This is the sport that keeps on giving………….and giving. A couple of days ago Patricia and I rolled in to Portrush for a day’s golf with great pals, Kath Stewart-Moore and Lilian Starrett. We were trying to work out when we had all first joined this great club and reckoned it was the late 1960s or at the very latest the early 1970s. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since those days and even the odd decade has passed with very little contact, but as we all ease into our retirements we have found it so easy to pick up where we left off.
In the old days we were no slouches. Lilian was a wonderfully talented “feel” player who got down to scratch by the age of 20 and represented Ireland on several occasions. She continued her upward trend by captaining her country on three occasions, the most memorable trip being to Moscow which afforded a peep into the privileged existence enjoyed by the high-ups in the Politburo.
At her best Kath got down to four and played for Ulster. Like Lil she also captained Ireland in the shape of two girls’ International sides and she is arguably creeping up on her proudest moment in the game. In January she will become the Lady President of Royal Portrush Golf Club, a just recognition of her immense contribution to the sport and the club. Mind you, I was more than a little annoyed to hear she had demoted her victory over me in the 9-hole heats of the Collin Cup in 1982 to second place in her list of proud achievements.
Patricia’s lowest handicap was also four and her debut into girls’ International golf was seamless with a 100% win record at North Berwick way back in 1971. However, when questioned as to her most memorable moment in the game she still resolutely cites witnessing Alison Nicholas’ victory in the 1997 US Open at Pumpkin Ridge. Alison defeated the US favourite Nancy Lopez in a nail-biting finish and despite covering many of Tiger’s and Jack’s glorious victories for the Times nothing resonated with my sister quite like this. Her own 3rd place finish in the Heath Scratch Cup, although cherished, didn’t quite cut the mustard.
So, it was in the company of these three titans of the game, with 164 years of golfing experience between them, that I teed off on Wednesday. Fresh in my mind was the last time I was on that hole – namely on Sunday 21st July in the pouring rain, waiting for Shane Lowry to take history by the scruff of the neck and win the Open. We were aghast at his untidy bogey 5 up that first hole but looked upon it more favourably when our best player managed a resounding seven! I know it was an impossible pin, only ten yards on and front left, but, still – to win the hole with a seven!!!!
The course, obviously, has now been denuded of Open Championship furniture – the grandstands, the signage, the ropes, the camera towers and so on, have all gone. But, to me, it was so much more like the Portrush I’ve known and loved for so long. It was a perfect day, weatherwise, if a tad chilly at 4 degrees and, I have to say, the golf (apart from Kath’s) left a great deal to be desired. However, as always, this has to be the best club in the world for the welcome afforded to golfers at the initial point of contact with the customers. Gary McNeil, the professional, who so proudly played 36 holes as the marker in the Open at the weekend, runs a tight ship with his staff who are simply superb in the service industry. It is a pleasure to enter the sanctuary of the pro’s shop. Time stands still and conversations have time to be enjoyed.
It’s not simply time on the course that counts, obviously, but the time spent together – the “do you remember whens?”; the piecing together of the collective memories of the same events, some of them widely differing; the occasions one of us remembers something with total clarity as the other three look on blankly. It’s all grist to the mill for folk with a united love of golf.
Even when I was younger I was always acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be involved in a sport that tends to be played in beautiful surroundings. Thank God I wasn’t a swimmer whose playground would have been likely to be a 50 metre chlorinated, indoor pool! (Do they still put chlorine in pools? Probably not!) Not many beautiful, uplifting vistas there, however, to take your mind off poor performance.
As I weaved my way round the links the other day I was able to recall so many of the deft skills Shane Lowry displayed on his way to his greatest golfing achievement. It was quite something coming down the last in the gloaming to hark back to the tumultous scenes we had all witnessed there in July. Then, I was totally caught up in the moment, lustily joining in with the thousands of voices serenading the winner with the Fields of Athenry, followed by Ole,Ole, Ole!
This time there was no singing, rather a weary relief that we could now make our way to the sanctuary of the bar, chew the fat, put the world to rights and gird our loins for our next day’s play. More beautiful, and changing vistas, to enjoy; more time with lifelong friends; a bit of fresh air and exercise and the never-ending challenge of getting the ball into the hole as fast as possible.
How lucky we are.