Last weekend I was anxious to see if Ireland’s Leona Maguire, world amateur No 1, had managed to win the Ladies’ British Amateur Championship which was being played at Pyle & Kenfig Golf Club in Wales. So I turned to the ever reliable irishgolfdesk.com and Brian Keogh to find out, (the R&A website had frustrated me all week), and there it was – a victory by 3 and 2 in the final against Spain’s Ainhoa Olarra.
Just what I wanted to read, but one other fact mentioned in Keogh’s opening sentence stopped me in my tracks. Leona had become the eighth Irishwoman to win the title. Eighth? Was that all – in 114 playings of the championship? Indeed it was. The first two winners were Portrush based – May Hezlet triumphing in 1899, 1902 and 1907 and Rhona Adair in 1900 and 1903. The fifties brought two Irish victories – Tullamore’s Kitty McCann in 1951 and her great rival, Philomena Garvey, who swept all before her in 1957. Both were incredible golfers but Phil’s legacy goes well beyond her prowess on the course for it was in 1958 that she withdrew from the Curtis Cup side because the Union Jack was the only flag on the team blazer. Nary sight nor sign of an Irish tricolour, so Phil downed clubs and told them to get it sorted. And they did! To this day the Union Jack and Irish flags figure jointly on the Great Britain and Ireland international blazers. It was quite a stand to make at the time and a proud moment for Irish golf.
That brings us to Yours Truly, the next Irish winner in 1979. So many things remain etched in my memory from that unforgettable week. The absolute downpour that drenched the course in the second qualifying round; being 3 down after 8 holes in my opening match; getting the better of the English champion in my second match; beating my great pal and legendary player Mary McKenna on the final green in the semis and then bursting into tears because I was sorry she’d lost; and then hearing my final opponent ungraciously saying that any decent championship should have a 36-hole final – this after I’d beaten her on the 17th of our 18-hole final! Sore loser, or what?
My caddy was a great fan of Arnold Palmer, so was known to his friends as Arnie and he helped us load the huge trophy in its own special box into the car for the journey back to Portstewart. Nowadays the winners do not get to keep the trophy for the year but we had the pleasure of having it, firstly, at home and then in the golf club where it was lovingly polished and kept looking pristine by Bridget.
On that memorable journey home from Nairn Mum and I, along with Molly, a great family friend, drove down to Troon to stay overnight before catching the ferry to Larne from Stranraer the next day. We lugged the huge box up the stairs to my room and put it at the bottom of the bed. After a hearty dinner we all fell into bed exhausted but I woke early and lay there for a while looking at the unfamiliar surroundings. “Gosh, I dreamt I’d won the British,” I thought to myself. I sat up, leaning on one elbow, and saw the big box at the end of the bed. I stared at it for a few moments and then bounded out of bed to touch the box. It was amazing – it WASN’T a dream. I couldn’t believe it! From there it was back to Portstewart Golf Club for a huge impromptu party and shortly afterwards another big shindig at my other club, Portrush. One thing about the Irish – they know how to celebrate and have a party and their generosity of spirit is legendary. It’s only now, looking back across the decades, that I can begin to appreciate the pleasure my win gave to so many people – and that’s humbling.
Seven years on and in 1986 the incomparable ball striker that was the Royal Curragh’s Lillian Behan lifted the cup at Ganton. It then took until 2012 before Stephanie Meadow conquered all at Carnoustie and she is now making her way on the professional tours in the States. I expect great things of her. And now it’s Leona Maguire, all conquering US collegiate player, hooverer-up of endless titles, and at last the big one. For these last two players I don’t expect this title to be their greatest accomplishment in the game, but I trust they will come to have a little bit of the sense of the history of the group they have joined.
I’ve just realised with a jolt that I am the oldest living Irish winner of this title! Help! That photo of me with Kitty and Phil is one of my greatest treasures. I am proud to have a connection with them. Time, I think, to sort out a pic with Lillian, Stephanie and Leona. I’d be proud to be in that photo too.