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St Patrick's Day & Golf

The strong link between Bobby Jones and The Emerald Isle

Posted Mar 15, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

bobby jones

In this week of national celebration for the Irish, we remember Bobby Jones and his rather special connection with the Emerald Isle.  The link was chronicled in a letter which the game's greatest amateur sent to the organisers of the Canada Cup at Portmarnock, 50 years ago.

Signed "Most sincerely, Robert T Jones Jr", it read: "It is most gratifying to see the continually increasing interest and prestige attaching to the International Golf Championship and Canada Cup matches. Because of the winning of this event two years ago by Harry Bradshaw and Christy O'Connor, the holding of it this year in Ireland is most appropriate.  It was for a long time, years ago, my ambition to play the Portmarnock links and I envy those who will have this privilege.  I might add that since I was born on St Patrick's Day, it is mandatory that I should pull for a victory for Ireland.  With best wishes to all..."   

Jones was born in Atlanta on March 17th, 1902, which means we celebrate his anniversary on Wednesday of this week.  And by way of highlighting that particular spring as being particularly productive from a golfing standpoint, Gene Sarazen was born on February 27th in Harrison, New York, making him 18 days older than his prospective great friend and rival.

As he acknowledged in that note from 1960, Jones never played Portmarnock, nor any other Irish golf course. But his affection for the country and its people was reflected in the close relationship he established with Joe Carr, Ireland's most celebrated amateur golfer.

In October 1958, as the reigning British Amateur champion, Carr was introduced to his idol on the occasion of the inaugural staging of the World Amateur Team Championship for the Eisenhower Trophy at St Andrews. Despite the merciless progression of syringomyella through his crippled body, Jones had accepted an invitation to captain the US team.    

It gave him the opportunity of visiting his beloved, golfing home for the last time.  It was also an occasion when he would become the first American since Benjamin Franklin in 1759 to be made a freeman of the Royal Burgh, the highest honour the Auld Grey Toon could bestow on him. During a ceremony rich with emotion, he famously said: "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life."

Carr was among those fortunate enough to be present in the Younger Graduation Hall, which was packed with more than 1,500 people. Observers later remarked on the wonderful dignity and warmth of Jones's acceptance speech. And how at the end, he left the presentation dais with the Provost and drove down the centre aisle in an electric golf cart, draped with the flag of the State of Georgia.

"Suddenly, people around me started singing 'Will ye no' come back again?' and I found myself joining them in full voice," recalled Carr, who had won prizes for singing during his schooldays.  "It was an unforgettable moment."

As tears flowed freely on that October day, little did Joe imagine that he would have a special appointment with Jones only three years later.  That was when he won the Bob Jones Award which was initiated by the USGA in 1955 for "distinguished sportsmanship in golf". Effectively, Carr became the first "overseas" recipient of a distinction which the Dubliner later described as "probably the most prestigious award America can bestow on a golfer,"

For the presentation, Joe and his wife, Dor, travelled to New York where the ceremony was performed at the Biltmore Hotel, as part of the annual general meeting of the USGA. "It was a very moving ceremony," he told me. "Dor and I had a lovely time and when I came back home, the whole business received great publicity. I accepted it as a gift to Ireland as much as a personal honour, the same as I was to feel about the captaincy of the R&A, 30 years later."

Unfortunately, Jones himself was not there to present it, but he sent a telegram expressing regret at his absence and delight that the award, bearing his name, should have gone to such a fine sportsman.

The pair would meet again, however, at Augusta National in 1967, when Carr accepted an invitation from Jones to become the first Irishman to compete in the US Masters.  And so, a precious link which was thrust upon him by an accident of birth on St Patrick's Day 1902, gained fresh relevance for Georgia's greatest golfing son.

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