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Golfing Christmas

Dermot Gilleece takes a festive look at tournament golf

Posted Dec 20, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

christmas

Christmas thoughts can have a wonderful, wide-ranging dimension for the golf enthusiast, because of the universal nature of our royal and ancient game.  For instance, we can reflect on the festive season of 1933, when Bobby Jones announced that he would be competing the following spring in the inaugural Augusta National Invitational - the forerunner to the Masters -  on the splendid new course he had designed with Dr Alister MacKenzie. Or we could go further back to Christmas Eve 1861, when John Ball, the first amateur and first English winner of the Open Championship (1890), was born.

As I say, the possibilities are considerable. It was on Christmas Eve 1953, that "Golf Illustrated" devoted its cover to a familiar, smiling face with strong, even teeth and steely, penetrating eyes. The magazine proclaimed: "Our Christmas honours go to the Golfer of the Decade, Ben Hogan, Open Champion of Great Britain and America."  Indeed Hogan also won the Masters that year, for a stunning treble which has yet to be equalled.  And at Christmastime five years later, the five Turnesa brothers, playing on a course in New York, defeated the five Fry brothers, playing in California, in a unique golf-match staged by telegraph.

Perhaps the most poignant happening of all, concerned the untimely demise of Young Tom Morris, whose wife, Margaret, had died in childbirth in early September 1875, only 10 months after their marriage. American writer, Tom Callahan, offers an intriguing insight into the impact of this tragedy on the champion golfer, who was only 24. "On Christmas Eve," he informs us, "Young Tom bid goodnight to his parents.  The following morning, Christmas morning, Old Tom heard his son stirring.  But when Tommy didn't come to breakfast, his father went to his room to find him dead. Tommy's lips were smeared with blood."

Callahan goes on: "Many of the accounts say Young Tom died of a broken heart.  But almost no one dies of a broken heart. Alcohol is usually involved.  As a matter of mislaid fact, an autopsy was performed. Everyone knew Tommy had been drinking beyond his usual requirements.  At the same time, pneumonia was suspected, along with pleurisy.  But the cause of death was officially recorded as a burst blood vessel in the right lung."

By way of contrast, the build-up to Christmas also marks the birth of Christy O'Connor, who happens to be 87 this Wednesday the 21st, a birthday which he shares, incidentally, with the 1960 Open champion, Kel Nagle, who first saw the light in Sydney, in 1920.  And Thursday the 22nd is the anniversary of Harry Bradshaw, who partnered O’Connor to a famous victory in the 1958 Canada Cup in Mexico City, where Ireland became the first of the home countries to capture the trophy.

In November 1990, The Brad's long-time golfing partner, Fred Daly, died.  And one recalls Harry's proud-telling of an occasion in South Africa when - "we took on the best ball of four amateurs who played off scratch, one, two and three handicap, and beat them twice. Fred had nerves of steel when the crunch came and I could always manage to sink the odd putt.  And all to that," as Harry liked to end his stories.  Almost exactly a month later, The Brad, too, passed on to those divot-free fairways in the sky.

Friday the 23rd, is remembered for the time in 1927 when 15-year-olds, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, met in a play-off for the Glen Garden CC Caddie Championship in Fort Worth, Texas.  Later, in his autobiography "How I Played the Game", Nelson recalled: "The first time I was really aware of Ben was Christmas (1926), when the members put on a little boxing match for entertainment.  Ben liked to box, and so did another caddie called Joe Boy.  They boxed for 15 minutes, I guess... I was just watching, because I never did like to box or fight."  
 
Finally, this is a time for stories around a glowing fire, and who better to tell a golfing tale than the great Henry Longhurst. A favourite of his concerned a Christmas fourball in which his opponents were the vicar of Northampton and "a gentleman whose complexion indicated either good living or shortness of temper, or both."

It seems that the vicar and his partner were in contention until the 17th where, in attempting a short pitch over a greenside bunker, he with the complexion lifted his head and duffed the ball feebly into the sand.  As Longhurst recalled: "The man raised his niblick to heaven. 'B.......!', he cried, and 'B.......!' and 'B.......!'  Then, pulling himself up with a jerk, he began to make embarrassed apologies.  The vicar's reply remains in my mind as though it were yesterday. 'Brother,' he said, slowly and gently. 'The provocation was ample.'"

Happy Christmas.

- Dermot Gilleece

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