourned by a celebrated Irish challenger who was so irritated by his raspberry-mousse sweater that he threatened to "pull it off and stuff it down his throat".

Apart from being a decent golfer, the Honourable Patrick Campbell was a noted journalist who gained considerable notoriety from a fourth round win over Irish international Billy O'Sullivan. Indeed he famously reported for the English Sunday Dispatch on his progress in the event up to that point.

Noting that his date with destiny was set for 10.30 on the Thursday, Campbell wrote: "This is a little soon after sun-up, because up to now, all my fretwork has taken place after lunch. This has given a reasonable period of time to peer down the throat with mirrors to see if the Irish food has bedded down sufficiently comfortably to retain its position, at least over the first nine holes."

As an employee of a Sunday newspaper, I was greatly amused at the editor's note which accompanied Campbell's piece. It read: "Patrick Campbell beat Dr O'Sullivan in the fourth round, but was knocked out by K G Thom in the fifth - and we have not heard from him since."

There was also tremendous fun off-stage as it were, in the well-aimed swipes of Irish Times columnist, Myles na gCopaleen. Noting a colleague's insistence on naming it the "Amateur Championship", he pointed out that the Sunday Express, The People and the Sunday Chronicle, each called it the British Amateur.

According to Myles: "The only paper accessible to me which calls it the 'Amateur Golf Championship', is the Observer and that, of course, may be a mistake on the part of that dread Tory eructation."

Henry Longhurst, meanwhile, had a notable change of heart from earlier criticism of the R and A's choice of Portmarnock. Clearly shocked by Taoiseach John A Costello's decision in October 1948 to declare us a republic, he wrote: "Far be it from me in this humble corner on a Sunday morning, to get mixed up with politics, but it would seem strange that we should play a British championship in a country which is making every legitimate step to inform the world that it is, as it were, 'under entirely new management', and will have no truck with the word, British."

A great links, however, seems to have mollified dear Henry, prompting him to observe on the morning after the event: "When the Irish Open championship was played here two years ago [1947], with a special prize of £200 to be divided among those professionals who broke 70, only one man did it. That was Fred Daly, who later went on to win the British Open."

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