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Legends of Golf in Savannah

There's a lot of history in this match up, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Apr 23, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

legends of golf

An annual gathering of legends on the banks of the Savannah River last weekend included two players from these parts who would have seemed an improbable partnership a few decades ago.  As it happened, Des Smyth and Mark James successfully defended their title in the Raphael Division of the Liberty Mutual Legends to pick up a useful little reward of $60,000 each.  This particular division, incidentally, is for seniors aged 50 to 69 years.

The partnership of Smyth and James becomes especially interesting when one considers events at the Ryder Cup at The Greenbrier, West Virginia in 1979, when a European team was in action for the first time. We’re told that the inaugural skipper, John Jacobs, smelled trouble from the time the team assembled at Heathrow Airport for their departure to the US.  

With the players expected to arrive neatly attired in the team uniform, James looked “terrible”, in the words of his captain. In fact he presented himself in such a dishevelled state that Jacobs would have had good grounds for leaving without him. There were suggestions that the captain experienced several instances when he deeply regretted his decision not to do so, such was the general attitude of James and his pal, Ken Brown.

In a subsequent biography of Jacobs, Laddie Lucas described the behaviour of Brown towards Smyth as “to say the least, uncivil. The two lost by 7 and 6 and the captain was obliged to offer apologies all round for the Englishman’s conduct.  It was a humiliating affair.”  After the pair had lost their opening fourball, James withdrew from the remainder of the competition because of a genuine chest injury, to be replaced by Smyth, the reigning European Matchplay champion.    

The antics of James and Brown, who had earlier behaved like bored fidgets at the flag-raising ceremony, proved to be only a passing phase.  Still, it had a crushing effect on Smyth on his Ryder Cup debut. Happily, all has since been forgiven, though it seemed decidedly odd to observers that where James was later “rewarded” with captaincy of the Ryder Cup team at Brookline in 1999, Smyth was overlooked as a leading candidate for the job when the event came to Ireland for the first time in 2006 at The K Club.

But it seems that in golf as in most areas of life, time heals wounds.  So it was that Smyth and James came together to splendid effect 12 months ago at the Westin Resort in the formidable shadow of Savannah's Talmadge suspension bridge.  And they repeated their victory last Saturday when James sank a 45-foot winning birdie-putt from off the back of the 18th green.  With an aggregate of 19-under-par for the 36 holes, they finished a stroke clear of the partnerships of Mark McCumber and Wayne Grady and of Steve Jones and Denis Watson in a tie for second place.

The Legends, which was launched back in 1978 when Sam Snead and Gardner Dickinson captured the main title, has been graced over the years by several leading lights from these islands, including Christy O'Connor Snr between 1979 and 1986.  Indeed O’Connor’s last appearance was as a partner to Doug Sanders, the so-called Peacock of the Fairways, who famously remarked to a woman accidentally blocking his backswing: "I hate to bother you madam, but would you please move.  I have a lot of alimony to pay." On another occasion he memorably observed: "I'm working as hard as I can to get my life and my cash to run out at the same time.  If I can just die lunch Tuesday, everything will be fine."

For Smyth, the 2005 Legends marked the high-point of his career in senior ranks. With temperatures in the low 50s and winds gusting up to 30mph, the Irishman revelled in the familiar conditions and fired successive birdies midway through the back nine of his final round to pull away from the field.  In the event, a closing 71 gave him a two-stroke win over Tom Jenkins and a top prize of $382,000, the biggest of his career.

That was on April 24th, only six weeks after he had achieved a breakthrough victory in the US by capturing the SBC Classic in Santa Clarita, California on March 13th.

Meanwhile on this side of the pond, he had his fourth European Seniors victory in Holland last June.

- Dermot Gilleece

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