Saturday 21 April 2018

Irish golf will regret Cup's slow demise

The absence of golf's World Cup from next autumn's tournament schedule is being blamed largely on the poor response by leading American players to recent stagings. And why have they gone missing? The problem, in my view, has its roots in the plague of slow play which has eventually choked the life out of a great event.

It seems especially sad that the tournament should hit problems in this, the 50th anniversary of what was then the Canada Cup at Portmarnock. No single event has done more to promote the development of golf in this country.

When that 1960 staging arrived on these shores, GUI president, Dr Billy O'Sullivan, described our golf facilities as encompassing "about 200 clubs, the majority of them with nine-hole courses." By 1977, this number had increased by a significant 22 per cent to 244, through the arrival of clubs such as Trim (1969), Bantry Bay (1974), Ballinascorney (1971), Cahir Park (1968), Connemara (1973), Shannon (1966), Slade Valley (1970) and Stackstown (1975). And the boom also involved extensive upgrading of existing facilities.

In the aftermath of the Canada Cup, Bill Menton, general secretary of the GUI, who had organised the event, was flooded with calls about coaching and golf-course architecture. He turned to former Portmarnock professional, Eddie Hackett, whose activities were confined mainly to coaching because of fragile health at that time. Hackett was persuaded to try his hand at course architecture and starting at Letterkenny GC, he went on to create or upgrade more than 100 courses.

Meanwhile, the World Cup's format of singles strokeplay with professional partners from two countries playing as a fourball, was certain to fall victim to slowcoaches. Which is what happened on the Friday at Portmarnock where the volatile Scot, Eric Brown, stormed off the 18th in a rage over slow play.

Apparently the main culprits were South Africa's Gary Player and Bobby Locke and Canada's Al Balding and Stan Leonard, who spent five hours in each other's company. When asked what would happen when Brown's complaint was passed on to the tournament committee, a GUI blazer famously offered the inscrutable response: "There probably will be considerable inactivity."

In mitigation, Player said: "We had quite a few people watching us. If we had a gallery of only 60 or 70 people, we would have got round more quickly."

As the event evolved into the World Cup, players came to accept the inevitability of five-hour rounds. By the 1990s, however, this had become six hours, causing bitter complaints from professionals who behaved as if somebody else was actually poring interminably over shots. Eventually, singles was abandoned in favour of foursomes and fourballs for the 2000 staging which was won for the US by Tiger Woods (pictured) and Mark O'Meara.

Given the unattractiveness of the new format, the wonder was that Woods returned with David Duval to defend the trophy the following year, when South Africa won. And in 2002, Phil Mickelson and David Toms were runners-up to Japan. By 2004, however, the writing was on the wall when Scott Verplank and Bob Tway flew the flag for the US.

Against this background, it is fascinating to note that as the host country in 1960, Ireland had the privilege of nominating not only their own team but those from South Africa and the US as well. So, after giving the nod to reigning Open champion Player and Locke, who had won the gold medal as leading amateur in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1934, they nominated Sam Snead and Ben Hogan to represent the US. In the event, Hogan declined because of poor putting form and was replaced by Arnold Palmer, who joined Snead in a triumphant US partnership.

And what of money, which is such a hot topic these days? Apart from a prize fund of £2,500, each of the 60 competitors at Portmarnock received £70 plus 'appearance money', hotel expenses and the cost of a caddie. This was estimated at an average of £250 per player. Last November at Mission Hills, where those household names, Nick Watney and John Merrick represented the US, Italy's Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, each earned more than €600,000 for an historic win.

Incidentally, the final round at Portmarnock was officially "dry" for the 15,000 spectators, because the law didn't permit "an occasional licence" on a Sunday back then. But we're told that many solved the problem by bringing their own supply.

If only tournament golfers could be similarly imaginative about helping themselves.

Sunday Independent

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