Tuesday 23 January 2018

Source of quirky fun will be badly missed

Mourning the untimely demise of the R&A's Golfer's Handbook

Golf commentator and writer Renton Laidlaw
Golf commentator and writer Renton Laidlaw

Dermot Gilleece

After 115 years, a much-loved publication has become a victim of the digital age. The announcement that there will be no 2015 edition of the Golfer's Handbook, the game's ultimate reference book, is both surprising and regrettable.

Published by the Royal and Ancient, the Handbook has been the source of remarkable oddities, quite apart from comprehensive facts about the game, since its inception in 1899. Indeed it could be considered the Wisden of golf.

Though my collection of older editions is quite limited, I have knocked great fun out of it over the years. One I especially treasure is from 1933: its stories project the familiar mixture of pleasure and pain.

Most of the recorded events seemed to happen around the celebrated centres of golfing activity which, I suppose, is only to be expected. Like, for instance, at Lahinch, where fact and fancy are woven seamlessly into the local culture.

This was the home of William MacNamara, the club's resident professional in the early decades of the last century. And notable among his achievements was that he had two holes-in-one in the same round.

Even more spectacular, however, was the shot he hit on the famous Klondyke in 1913, which was witnessed by a certain FS Bond of the Royal Wimbledon club. Now the par-five fourth hole, the same as it was back then, its feature "about 250 yards from the tee and running right across the centre of the course, was a huge sand bunker about 25 feet high."

In the event, the good Mr Bond was happy to confirm that with a prodigious skelp, MacNamara drove the green, a distance of 400 yards. Which was nothing short of astonishing, given that one needed to hit a splendid tee shot simply to reach the bunker.

The report in the Golfer's Handbook of 1933 went on: "MacNamara, in describing his drive, states: 'How the ball ever got where it was I do not know, unless that it happened to bounce on a stone or something very hard at the end of 250 yards and then run the rest of the distance down the hill. I believe that if all the best players in the world were to drive at that tee all their lives, I do not think the same thing would happen there.'"

Elsewhere, the same edition informs us that in the second round of the South of Ireland on September 6, 1910, W Dod of Royal Liverpool aced the short fifth and AB Girdlestone, the 13th. Two aces in the one round was unique in championship golf at that time, though a later edition reported similar happenings at Royal Co Down in the 36-hole final of the Irish Amateur Open on September 23, 1933.

In the morning round, Eric Fiddian of Stourbridge, the English champion of 1932, had a hole-in-one on the 128-yard seventh. And his opponent, Jack McLean, witnessed him repeating the performance on the 205-yard 14th in the afternoon. Yet those remarkable strokes failed to save Fiddian from defeat against the admirably resilient McLean, who won by 3 and 2.

Other snippets from the pages of the Handbook inform us that in 1926, a Mrs McCarthy was appointed by Woodbrook as the first woman secretary of a golf club. And that gate money was charged for the first time at the Ladies Championship at Portmarnock in 1931.

I also learned that in the 1928 Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin, CH West of Greystones beat John Burke at the 27th (ninth tie hole) - a record for the championship. There was also the enlightenment that Ronan Rafferty was the youngest player to represent Britain and Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy in 1980 when aged 16 years, eight months and 25 days. And that when Queens University's Frank McCarroll won the Boyd Quaich at St Andrews in 1966, a sandwedge approach to the famous 18th proved to be his 291st and final shot of the tournament, when it delivered a closing eagle two.

As might be expected, the Handbooks contain some splendid stories from the Cork region. Like the incident at the now defunct Midleton GC in 1922, concerning a ball, a donkey's ear and bemused golfers.

It seems that when a club member named McEvoy drove from the third tee in a greensome, the ball entered the ear of an unsuspecting donkey which had strayed onto the course. Though the animal initially stood its ground, it promptly bolted when the players approached, and with a toss of its head, the errant ball came spinning to the ground.

Another strange Cork happening befell Muskerry member Arthur Powell. We are informed that his drive to the ninth hole was sliced out of bounds, only for the ball to hit the roof of a cottage. From there, it bounced back onto the fairway, ran onto the green and popped into the hole - a distance to the green of 265 yards.

Finally, as a reminder that litigation is by no means new to Irish golf, there was the report of an action brought in July 1924 by a 10-year-old boy who sought damages for personal injuries in the Dublin High Court against Rathfarnham GC and a club member. It was explained that while the boy waited with others for balls which might be driven out of bounds, he was hit in an eye with a golf ball.

According to the report in the Handbook, the defendants denied negligence, alleging contributory culpability on the boy's part and also that the accident was inevitable. The jury replied to a series of questions by Mr Justice Dodds, who held that the answers amounted to a verdict for the defendants.

Renton Laidlaw, the well-known golf commentator and writer, was editor of the Golfer's Handbook for the last 10 years. When I called him last week, he expressed understandable sadness at the R & A's decision, adding the hope that they might have a change of heart.

I hope they do. If only for the quirky fun it would continue to bring to this scribe's life.

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