My week usually starts off with wondering what my blog topic will be for the rapidly advancing Friday. This week took a little less head scratching than normal when I realised that this is the week the European Ladies’ Team Championships are being played.
Royal County Down is the stunning venue, making this the second occasion that Ireland has played host to the best women amateurs in Europe. Nineteen teams have been testing themselves and their games over one of the finest links in the world and although Sweden may be favourites, going as they are for an unprecedented four wins in a row, there are many talented sides who are eager to seize their crown. It’ll be a week of great golf, of that I’m sure.
When I had reason to brave the wobbly pull-down steps to the attic to search for something completely unrelated to the blog it seemed serendipitous when I accidently unearthed the clippings and photographs from a certain magical week back in the day. This tournament was the most fun I had in the game as an amateur, bar none. Six players make up the team and everyone plays strokeplay over the opening two days, five scores counting towards the team total each time. The top eight teams qualify for the championship flight and the knock-out matchplay section of the week. Two foursomes and five singles matches are then the order of the day with only the winners progressing to the next round and, if all goes well, you will have had five gruelling days of top level competition with the prospect of being named European champions at the end.
That was the happy outcome for the Irish team in 1979 when playing on home turf at the delightful Hermitage Golf Club. Thousands of avid golf fans swarmed the fairways as they cheered the home side to their first victory in this arena. It was a week I’ll never forget. Those were the days of column inches (and lots of them) in the newspapers as you can see below in a pot-pourri of headlines heralding our victory.
Victory is special at any time – and you take those wins when you can – but a home turf win is indescribable. I think it’s a combination of overcoming the extra pressures on you (perceived or otherwise), but the crowning glory has to be the joyous sharing of the victory and celebrating with friends, family and enthusiastic golf fans. And we have a lot of those in Ireland – just ask Shane Lowry.
Those were new international blazers we acquired for that tournament and I recall that when meeting in Dublin airport to travel to subsequent away venues we were frequently stopped and asked where the Aer Lingus check-in was for such and such a flight. I don’t think for one moment we were ever quite as immaculate as real flight attendants – and we certainly were not quite as accurate with our directions as we should have been!
In 1981 we went to defend our title in Troia in Portugal – in those days the championships were played every other year – and a shift in the amateur golfing landscape as we knew it was apparent for the first time. Sweden were there with seemingly multiple uniforms, sponsored team bags and, whisper it softly, individual funding for their players. They each even had a daily allowance. It was the first taste of professionalism that I can recall creeping into the game and from that point on Sweden has done so much to lead the way for the rest of Europe in preparation, approach and funding.
And now a seismic shift of epic proportions is about to take place as regards the rules of amateur status worldwide. Last week the US Supreme Court ruled that collegiate athletes could be paid for the use of their name, image or likeness. In other words, they can be sponsored by any commercial enterprise, represent multiple companies and receive payment for endorsements. The only difference from the professional athletes is the college player cannot have a contract that pays out dependent on his or her performance – so no increased earnings for a top-ten finish or a win. It does mean, however, that the best players will be allowed to make considerable sums before they turn professional.
Sports Illustrated have intimated that a young Louisiana State University gymnast, Olivia Dunne, who has 4 million TikTok followers and a million on Instagram, will be the first to become a millionaire this way. It certainly lends new meaning to the phrase “working your way through college”.
What will be of interest is to understand the route the R&A will choose to plot their way through this latest challenge, committed as they are to maintaining both amateur and professional codes, as opposed to being “open” like tennis. Interesting times ahead for our sport.
In closing, I must indulge myself by congratulating Carol Wickham on her stunning victory in last week’s Irish Senior Women’s Amateur Championship. Carol was a teammate of mine in a winning Irish team in the European Team Championships in 1983 in another lifetime. I can guarantee that there won’t be a more popular winner of a national title and while she may not be tucking away a million in endorsements, I bet the title – and the party – was worth just as much to Carol.