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Michael Moran - Ireland's first potential world champ

On the centenary of the open championship at hoylake, Dermot Gilleece looks back at one of Ireland's golfing might have beens

Posted Dec 10, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


Though there is a natural tendency to look back at this time of year, I am indulging myself with a monumental leap to the early part of the last century, simply to acknowledge one of the most important events in the history of golf in Ireland. This happens to be the centennial of the Open Championship at Hoylake, where Michael Moran became the first Irishman to earn prize money in pursuit of golf’s greatest honour.

Sadly, we also remember his inclusion among the estimated 30,000 Irishmen, who perished in the First World War.  On December 14th, more than four weeks after the guns on the Western Front had fallen silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, family and friends back in Dublin were notified eventually of the death of Moran as a private in the Royal Irish Regiment.

The delay was typical of the times.  In fact he had been mortally wounded in Germany’s desperate, spring offensive earlier that year, and died on April 10th at the War Memorial Hospital, Le Cateau. It was a long, long way from a modest abode in the heart of the Royal Dublin links at Dollymount, where he had first seen the light between the present third and 13th holes.

History ordained that a superb homeward nine of 33 in the second round of the 1913 Open Championship would make him an improbable hero, claiming third place  at the halfway stage, only three strokes behind the holder, Ted Ray, and two adrift of the incomparable J H Taylor. According to “The Irish Times”, the slightly-built twenty-seven-year-old drove the ball “with great power”. In fact his only slip while recording the lowest nine holes of the championship was to three-putt the short 11th, more commonly known as the Alps. Almost incredibly, Moran was a serious challenger at the summit of the game, when he stood on the first tee for the third round the following morning.

After a fitful night, it took only a few minutes of resumed competition to shatter his dream. In high winds and driving rain, he knocked his second-shot at the opening hole out of bounds and later took four from a pot bunker to run up a disastrous 10 and a front nine of 48.
The dog-leg right configuration of the par-four first, made it a forbidding start to a round.  On the left was the clubhouse and putting green.  On the right, for the full length of the hole, was the sinister “cop”, a bank no more than three feet high which enclosed the practice ground.

On the following morning, the London “Times” seemed excessively harsh in its assessment of how the Irishman handled the crisis. “Moran very quickly fulfilled my prophesy as to his Celtic temperament,” their man reported. “. . . if he had played with discretion [from the bunker], he could still have holed out in seven, but in his impetuosity he went for the green and this sealed his fate. Four times he lashed at the ball before getting it out.”

But the writer [though there was no by-line on the piece, we imagine it must have been the iconic Bernard Darwin] went on to acknowledge: “Moran’s performance in going round in 74 strokes [in the fourth round] after his most ruinous start of the morning was really a splendid one. At present, he seems fated to have one bad round and ‘till he is a little more the master of himself, he probably always will. If he could school himself to take things rather more quietly, he might easily win, for he has grand golf in him.”

A closing 74, which included a birdie two at the 11th, delivered an aggregate of 313 for a share of third place with the legendary Harry Vardon. Meanwhile, Taylor, with closing rounds of 77 and 74 for an aggregate of 304, regained the title which he had won at Sandwich in 1894, at St Andrews in 1895 and at Royal Cinque Ports in 1909. His reward was the famous claret jug, a gold medal and £50. Ray, the runner-up on 312, received £25, while Moran and Vardon each received £12.10s.

A charming postscript to the event came 11 years later from Vardon, who was by then the holder of a record six Open titles.  Writing in the “Aberdeen Journal”, the great man regarded Moran as being “capable of winning anything in any company.”  Then, referring to the wretched opening to Moran’s third round, the great man added: “That perturbed him so much that the round cost him 89 and yet he tied for third place.  His first, second and fourth rounds were 76,74 and 74: these three rounds were better than anybody else accomplished.”

Vardon concluded: “If Moran had been spared, he might well have been Ireland’s first world champion.”  From the leading exponent of the game up to that time, praise didn’t come any higher.

- Dermot Gilleece

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