Saturday 24 February 2018

Dermot Gilleece: A case of hit and myth as Jennings keeps on playing

Northern Ireland's famous goalkeeper was a fascinating partner

On discovering I was to be a partner for Pat Jennings in a team event last week, I immediately thought of hands -- seriously large golfing hands. Their strength and size might explain a remarkably efficient golf game which has remained in single-figures for close on 40 years.

The occasion was the annual gathering of the Irish Golf Travel Operators' Association (IGTOA) at Lough Erne Resort, where top-quality course maintenance did full justice to the outstanding layout by Nick Faldo. And the former Northern Ireland international goalkeeper was there, simply because he was asked.

There was also a reason to talk last week with Tipperary's finest-ever golfer, Arthur Pierse, who, as an aside, had interesting observations on hands. "Joe Carr had the longest fingers I've seen on a golfer," said Pierse. "In fact, the index finger of his right hand was so long that the only place he could put it comfortably was down the shaft of the club."

He went on: "But the biggest hands I've ever seen were Harry Weetman's (who famously shot 58 at Croham Hurst in 1956). In terms of width, they were like shovels."

Now 67, Jennings plays off eight handicap, having started the game with his brothers back in the 1960s at Greenore, "just down the road from us in Newry and a lovely, quiet place that made you really welcome." He went on: "I'm a paying member of Brickendon Grange in Hertfordshire and an honorary member of Hanbury Manor and The Herfordshire. And when I come home I play at Greenore, which is very dear to my heart."

So what of these hands, which saw him through a sparkling football career, encompassing stretches at Watford, Spurs, Arsenal, then back to Spurs where he remains on the coaching staff? They also brought him through a record 119 internationals for Northern Ireland, ending against Brazil in far-off Guadalajara on June 12, 1986, his 41st birthday.

He laughed. "Look at them," he said in his deep, Johnny Cash voice. "They're no bigger than yours. That hands thing is a myth." Sure enough, when we placed them against each other, they were the same width though his fingers were slightly longer than mine. "I imagine they became such an important ingredient of my goalkeeping career because of natural reflexes and my teenage years playing Gaelic football."

He went on to explain how the myth was born. "I left Ireland in 1962, the year of the big snow, and joined Watford. That was where a local newspaper photographer took this shot of me at an angle that made my hands look absolutely enormous."

The image was then firmly cemented by future international colleague Johnny Crossan on the occasion of Jennings' Northern Ireland debut against Wales in 1964. Though the manager Bertie Peacock had given strict instructions for the players to assemble for a team meeting at 5.0pm, Jennings was inadvertently delayed a couple of minutes.

On arrival in the team room, he learned that Crossan had made his excuses for him. Apparently, he told Peacock that the hotel had to call a plumber because while washing his hands, Jennings got them caught in the sink.

Anyway, the hands that served him so well in soccer now function very efficiently in an admirably tidy golf game, characterised by a short backswing and unerring accuracy off the tee. And he is especially pleased to be able to do his bit for a number of charities, including the Pat Jennings Classic for Co-Operation Ireland, which had its 19th staging at Royal Co Down earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the IGTOA annual honours included one to Royal Portrush as Links Course of the Year, to Mount Juliet as Parkland Course of the Year and to Carton House as the Top Resort. Michael Moss of Portstewart was a popular Club Manager of the Year, while Richard Hills of the European Tour received the Jerry Donworth Award for Outstanding Contribution to Golf.

Pierse's honour was a much more local affair. Last Thursday night in the clubhouse of Tipperary GC, a showcase of the player's golfing memorabilia was unveiled

in the presence of captain Joe Considine and lady captain, Sheila Lowry. It is a way of honouring a loyal and very talented member who brought the club much distinction through the years, as a Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy representative who won four Irish provincial championships and the British Senior Amateur title.

"One item I'm particularly pleased about is my first golf club," said Pierse. "I believe it's the only one in existence, a mashie-niblick carrying the signature of Bill O'Donnell, professional at Tipperary Golf Club. I got it from my mother, who got it from her grand-uncle. And there are gutta percha golf balls found at the site of the original course, which were given by my uncle to my father and then to me."

Another unusual item is a caddie's bib from the 2010 JP McManus International Pro-Am, signed by Tiger Woods, who happened to have Pierse carrying his bag.

Despite their involvement in countless golf classics in this country over the years, Pierse and Jennings have yet to share the same fairways. Which seems a pity, given that the Tipperaryman's staunch support of Manchester United would almost guarantee some interesting chat.

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