Sport Golf

Monday 20 November 2017

The wit and wisdom of golf's greatest scribe

He sensed that Dobereiner and the prize-winners would love Rosses Point in Co Sligo. Photo: Sportsfile
He sensed that Dobereiner and the prize-winners would love Rosses Point in Co Sligo. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

A slim, extremely rare hardback book has come into my possession. Its rarity has to do with numbers rather than age, given that only 10 copies of The Dobereiner X Files were printed. And I happen to have one of them.

It came to me as a recent gift from the author/editor/publisher, Dr Steven Reid, English-born of Irish parents and a former captain of Royal Lytham & St Annes GC. The book is a compilation of letters and articles involving another great friend of Irish golf, Peter Dobereiner, who died 20 years ago last month, and his one-time sports editor, Peter Corrigan.

I sensed I was going to like Steven Reid on first experiencing his wicked humour in a Royal Lytham yearbook. The subject was grass and no, not that stuff. As a respected medical doctor, his concern had to do with questions like "is your fescue bent?", which could be somewhat disconcerting, even if a glance downwards assured you that your attire was not in a state of disarray.

He explained: "I remember the first time I found myself in the presence of grassmen. I came in on the end of a conversation as a Large Gin and Tonic asked: 'When did you ever see a Yorkshire Fog like that?' A silence fell that I quickly realised was going to last forever unless I chipped in. Before my brain knew what my mouth was doing, I was trilling away. 'Last week I was coming back from Harrogate and it was so dense that day the visibility must have been less than 10 yards.' My voice tailed into nothingness as I was pierced by a quiver of steely glances. Then, as one body, the several owners of the eyes arose and drifted away. As he passed me, the last member of the group paused, gently rested a hand on my slumped shoulder and murmured, 'We were talking grass, old boy'."

After some deliberation, Reid decided the only solution was to face such coves armed with mysterious Latin names for hybrid grasses, like Agrostis capillaris and Poa pratensis. In the meantime, he wished the world of grassmen "close cuttings".

Reid came to know Dobereiner through his golf writings in The Observer, notably the occasion in 1987 when he devised a competition with the prize of a week's golf in Ireland for four lucky winners. With a view to having Co Sligo included in the itinerary, the good doctor wrote to Dobereiner recommending the delights of the Harry Colt creation on our western seaboard.

His familiarity with Rosses Point stemmed from summers spent there playing golf with his father. And he sensed that Dobereiner and the prize-winners would love the place, not least because of the quirky humour of locals such as George Hamlet, known as 'Lord Foulmouth', for obvious reasons.

On hearing that Hamlet had undergone prostate surgery, Reid recalled asking him in a crowded corridor outside the men's bar if the operation had been a success. "Come into the jacks, Stevie my boy, and I'll soon take the polish off your left shoe," bellowed Hamlet, clearly proud of his revitalised plumbing.

Dobereiner, by this stage, was already captivated by Irish golf. We especially recall his Observer report on the third round of the 1980 Irish Open, in which Christy O'Connor Snr happened to be drawn with Seve Ballesteros. The scribe memorably reported: "The entire population of Dublin, plus a few thousand out-of-towners, trooped across Portmarnock to watch Your Man playing Himself." And on it went with the charming ease which only the great ones can bring to writing.

Elsewhere, he wrote a delightful essay on Galway's most gifted golfing son, for the book Himself compiled by Seamus Smith. It began: "Any attempt to assess Christy O'Connor's place in the pantheon among the most outstanding golfers in the history of the sport must start by rejecting statistical systems used for measuring the quality of a player. Career earnings tables, lifetime stroke-averages, Major championship victories, world rankings and tallies of tournament wins are only of value - and a limited value at that - in comparing performances in one era."

As it happened, Reid himself was among the prize-winners in 1988, when six questions included the rather devious one: "Which Irish golfer won the [British] Amateur Championship four times?" The answer, of course, was nobody - since Joe Carr had captured it on only three occasions. And, naturally, his beloved Rosses Point was on the itinerary.

Dobereiner was ailing when he attended the US Masters in 1996. That was when he famously met Greg Norman emerging from the locker room on the Saturday evening, having discovered that he would be defending a six-stroke lead in the final round, with Nick Faldo as his playing partner.

Noting that the Shark looked somewhat down at heel, Dobereiner threw an affectionate arm around his shoulders before uttering the immortal words: "Don't worry, Greg old son. Not even you can fuck this one up." Four months later, Dobers was dead, having missed The Open at Royal Lytham where Reid, by now a close friend, had officiated as captain.

Among the countless tributes was one from Norman, who said with typical generosity: "To think of golf and the golf scene without Peter Dobereiner, is like looking at a bunker without sand, a fairway without grass, a green without a flag. Thank God we still have his written words to remind us of all the good things about golf."

Thirteen months later, I happened to be in the clubhouse at Valderrama during the week of the 1997 Ryder Cup, when the Peter Dobereiner Room was officially opened. As the pride of Jaime Patino was being prepared for the biennial battle with the Americans, we remembered Pratts Bottom Golf and Country Club, which Dobereiner had completed, three months before his death. The grandiose title referred to a nine-hole pitch-and-putt layout in a corner described as 'the forest', which he had cleared by hand in the back garden at his home in Kent. Its longest hole was all of 44 yards, yet he impishly proposed it to the European Tour as a venue for what became the 2006 Ryder Cup.

And we remember how, despite the promise of a neighbour's garden as additional parking space, the bid was regretfully turned down by Ken Schofield, the Tour's executive director, who gently pointed out that the Irish had a much more promising option in The K Club. Whereupon the bold Dobers, not wishing to upset his Irish friends - even in jest - formally withdrew from the race.

The initial offering to the Dobereiner Room comprised 112 books. Steven Reid was pleased to learn that they included the history of Co Sligo GC.

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