JP McManus has attracted ten of the World’s top 11 golfers to play in his pro-am
Back in 1990, our pro-am team stood for a photograph beside the first tee at Limerick GC in Ballyclough. That was when we each put a hand on a splendid canteen of cutlery, assuming it to be the prize for the top score.
About five hours later, our efforts on behalf of team leader, Leonard Owens, the professional at Royal Dublin, left us very much among the also-rans. Yet even before the prize-giving, each of us received that fetching array of cutlery.
The professionals were largely of the journeyman variety, such as Richard Boxall, now a commentator with Sky, who led in the winning team. Yet clearly, this was no ordinary pro-am.
It was, in fact, the first staging of what has since become the JP McManus Pro-Am, which will have its sixth staging tomorrow and Tuesday at Adare Manor. From those modest beginnings, it has become a must-date for the game’s leading players for whom Tiger Woods famously pointed the way towards proceeds in excess of €140m.
As final additions to the field, Cameron Smith and last week’s Traveler’s Tournament winner, Xander Schauffele, reflect the amazing quality of the overall line-up. Indeed, the very idea of El Tigre opting out of the recent US Open at Brookline but committing to Adare, is perhaps the ultimate endorsement.
It means the presence of 10 out of the worlds top-11 ranked players, including number one, Scottie Scheffler. And Matt Fitzpatrick, newly-crowned US Open champion, will be there, along with Rory McIlroy.
As a newcomer to the event, Séamus Power captured the excitement it generates on tour. “I can’t wait to get up there,” he said. “I’ve met JP a couple times, only on short occasions, but all the things I’ve heard about this event and the money raised for charity is incredible. And the reaction I get from players makes me so excited. I mean, guys have been talking about this event for literally two years.”
An original, five-year arrangement meant that the 1995 staging also came in the run up to The Open at St Andrews. Indeed memories remain fresh of Philip Walton in a frazzled state, arriving at the Dunraven Arms on the Sunday night, directly from his English Open triumph at the Forest of Arden.
With a focus increasingly on charities in the greater Limerick area, McManus reached for the stars when planning his event for millennium year. A strategic move came in the lead-up to the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline. That was where, at an official function, he and his dining party were joined by members of the US team, including Woods.
In his quiet, inimitable way, the financier mentioned a two-day charity pro-am he would be running at Limerick GC the following summer. Later, McManus informed me: “I told Tiger he would be more than welcome to come along. My idea was that he could simply drop in as a visitor on one of the days. There would be no question of pressurising him to play.” To which the world number one responded: “If you’re asking me, I’m coming.”
Five months later, a mutual friend contacted McManus to the remarkable effect that Woods was anxious to know if the pro-am invitation still stood.
So it was that the strongest professional field to be assembled in this country since the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960, was effectively finalised.
In conversation with McManus, I wondered if he subscribed to the notion of golf as a metaphor for life. He certainly seemed to derive tremendous enjoyment from great golfing events and the players who graced them. So it was that leading exponents such as Woods, David Duval, Lee Janzen, Mark O’Meara, Stuart Appleby and the late Payne Stewart, came to Ireland as guests of himself and Dermot Desmond in 1998 and 1999.
In the process, Woods discovered that his Irish hosts could be trusted. From a pressurised existence in the US, where everybody seemed to want a piece of him, he was staggered by the freedom to take casual walks with his friends, among the good folk of Waterville.
A favourite McManus motto is: “I think you get the most out of people by not expecting too much.”
So, was golf, indeed, a metaphor for life? “In my view, that would be more true of gambling,” he replied. “The behaviour of a gambler would give me an insight into him very quickly. I’d know if I needed a solicitor with me when we got to doing some business. If I was playing cards, I would get an opinion about a man, whether it was right or wrong. But I’m not sure if I could see things so clearly on a golf course. I’m sure it’s there, but I can relate more to gambling and racing.”
Was there more to gambling than simply the hope of winning money? “Money is the tool, though I don’t forget that there was a time when it was important for me to win,” he said. “If I was to take things easy and play golf three or four times a week and go racing on the other days, I don’t think I’d be happy. The idea might be appealing, looking towards the future. But I think once you got into that position, you’d be anxious to get out of it again.”
My own conviction that the relationship between he and Woods transcends all financial considerations, stems from a remarkable happening at Limerick GC in the run-up to the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham. As an honorary life member of the Ballyclough stretch, El Tigre agreed to a decidedly complex match against a man renowned for his skill with figures.
Essentially the odds were loaded in favour of the businessman, provided he wasn’t overawed by the celebrity of his opponent. And coolness under pressure is a hallmark of McManus, the gambler. Normally a tournament professional would be expected to concede six strokes more than the normal handicap allowance in a match against a club player. Not this time.
The local member asked for no more than the regulation, 14 strokes. But there was a catch, naturally. They played a two-ball scramble, with a subtle difference. Whereas McManus could select the better of two drives before hitting two second-shots, Woods had to play the worse of his two drives. And he also had to discard his best approach shot and his best pitch, while being stuck with the inferior effort.
The arrangement became particularly demanding on the putting green. For instance, if the world number-one holed a 10-footer, it would count only if he holed it a second time, thereby choosing his worse shot.
“I got smoked,” Woods later admitted, laughing. “The problem for me in having to use my worse ball was that the windy conditions made it harder to make birdies. So JP just had to make [net] pars and wait for me to make mistakes. Eventually they caught up with me and he beat me fairly easily. But it was fun.” McManus denied that any money changed hands.
Though his pro-am had its last staging at Adare Manor in 2010, this will be its first outing there since the venue was bought and extensively refurbished by McManus. Indeed the new Adare was described by DP World Tour chief executive, Keith Pelley, as “an absolute masterpiece. Truly remarkable. The condition is impeccable and the design is as good as I’ve seen.”
Distinguished visitors are also certain to be captivated by the beauty of the setting. Traversed by the charming River Maigue, the manor can be an enchanting place to be on these special, July days. Imagining how it might have looked in earlier times, one is reminded of the words of Tennyson:
“On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wold and meet the sky
And through the fields the road runs by ...”