Monday 19 February 2018

Transatlantic diplomacy perfectly vague as O'Sullivan clan return to roots

Hannah O’Sullivan in Curtis Cup action for the US team yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Hannah O’Sullivan in Curtis Cup action for the US team yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Nestling in a green valley framed by a run of Wicklow's hills, Dun Laoghaire GC presented a distinctly Irish setting yesterday for the 39th Curtis Cup matches. Unfortunately, there was weather to match, which had amateur meteorologists speculating as to the likely consequences of a Sugar Loaf Mountain shrouded in mist.

The O'Sullivan clan didn't seem to mind, either way. They were too busy calculating the number of places they needed for a gathering at Woodbrook Golf Club last night. "At the moment it's 41, and growing," said Patrick O'Sullivan, who travelled to the matches from San Francisco.

With splendid irony, they and the extended Nunan family descended on Dun Laoghaire GC to support America's top player, Hannah O'Sullivan. Indeed a surprise arrival yesterday was Monsignor Donal O'Sullivan from the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"I happened to baptise Hannah 18 years ago and the last time we had a family get-together was when I buried her grandmother in 2013," he said. The cleric went on to explain that as a retired army chaplain and a native of Kilmallock, he had gone back to his home place last week to see "my family."

As to his unexpected presence at the matches: "When I heard they were on, it seemed like a good opportunity to meet up with the rest of the clan," he said. All before flying to Zambia tomorrow to take up an appointment with the missions there.

Meanwhile, the biennial showpiece for women's golf was being viewed with admirable equanimity. "Blood being blood, we're hoping the best for Hannah," they agreed. "But we're also hoping the home team do themselves proud." Diplomacy should always be that vague.

It's a remarkable story. Hannah O'Sullivan is the reigning US Women's Amateur Champion, whose paternal grandparents were John O'Sullivan from Kilmallock and Ina Nunan from Tipperary Town. Having married in this country, they emigrated to San Francisco where their sons, Patrick and Greg, and daughter Marti were born. Greg happens to be the player's father.

Another relative proudly showed me a tweet from no less a figure than Greg Norman, on May 12, Hannah's birthday and in the wake of her US Amateur triumph. "Congratulations on a well-deserved number-one ranking in women's amateur golf," it read. "May your journey in golf always be up."

As it happened, the player she displaced was Leona Maguire, the only Irish golfer to have held that ranking. And if one were looking for golfing genes to support O'Sullivan's status, it may be no coincidence that her mother happens to hail from Korea, which has been dominating the women's game in recent years.

Meanwhile, it was in August 2011 that Dun Laoghaire, fired by pride in their marvellous new facility, decided to formally apply to stage this particular event. Club president, Derek Montgomery, claimed at the time that they wanted to share "this wonderful home with our international brethren." And they're doing it splendidly, on the upper and middle nines of their 27-hole layout, designed by Marc Westenborg of the Hawtree organisation.

"This weekend has raised the profile of the club to a different level," said Montgomery yesterday. "And I feel especially proud of the work our staff did in preparing the course."

It certainly impressed Paul McGinley, who was present in his capacity as captain of Ireland's Olympic challenge.

Dun Laoghaire's promotional aspirations echo those of Killarney's Tom Prendergast in the wake of the last Irish staging of the Curtis Cup in 1996. "With the Irish Open, our patrons were mainly Irish, but on this occasion we have gained huge overseas exposure," he said.

Distinguished Irish involvement in this event, was captured in a particularly fetching poster outside one of the catering marquees of Mary McKenna, the 2010 captain, alongside the Maguire twins, Leona and Lisa. And the Curtis Cup has always been notable for the enduring support of former players.

These included five representatives yesterday from the historic win at Prairie Dunes, Kansas, 30 years ago. Belle Robertson is a house guest of McKenna's, her foursomes partner on that occasion, and Jill Thornhill was also an enthusiastic spectator along with Ireland's Claire Dowling and LGU president, Diane Bailey, who captained the side.

"That win had the same sort of impact as Pádraig Harrington's first Open at Carnoustie," said McKenna. She was referring to the fact that after the women had shown it was possible to win on American soil, their lead was followed by a breakthrough from Europe's Ryder Cup side at Muirfield Village a year later.

Then, in 1989, the Walker Cup side from these islands, also managed to beard the lion in its own den, at Peachtree, Atlanta.

Finally, as a typical image of matchplay, there was Leona Maguire holing a tricky, three-footer on the 18th which wasn't good enough to save herself and Charlotte Thomas from a one-hole foursomes defeat. And it struck me how little her slim, athletic frame seems to have changed, since I first saw her all of 10 years ago.

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