Rugby legends make easy conversion to fairways
There's plenty of capable golfers in the rugby fold, as Dermot Gilleece discovers
Back in the early 1980s, his young head bursting with dreams of a rugby career, Keith Wood got to know about Mike Gibson. Through Cliff Morgan's marvellous video 101 Best Tries, he discovered that the Ulster icon possessed a sidestep just as devastating as any of the legendary figures of the Welsh game.
Last week at Adare GC, Gibson the golfer saw fit to walk four holes watching Wood the golfer. And he liked what he saw. In fact, there might even have been a tinge of envy regarding power-hitting on saturated terrain, which he would dearly love to have in his own game.
"Length is becoming an increasing problem," was the rueful admission by the great man, whose five-handicap is still most impressive, given that he will be 69 in five weeks' time. And he could see that Wood looked very comfortable off seven, an observation borne out by a return of four-over-par gross for the 16 holes played.
That evening, both men were at Thomond Park for the annual dinner of the Irish Golf Travel Operators' Association (IGTOA) which had a special flavour to it on this occasion. By way of celebrating Limerick's year as European City of Sport, several notable exponents of the oval ball were invited to Munster rugby's sanctum sanctorum.
It gave Wood, Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan and Peter Clohessy the opportunity of publicly exchanging playful insults. As in Wood complimenting the notoriously garrulous Quinlan on his punditry for ITV during the World Cup -- "You actually said less than you ever did on a rugby field. Amazing."
There were no such liberties by Gibson, whose memory of torrid Thomond battles belonged to another era. Either way, he was actually there in a golfing capacity, as chairman of the Northern Ireland Golf Advisory Board, which allowed him to accept the Jerry Donworth Award, on behalf of Darren Clarke, at the same function last year.
A love of golf would appear to have been passed on to his son, Colin, a close friend of Michael Hoey's. Working as a solicitor in England, he joined the prospective champion last month during a practice round prior to the Dunhill Links. And Colin Gibson and Hoey have since played together at The Wisley Club in Surrey.
Wood, who returned from London to his native Killaloe two years ago, was understandably pleased about fourball form which allowed himself and Adare's touring professional, Graham Dunlea, to beat the partnership of Doonbeg professional Brian Shaw and Michael Flatley, whose wonderful co-ordination held promise of a handicap considerably lower than a current 14.
Reflecting on hours spent watching that video of tries, Wood also remembered rugby reading material which was invariably reverential about Gibson, whose international swansong was in 1979. "I have since got to know Mike well," he said. "In fact, his first speaking engagement at a dinner was at one I organised in London a few years ago."
Then, acknowledging his surroundings, he went on: "My last appearance here was in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup against Stade Francais in 2000 before I returned to England. We have reason to be proud of what they've done with this place."
As for his golf, he added: "It took a while for the muscles to come down, but at 16st I'm now nearly two stone lighter than when I was playing rugby. Though I've acquired more touch, I wouldn't consider myself an aesthetically pleasing swinger. Still, I love the game, especially as a member of Sunningdale where I've had the odd joust with Paul McGinley."
Despite being acclaimed by quality opponents for his competitiveness, Wood has no ambitions about taking golf any more seriously. "Playing two or three times a week to maintain a really low handicap is not for me," he said. "Instead, I imagine myself 10 years down the road, enjoying regular games with old rugby hands like Paul O'Connell and Anthony Foley. We have a lot of fine golfers in the rugby fold."
Meanwhile, the presence of James Finnegan from the European Tour prompted speculation that he was about to announce that the Irish Open would be returning again to Killarney, just as he did 12 months ago. But it didn't happen.
"We got very close to one organisation this year (thought to be Zurich Insurance) but unfortunately it got mentioned in print," said Finnegan. "When that happens, it seems you move a step further away from getting that sponsor. So we're still trying to put together the right package for 2012 and we're hopeful we can do it."
The evening ended in appropriate fashion with the Donworth Award (Outstanding Contribution to Golf) being presented to Paddy O'Looney. The long-serving Chief Executive Officer of SWING will celebrate 50 years as a member of Portmarnock GC in 2012, which brought to mind a story he shared with me some time ago, of his beginnings on the famous North Dublin links.
It had to do with a Dublin visit by Bing Crosby who arrived at Portmarnock with his manager, George O'Reilly, to play with Harry Bradshaw. "I was a 15-year-old juvenile member playing off five at the time," O'Looney recalled. "And as I just happened to be hanging around the locker-room, they invited me to make up a fourball. Which gave me the thrill of my young life."
There could hardly have been a more fitting start for a man who would regularly rub shoulders with celebrities at home and abroad, while promoting Irish golf on the international stage.
Sunday Indo Sport