Saturday 18 November 2017

Man of steel recast in bronze as he works on his handicap

Sculptor Paul Ferriter shares a love of golf with his latest subject, former jockey AP McCoy

Paul Ferriter with his sculpture of jockey, Tony McCoy. Photo: Damien Eagers
Paul Ferriter with his sculpture of jockey, Tony McCoy. Photo: Damien Eagers

Dermot Gilleece

Though hardly a sport graced equally by plutocrats and paupers, golf remains a remarkably democratic pursuit. Which explains how it can link such diverse figures as a sculptor, a champion jockey, a civil service mandarin and leading tournament professionals with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

A key segment of our story is to be played out at the north entrance of Cheltenham Racecourse on Tuesday, with the unveiling of a life-size bronze of champion jockey, AP McCoy, near the statue of Gold Cup hero, Best Mate. Commissioned by Ian Renton, the venue's managing director, it was sculpted by Paul Ferriter in his Dublin studio.

"AP has put on a few pounds since he quit competitive racing, but I have depicted him at his most gaunt," said the artist yesterday. "I wanted sunken, high-cheekbones - the hungry jockey look. The 5ft 10ins figure has his arms folded with a whip under the left one and a hint of anxiety in his face, wondering perhaps about the next win."

When I first met Ferriter, he was working on a bronze of Christy O'Connor Snr which would join similar images of Nick Faldo and Christy O'Connor Jnr at the Amendoeira complex on Portugal's Algarve. He had earlier done a stunning effigy of Old Tom Morris, looking out to Sheephaven Bay at Rosapenna, and another bronze of Seve Ballesteros for the clubhouse front at The Heritage in Killenard.

There followed an image of Jack Nicklaus to adorn the first tee at Killeen Castle and others of Lord Killanin and GAA founder, Michael Cusack. And a two-foot bronze of James Hoban, the Kilkenny man who designed Washington's White House, was given as a gift by Taoiseach Kenny to Barack Obama on St Patrick's Day 2011.

His current project is a two-foot bronze of Shane Lowry, which especially pleases him in view of his friendship with Neil Manchip, Lowry's coach.

"AP actually sat for me in my studio in Croke Park and said some very kind things about the Michael Cusack piece," Ferriter went on. "Later, I went to do some measurements and a video at his home in Lambourne, near Romford in the English midlands. His first thought was that we should have a round of golf together, presumably at Donnington Grove CC in Berkshire, where he's a member.

"When I protested that I didn't have my clubs with me, his response was to take me to his golf room where he had a big golf simulator. And we played a few holes of Augusta National."

Then came an unexpected bonus for McCoy. As a seven-handicap member of Killeen Castle, Ferriter ended up passing on key elements of a golf lesson he received from leading English coach Pete Cowen during the Irish Open at Fota Island three years ago. "It had to do with releasing the golf club, which is always welcome to anybody seeking extra distance," he explained.

With a handicap in low, double-figures, McCoy has been very active in golf since retiring from racing almost two years ago. Only last October, he raised quite a few eyebrows when partnering Graeme McDowell in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, notably with an approach to two feet on the fifth at blustery St Andrews, for a tap-in birdie.

The buzz remains with me from Adare Manor in July 2010, when he played with Tiger Woods in the JP McManus International Pro-Am. It was a wonderful occasion with Woods having fellow Walker Cup representative, Arthur Pierse, caddying for him while McCoy had as his bagman, Ruby Walsh, who was recovering from a broken arm at the time. Mick Fitzgerald was also in their team.

"Ruby and the boys were very funny, telling jokes in some choice language," Pierse later told me. "And Tiger held his own with them." Given Woods' ongoing back problems, it is especially revealing to note the exchanges he and McCoy had on a one-to-one basis.

Describing the experience of playing with El Tigre as "mighty close to winning the National in my sporting life", McCoy went on: "He didn't know who I was, but we had a good chat. He asked Ruby and myself about injuries we suffered as jockeys. I've broken almost every bone in my body, so I was in a good position to give him advice. He was really interested in the rehabilitation side of racing. It wasn't just a matter of asking a question and that's that. He was obviously wondering how people in other sports might go about things."

In reflections on that memorable occasion, it's been suggested that the 545 weeks which Woods spent as world number one, pale in comparison with McCoy's tenure of more than 1,000 weeks on the top spot. Nor does it seem unreasonable, looking at McCoy's 4,358 career wins and being champion for each of his 20 years as a professional jockey, to estimate a comparable achievement by a tournament golfer at more than 30 Majors. 

Meanwhile, a recent gathering I attended in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Ely Place, marked the dedication of Gallery Number 2 to Pádraig ó hUiginn. And as a special touch, Ferriter's bronze of the one-time civil servant has been added to the RHA collection on the ground floor.

Now 92 and with a mind still sharp as a tack, ó hUiginn ended a memorable speech with a remarkable golfing tale. This is the man who, during an 11-year stint as secretary-general of the Taoiseach's department, was said to have had three Taoisigh - Garrett Fitzgerald, Charlie Haughey and Albert Reynolds - "serving under him." He was later made a Life Vice-President of the European Tour in 2003 "in recognition of his pivotal role in cultivating professional golf in Ireland."

In creating the ó hUiginn bronze, Ferriter said: "I attempted to portray him as a man of action in his middle years, with briefcase in hand and, dare I suggest, a fetching quiff of hair."

Back in 1994, the retired mandarin was chairman of Fáilte Ireland when Enda Kenny was appointed minister for Tourism and Sport. "That's when Enda approached me, wondering if I could possibly help fulfil a great golfing ambition of his to play with Seve Ballesteros," he said.

"I suggested there shouldn't be any problem about arranging it in the pro-am for the Irish Open, which was scheduled for Mount Juliet a few months later. When the day came, Enda went off with his team and I went with mine. And on finishing, I went looking for him to see how he had got on.

"And he said: 'Jesus! I topped my drive on the first and then scuttered a three-wood along the ground. And Seve came over, wagging his finger at the three-wood and said: 'Take the nine iron, amigo. Much safer.' Then he said: 'Take-a the stance. Take-a the grip. Take-a the swing. Now take-a the swing again.' And I took the swing again. Then, placing his finger on top of my head, he said: 'Amigo. Keep your fucking head steady.'"

Whereupon ó hUiginn concluded: "That, I maintain, is how Enda became leader of his party and then Taoiseach. He owes it all to Seve. He took the safe option and kept his effing head steady, as Seve had advised him."

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