Thursday 22 August 2019

'If I ever see him again, he owes me a coke!' - How a Dublin funeral director beat Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods at the 1995 Walker Cup (left) and Jody Fanagan celebrates winning one of his matches at the tournament (right).
Tiger Woods at the 1995 Walker Cup (left) and Jody Fanagan celebrates winning one of his matches at the tournament (right).
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

It's September 1995 and a 19-year-old Tiger Woods, who has yet to turn pro, is about a year away from being tipped to surpass the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in a proclamation that still makes even the most bullish of statements seem demure.

Woods' old man, Earl, was never one to play down his precocious son's talent, formulating a checklist of achievements that began with Tiger swinging a club as a toddler, carrying on well past Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors before settling him somewhere alongside Buddha in terms of societal impact.

Phase one of the master plan, domination - or more accurately, annihilation - of the amateur world was almost complete. After two straight US Amateur titles (he would win a third) all that was left for the Stanford college student at that level before embarking on a stratospheric journey that sent him soaring well above the merely great golfers, was to rock up to the Walker Cup in Wales and take his place in the US procession.

The American team had only been defeated by Great Britain and Ireland once in the 11 previous iterations of the matchplay tournament, and the visitors certainly weren't expected to lose with the future of the sport in their ranks at Royal Portcawl.

The one problem was that although already possessing an ability that was borderline otherworldly, events that weekend conspired to leave Tiger on the wrong side of that crossing.

That is where Jody Fanagan, who today runs Fanagans Funeral Directors in Dublin, comes in.

He didn't play professionally but Fanagan still enjoyed a key role in what became one of Tiger's golfing weeks from hell.

The US team lost the Walker Cup 14-10 to Great Britain and Ireland and Fanagan, alongside Padraig Harrington, upset Woods and his partner John Harris in the foursomes on Day Two by 2&1.

In all, Woods lost two of his four matches - not too shabby but unthinkable for a player who was the sport's greatest front-runner, even then, and had he won as expected, the US would have retained the trophy.

"He was in his Stanford days, he was 19 and I was 30 when I played him," Fanagan remembers.

"He was just a young college kid but he certainly could hit the ball like nobody else could hit it.

"It was just a different flight to the rest of us."

Despite his obvious talent, Tiger wasn't quite yet the steamrolling titan who could crush all-comers in any conditions. In 1995, he was teenager from the west coast used to pristine courses bathed in Californian sunshine. In other words, the vagaries of Welsh weather - players were almost washed away - he was not ready for.

Nor was his temperament used to the alien feeling of defeat.

"Tiger had never played links golf," Fanagan says, adding that there were a couple of nuances of the course-style that a young Woods was ill-equipped to handle.

"At the end of one of the day's there was a dinner for the two teams and he never came down for dinner.

"He said he had a cold. He had never really been beaten at that stage I don’t think, in 18 holes or on a team. Winners don’t love losing!"

"We sat beside each other at dinner later that week and we had a chat. I can’t remember what we talked about but I bought him a drink. If I ever see him again he owes me a coke!"

There is a theory floating around that Woods' mediocre Ryder Cup displays, which failed to match his stellar record at Majors, are a result of his Walker Cup difficulties.

A harsh assessment perhaps, and while the man who contributed to that torment doesn't outright agree, he has his suspicions.

"I read a book about his career a few years ago that went up to around 2000," he says.

"He talked about his US Amateur wins and his college career... but there wasn’t anything about the Walker Cup. It was never mentioned!"

Despite seeing off the hottest golfing prospect in the world and doing it alongside a future three-time major champion in Harrington, Fanagan never thought about going professional.

By that stage, he was working away in the funeral business and his life had already bypassed a period where he may have had the wiggle-room to give life on tour a go.

"I genuinely never really thought about it," he says.

"I came late to golf, I had played mostly rugby growing up and golf was a summer hobby. I never played boys or youth golf, and started playing senior golf at 23 and it all happened very quickly. When I went to that Walker Cup I was 30. I was married, I had a mortgage and I had been working for about seven years. It really wasn’t a consideration."

He didn't collect a bounty of monetary spoils for his big win, but as intangible runner-up prizes go for a hot weekend of golf, the ability - at his discretion - to remind friends, family, foes, passerbys or matchplay opponents that he knows what it's like to take down a young Tiger Woods, must be a priceless card to play

Even if some people close to home may have their doubts.

"People bring it up to me rather than me bringing it up to them," he says with a laugh.

"If I had a euro for every time somebody has said it to me I would be a very rich man. It is great fun. You could be known for a lot worse!

"My kids watch me play golf now and say, ‘Hmmm, did you actually beat Tiger Woods?’"

Online Editors

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport