Wednesday 21 August 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'I wasn't expecting to be asked by US TV about north-south divisions on day one of The Open'

A general view of the 18th green prior to a practice round ahead of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Portrush, Co. Antrim. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
A general view of the 18th green prior to a practice round ahead of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Portrush, Co. Antrim. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Consumed by the prospect of watching great golf, thousands streamed eagerly into Royal Portrush for the first round of the 148th Open Championship.

The threat of rain would have been a consideration, but it is hard to imagine any significant numbers being concerned about social divisions in Northern Ireland.

Yet this was the question that confronted me when I stood before a TV camera for the American network, NBC. "How is it," asked Jimmy Roberts, "that the normal divisions don’t appear to apply to golf? Is golf unique in how it brings people together in these parts?”

Coming from a highly experienced broadcaster whom I have known for more than 20 years, the question provided a fascinating insight into how this place is viewed on the other side of the pond. It took me totally by surprise, not least because there is no longer cause to consider such matters when planning a trip to a Northern Ireland venue.

The only response that came to mind was that golfers were too selfish to be concerned with such thinking. That their passion for seeing club applied to ball, leaves no room for talk of politics or religion, especially when personal participation was involved.

It revived memories of the Irish Open over the Dunluce Links seven years ago, when I marvelled at the enthusiasm of record-breaking attendances over four remarkable days. Accents indicated that they came from all parts, north and south of the border, yet when they talked about favourite players, Padraig Harrington seemed as popular as Graeme McDowell.

It also brought to mind the reflections of Declan Branigan, who captured his first Irish Amateur Close title at Royal Portrush in 1976. Those of us of a certain age, wouldn’t need reminding of it as a time of appalling divisions, where it often took courage and commitment to share the fairways with fellow countrymen.

On the occasion of the ’76 Close, Branigan’s accommodation was in a caravan park a short distance from the golf course. There, he happened to be sharing a caravan with a fellow competitor named Jimmy Armstrong, who was later killed in a car accident.

As Branigan recalled: "I didn’t know Jimmy that well, and wasn’t aware that he was a member of the RUC [the since disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary]. On the first morning before heading for the course in Jimmy’s car, he produced a mirror attached to a long handle and began moving it along the underside of his car.

"When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was checking for a possible bomb. That was when he explained he was in the RUC."

Branigan concluded: "I have to admit that every day after that, I walked to the clubhouse, carrying my clubs on my back. And it didn’t seem to inhibit my challenge for the title."

Back then, lots of players ignored the problems of the time and shared fairways throughout this island in pursuit of the sport they loved. They were unsung heroes who bore witness to the unifying strength of all sporting endeavour.

If Jimmy Roberts had thought of his own country and its racial divisions, he would readily have acknowledged the huge impact that black athletes have made in virtually all of America’s leading sporting pursuits.

The prospect of further healing northern divisions, would not have been a consideration when the reality of this week was first discussed by the Royal and Ancient, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Portrush Golf Club about. Yet it is nonetheless likely to deliver such a benefit for this often, troubled island.

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