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Des Smyth on Longevity

Van Lanschot Senior Open Winner talks to Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jun 28, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

des smyth

Longevity in golf is a great blessing.  Sam Snead had it.  So did Christy O’Connor Snr. And Des Smyth has shown himself capable of keeping pace with these legends through his victory on Sunday in Van Lanschot Senior Open at the Royal Haagsche GC.  As it happened, it came little more than a decade after Smyth’s success in the 2001 Madeira Island Open in which he became, at 48 years and 34 days, the oldest winner in the history of the European Tour.

Mention of the clan O’Connor is almost obligatory in the context of this latest triumph, given that Smyth credited his performance to a lesson on the practice ground from the great man’s nephew, Christy Jnr.  “My set-up was out of synch because my right shoulder was out of position,” said Smyth. “Following advice from Christy Junior, I worked all week getting my hips and shoulders on the same plane.  And it worked spectacularly.”

Interestingly, when Smyth won the Irish Professional Championship at Waterville in 1986 with an aggregate record of 282 for the Co Kerry links, the runner-up was none other than Christy Snr.  Little more than two months short of his 62nd birthday, he had aspirations of winning the title for an 11th time, so surpassing the achievement he shared with Harry Bradshaw. “At my age, I don’t expect to get another chance,” he said afterwards.  And he was right.

Meanwhile, despite the marvellous achievement of winning a sixth Masters title at 46, Jack Nicklaus was denied the longevity of Snead in tournament golf.  And the extent to which this hurt the great man, was graphically illustrated by a charming story related to me by Smyth.   As a highly competitive person himself, Smyth got a rare insight into the Nicklaus psyche after carding a sparkling, third-round 66 in the 2003 Senior British Open at Turnberry where the Bear’s old rival, Tom Watson, captured the title.

While winding down from the excitement of the round, the Drogheda man found his attention drawn to the television screen and the sight of Nicklaus standing over a 12-foot putt for a birdie at the 14th. The game’s greatest competitor was on a roll at six under, with the prospect of shooting his age, a magical 63. But the putt slipped tantalisingly past the target. And when Smyth then observed an apparently good tee-shot break right of the green for a bogey at the short 15th, he knew the chance had gone.

So, off he went to meet his wife, Vicki, and son, Gregory, who were with him at the event. “About an hour and a quarter later, we were driving out of the car park when I saw Nicklaus walking towards us,” he recalled.  “And when I lowered the car window to ask how he had finished, he leaned in, said hello to Vicki and then started to talk. For the next 20 minutes, arms resting against the car, he passionately told me every shot he had hit from the 14th, leading eventually to a disappointing 67.

“He was absolutely gutted, because he knew he had had the makings of a terrific round, with the chance of shooting his age.  And as he talked, I couldn’t help thinking that here was the greatest golfer the game has ever seen – unless Tiger outstrips him – baring his soul to a fellow pro; devastated that he didn’t shoot the number he wanted. Finally he said, ‘It would have meant so much to me.’ Then, before leaving us, he added, ‘Maybe tomorrow. Though the worry is that those chances don’t come around too often these days.’”

When he returned to action on the Champions Tour in the US that autumn, Smyth recounted this story to new-found American colleagues. “Their reaction was that people tend to forget how much the game has meant to Jack, especially when he’s playing well and the competitive juices start flowing,” he said. In the process, Smyth realized, not for the first time, that the same could be said of himself and the vast majority of golf’s so-called pensioners.

Which goes some way towards explaining his unbridled delight at Sunday’s victory, his seventh on either side of the Atlantic since turning 50.  And he makes no secret of the hope that there will be more to come. 

- Dermot Gilleece

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