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McKenna can be Solheim Cup Inspiration

An enlightened choice to rally the troops and Irish fans, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Aug 30, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

solheim cup 2

In the absence of an Irish player even on the periphery of Solheim Cup selection, European skipper Alison Nicholas did a clever piece of political manoeuvring by naming Mary McKenna among her backroom team.  Keenly aware of McKenna as the outstanding Irish woman golfer of recent decades, Nicholas is hoping her inclusion will boost local interest in the event at Killeen Castle, outside Dublin, on September 23rd to 25th.

This staging is very different from the previous two on this side of the Atlantic.  Both were held in Sweden in the belief that locals would flock in their thousands to support a European Solheim Cup line-up in which Swedes dominated.  And the strategy worked, most recently at Halmstad four years ago when attendances reached 30,000 per day, despite horrific weather.

Now the hope is that the Irish will behave like dedicated Europeans, even with nobody of their own kin to help raise pulse-rates.  In this process, the very presence of McKenna takes on considerable importance, if only because of what she represents to Irish devotees.

As Nicholas pointed out this week, she has long been a legendary figure in the amateur game in these islands, first as a player and more recently as a Curtis Cup captain.  The high point of McKenna’s representative career was, unquestionably, her final Curtis Cup appearance at Prairie Dunes, Kansas, in 1986.  That was when Britain and Ireland, almost incredibly, not only won for the first time on US terrain but managed to thrash their hosts by a whopping 13–5.

To fully grasp the magnitude of the team’s achievement, it is necessary to look at the results of previous matches in the US since the current format was adopted at Royal Porthcawl in 1964. In five transatlantic trips from 1966 to 1982 inclusive, British and Irish teams not only lost every time, they never got closer than within five points of their rampant hosts. The nadir was reached in the matches immediately prior to Prairie Dunes, when they were humiliated by an 11-point margin in Denver in 1982.

In the event, the triumphant 1986 players flew back to London having written a new chapter in team golf.  But there was to be no time to celebrate just yet. From there, they headed to the British Women’s Strokeplay Championship at Blairgowrie, where Claire Dowling (nee Hourihane) would write a stunning postscript to Prairie Dunes. Having flown to Edinburgh, she and McKenna hired a car and drove the 60 miles together to the famous Rosemount stretch.


The Woodbrook player recalled, “Having driven to Blairgowrie with the Curtis Cup in the car, we had another trophy [British Women’s Strokeplay, which she won] with us on the return journey. And knowing our baggage would be way overweight when we got back to Edinburgh Airport, we decided to dress up in our Curtis Cup blazers and skirts.

“Then, as luck would have it, we ran out of petrol, so I volunteered to head off down the road for help. Next thing I was at a roundabout and a police car had stopped to see what the problem was. When I explained our predicament, an officer concluded from my uniform that we were golfers. ‘The only women golfers I know are Belle Robertson and Mary McKenna,’ he said. Whereupon I declared, ‘Come with me and I’ll introduce you to one of them.’ So it was that we got our petrol and this Scottish policeman met one of his golfing idols.”

With that, McKenna and Dowling headed home to a wonderful reception at Dublin Airport, with further celebrations to follow at their respective clubs. While Woodbrook hailed a team and individual triumph centred on their golden girl, Dowling, Donabate toasted yet another McKenna success.  And the Curragh GC had follow-up celebrations to the British Championship victory of Lillian Behan the previous year when she, too, arrived home after playing a significant role in the triumph of Prairie Dunes.

Now, Europe’s professionals are going to need those sort of positive thoughts against the might of the US.  Which is why this week’s display of enlightenment from the home skipper is so welcome.

- Dermot Gilleece

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