Friday 15 November 2019

Sporting success is about more than titles

Payne Stewart left a legacy impossible to measure. Photo: Getty
Payne Stewart left a legacy impossible to measure. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

We're at a time of stocktaking for the tournament player, as Paul Dunne was acutely aware when heading for Portugal last week. And the process applies equally at the top end of the scale, where the game's ageing elite might consider the legacy they're about to leave us.

Sporting success should extend beyond titles. It should encompass other memories created by players for their long-time devotees, who are often a lot more loyal than their heroes deserve.

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These thoughts are prompted by the 20th anniversary last Friday of Payne Stewart's death in a freak air accident. For me, an enduring memory of the 42-year-old's untimely passing was the last exchange he had with an Irish admirer in the unlikely setting of Lake Buena Vista in Orlando.

The fan was Mullingar's Tom Duffy, who has since retired as a Dublin-based solicitor. Back in October 1999, he happened to be among Friday's attendance at the National Car Rental Golf Classic where he politely addressed the player who was walking to the 16th tee on the Magnolia Course.

Initially bemused by the Irish accent, Stewart was positively jolted when Duffy added: "Congratulations on being next year's honorary captain of Waterville."

"How did you know that?," the player enquired. "Are you a member of the club?" Which was when the wandering Irishman explained about being on a family holiday at Disneyworld and how he had taken the day away from his wife and children to have a look at the tournament. Whereupon Stewart asked if he had any advice regarding Waterville, to which a smiling Duffy replied: "Yes. Steer clear of committee meetings."

This was greeted with hearty laughter before Stewart hit off the 16th tee. And their exchanges weren't finished. Up the 18th, the player spied Duffy once more, and coming over to the fairway ropes, he enquired: "Do you know JP McManus?" "Not personally," came the reply. "Well, if you see him, give him my best regards."

After a second successive 71, Stewart missed the cut by a stroke. Neither man could have known that this would be the last tournament hole the three-time Major champion would ever play. And by a remarkable coincidence, on that same day at a press conference in Limerick, he was named among the leading challengers announced to compete in the 2000 McManus International Pro-Am nine months later.

Stewart was killed the following Monday when the private aircraft taking him to Houston for the Tour Championship crashed. It later emerged that as a devout Christian, he had donated $500,000 that month to the First Baptist Church of Orlando.

As for Duffy, he told me: "I was amazed by Payne's friendliness and willingness to chat. And I was really stunned when he actually sought me out going down the 18th."

Which became a legacy impossible to measure. No more than one could quantify the great joy Christy O'Connor Snr brought to golf enthusiasts in all parts of these islands. One particular instance was a charming happening on the South Course at La Manga in the late 1980s, when I happened to be in O'Connor's pro-am team.

Having scrambled the ball nervously into play, I hastened down the first fairway, anxious to put as much distance as possible between myself and observers of my opening drive. So it came as a surprise when, on arriving at my ball, I was joined by a stranger, dressed for the boardroom in a suit, shirt and tie.

"Can I caddie for you?" he enquired with a soft, English accent. "But I'm afraid I'm not much of a player," I protested, slightly embarrassed. "I can see that," he responded with crushing candour. "To be honest, the only reason I want to pull your trolley is to get close to Christy."

He went on to introduce himself as a businessman who, in younger years, would grab any opportunity at getting away from his London office to see Himself in action in some tournament in Britain. "You could say that I have been a fan of Christy's for most of my adult life," he said proudly.

So it was that for nine holes before he rejoined his wife at the clubhouse, the Englishman was enthralled, listening to Himself discussing how he was going to play a particular shot, then executing it precisely as planned. It became something of a masterclass from one totally in command of his craft, even though he would soon qualify for the old-age pension.

Thinning hair was covered by a baseball cap, but the shoulders remained broad, the eyes clear and his love of golf undiminished. Indeed, the dominant impression I took from that memorable experience was of O'Connor's total ease while immersed in his chosen craft. And he seemed determined that fellow participants should share that comfort.

When our round was completed, he expressed genuine delight on seeing his admirer waiting for him in the clubhouse bar, where they proceeded to have a few drinks together. This camaraderie was captured perfectly in a message sent in 2001 by Seve Ballesteros to O'Connor's nephew, Christy Junior, when he was recovering from a broken left leg. Urging him to get back into the game, it read: "If you give up golf, you give up me."

It was only when Junior passed from us in January 2016, that I fully appreciated how well-loved he was, especially in this country. Which makes an experience from mid-September 2001 all the more precious.

I arranged to meet him in the pastoral splendour of Adare Manor, where, in a desperate attempt at infusing some element of competitiveness into the first golf holes he would play since the previous March, he persuaded me to provide the opposition. Incidentally, as a precaution before hitting shots, a fibre-glass support given to him by an American friend was strapped from beneath the left foot up to the knee.

Approaching noon, an autumn sun was fighting to assert itself in a largely dull, cloudy sky, when I engaged O'Connor in battle. "You're going to see a miracle here," he said with typical expansiveness.

Gradually, all the old, familiar movements emerged, even the characteristic tilt of the head when it eventually came up to see the ball in flight. Any pain? "Not a twinge," he insisted. "And I'm hitting these about 90 per cent. You can't believe how good it feels."

We rode in a buggy, picking holes randomly on the back nine where a highlight came at the 442-yard 13th. After a seven-iron approach, a sand wedge chip-and-run just slipped past the top edge of the cup for a tap-in par. "There were times when I wondered if I would ever do this again," he admitted.

A few holes on, I cautioned: "You don't want to overdo things." Surprisingly, my companion agreed and we headed back to the clubhouse.

Is it proper, as seems to be the case, that Stewart's words at the fairway ropes, the appreciation by Himself of a long-time fan and Junior's indulgence of an eager scribe, should disappear from the modern game? If so, you feel that something special is being lost.

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