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St Patrick's Day Blog

Dermot Gilleece on golf and the great celebration of Irishness

Posted Mar 17, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Irish open

              By the time the only Irish staging of the Canada Cup took place at Portmarnock GC in 1960, Bobby Jones had not played golf for 12 years due to syringomyelia, a cruelly debilitating condition of the spinal cord.  All of which invested a message he sent to the organisers with an inescapable poignancy.

              It read: "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.  I envy those who will have this privilege. I might add that since I was born on St Patrick's Day (albeit in Atlanta, Georgia), it is mandatory that I should pull for a victory for Ireland.  With best wishes to all. Most sincerely, (Signed) Robert T Jones Jr."            

              The celebration of St Patrick's Day (Tuesday) in just about every country where Irish people have trod, brings to mind that precious link with the winner of the so-called Impregnable Quadrilateral, more commonly known as the Grand Slam, in 1930.   Naturally, the day itself is a big occasion for Irish sport, but not especially for golf.

               On the weekend leading into St Patrick's day in 2005, there was cause for Irish celebrations on foreign fairways.  Sunday, March 13th marked victories by Padraig Harrington in the Honda Classic and by Des Smyth in the SBC Classic at Valencia CC on the American Champions Tour.  Victorious tournaments for Irish players actually coinciding with St Patrick's Day celebrations, however, have been a rarity over the years. 

               A notable exception occurred in a Portuguese colony in mid-March of 2001.  That was when Smyth enjoyed a rather special St Patrick's Day celebration, 24 hours late.  With a final round of 66 for an 18 under par total of 270 at Santo da Serra, the man from Mornington gained a two-stroke victory over England's John Bickerton in the Madeira Island Open.

               It came 34 days after his 48th birthday, which meant he eclipsed the achievement of the previous oldest winner in the history of the European Tour.  Neil Coles was aged 48 years and 12 days when winning the Sanyo Open in 1982. In their own way, both these men from different countries and golfing generations had proved that if you're good enough, you're young enough. 

                In an Irish context, O'Connor Snr was six months short of his 48th birthday on the occasion of his last European Tour triumph, in the Carrolls International at Woodbrook in 1972.  And Smyth also surpassed him by becoming the first Irish golfer to win European tournaments in four successive decades, having gained a breakthrough in the European Matchplay Championship of 1979, when he beat Nick Price in the final.

                Prior to Madeira, Smyth's last win on the European Tour had been in the final staging of the Madrid Open in 1993.  In Madeira, St Patrick's Day happened to fall on the Saturday of the tournament when a third-round 68 left the Irishman tied in fourth place on 12 under par.   Then, with nerves stretching on the final day, March 18th, Smyth overtook and then swept past his rivals with superb play over the closing stretch. 

                "I'm absolutely ecstatic," he said after collecting a relatively modest top prize of £58,000Stg. "Though I had seven previous victories, apart from playing twice in the Ryder Cup, this is like an elusive dream when you haven't won for so long."

                It was highly appropriate that his final European success should have come to him at such a time, given that Smyth has always made a special point of his Irishness when competing abroad.  He also won many friends among competitive colleagues and the media, for his generosity of spirit and modest demeanour.

                Indeed his achievement was noted as far afield as the US, where another veteran of his craft made a point of highlighting Smyth's enduring athleticism and skill.  "He reminds me a lot of Don Meredith, the legendary quarter-back of the Dallas Cowboys," said golf writer, Furman Bisher, of the Atlanta Journal.  And Bisher later assured me that in terms of sporting longevity, praise didn't come any higher.

                For the record, even with the great Bobby Jones pulling for them, Ireland's duo of O'Connor and Norman Drew finished fourth in the 1960 Canada Cup behind an American side which comprised the indestructible Sam Snead and a promising newcomer by the name of Arnold Palmer.


- Dermot Gilleece

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