It is so much fun being given a masterclass by an expert who is also an enthusiast, someone with a real passion for what they do. So to walk round the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush with Martin Ebert, of Mackenzie and Ebert, the architects charged with preparing the course for the return of the Open Championship in 2019, was a joy.
Maureen, looking at the holes with a professional player’s eye as she wielded the iPad and I, scribbling half legibly (the terrain was uneven) and taking the odd photo of a foot or headless body (ditto), tramped round being educated and charmed in equal measure.
“What a town Portrush is,” Martin said with an enthusiasm that surprised at least one half of a pair brought up in nearby Portstewart, which once had delusions of a staid superiority. “It’s so lively and everyone’s so friendly.”
On the course, he enthused about what was already there, a testament to the land – “There’s no better dune-scape at the Open venues” – the genius of Harry Colt and the people working with him in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Some people think classic courses should stay as they are, conveniently forgetting that a golf course is always a work in progress. Grass grows, so do weeds and trees (though maybe not so many on the wild north Atlantic coast), cliffs erode and fall into the sea, the tramping of millions of cleats causes wear and tear, buckthorn spreads like wildfire and greens like the 3rd, the worst on the course, with clay underneath, get dug up and rebuilt.
Ebert is an enhancer not a butcher. He and his team study the old plans and photographs, read the histories, send up the drones to do detailed surveys (a civilised use of a much maligned and misused bit of modern technology), then wrestle with the contours and scribble “spaghetti bits” all over the plans as they liaise with club members including the hugely useful and influential Darren Clarke. The Ryder Cup captain, Open champion at Royal St George’s in 2011, has an intimate understanding of the course, its winds and wiles and his knowledge has been invaluable.
No great golf course is made on the computer or on paper or even in the head of the designer. It evolves on the ground and the key person here is the shaper, the genius with the digger who makes the biggest changes look as though they’ve always been there, that the whole thing is entirely natural. Ebert works with Marcus Terry, of 1st Golf, an Englishman who now lives in Ireland. “I hand the plan with all the spaghetti lines to Marcus, he ignores it and does a marvellous job!”
The three keys to being a great shaper are:-
1 Being brilliantly adept at handling the machinery.
2 Having the feel and eye of an artist.
3 Having a golfing knowledge.
One promising candidate possessed the first two qualities but did know golf and his holes were unplayable!
Once an expert like Marcus has finished it’ll be well-nigh impossible to tell what is natural and what’s a new creation. If you hurry, you’ll be able to see him at work at Portrush and marvel at the skill required to turn a squiggle on a piece of paper into a living, breathing course that people can’t wait to play again and again.
Mackenzie and Ebert are the R&A’s Open enhancers of choice and today (Friday 24th June) is a big day because it’s the official opening of the revitalised Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry. By all accounts it’s spectacular – Michael McEwan, an astute critic, was more than complimentary in Bunkered magazine – and may even overshadow US presidential hopeful Donald, the present owner of the resort, who will be in attendance. Whether he’ll see another Open at Turnberry is a moot point but he seems to have got himself a course that fits the bill.
Martin Ebert, who likes to say that Trump once described him as “the most stubborn man in the world” (a scary thought if Donald has relegated himself to No 2), presents a more benign side in our question and answer video, for which we thank him.
The Curtis Cup at Dun Laoghaire last weekend had pretty well everything: stunning golf, record crowds (though not sure how accurate the count was), torrential rain (no provision for an extra day?), a player penalised for slow play (shock, horror, well done ref) and best of all a home win. It may be all about playing the game and making lifelong friends (there were a lot of those milling about) but there’s no doubt that winning is much more fun than losing.
GB and I (or B and I as the Irish Times preferred) defeated the much-touted USA side by 11 1/2 points to 8 1/2, to regain the trophy last won at Nairn in 2012. Bronte Law, of Bramhall, became the second player to win all five of her matches, emulating America’s Stacy Lewis who had a 100 per cent record at St Andrews in 2008, when the format was changed to include fourballs and extended to three days from two.
That change meant that all eight players play in the singles on the final day, so Rochelle Morris, of Woodsome Hall, did at least get a game. The GB and I captain Elaine Farquharson Black sat Morris out on the first two days, a tough call but by no means unprecedented. Claire Dowling, nee Hourihane, who was at Dun Laoghaire, was in the team at Royal St George’s in 1988 but did not play and the same thing happened to Kitty McCann at Muirfield in 1952. Both teams won.
The other tough call of the contest was the decision to take a bit of a stand against slow play – no matter how good the golf fourballs taking more than five hours is the opposite of compelling. It brings to mind the cry of Pat Ward Thomas, a revered golf correspondent of The Guardian, a breed not renowned for their patience, while watching a notoriously slow player contemplate a putt for an eternity: “Doesn’t he realise my life is ebbing away?”
The appropriately named Bailey Tardy was deemed guilty of two bad times on the Saturday afternoon and had to withdraw from the hole, which the Americans lost. What displeased the US captain Robin Burke more was that she felt that there were other culprits too. “I don’t think it was consistent,” she said. What was consistent that day was GB and I’s excellence. They won five of the six matches, losing only the opening foursomes and were a cumulative 20 under par for the three fourballs. Between them, Law, Olivia Mehaffey (Royal County Down Ladies’), Leona Maguire (Slieve Russell), Charlotte Thomas (West Surrey), Meghan McLaren (Wellingborough) and Maria Dunne (Skerries) pitched in and holed putts from everywhere to run their opponents ragged in a flurry of fist pumps, celebratory jumps, hugs, handshakes and beams from ear to ear. Teammates Morris and Alice Hewson (Berkhamsted) cheered them on.
“I’ve never seen better golf at a Curtis Cup,” said Belle Robertson.
The visitors, four of whom were only 17 years old, rallied in the singles but a deficit of four points with only eight left to play for proved too much.
Keep an eye out for the future exploits of Hannah O’Sullivan, Tardy, Sierra Brooks, Monica Vaughn, Andrea Lee, Mika Liu, Bethany Wu and Mariel Galdiano. They’ll doubtless be champing at the bit because they’ll have noticed the duo of teenage professionals at the top of the leaderboard at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee CC, near Seattle. Brooke Henderson, an 18-year old Canadian, beat Lydia Ko, the 19-year old world No 1 from New Zealand, at the first extra hole after they had tied on 278, six under par. Henderson, who was winning her first major title, finished with a 65, six under par and holed from three feet for a winning birdie in the play-off. Ariya Jutanugarn, the Thai in third place, is a veteran of 20.
To make me feel even older, I’ve been reading the R&A’s new Pace of Play Manual – and enjoying it. Time for a lie down!
The MBE in the headline is a bit of a cheat in the name of what passes for symmetry in this parish and refers to Mary McKenna, a bona fide golfing legend from the Donabate club, just outside Dublin. She played in nine consecutive Curtis Cups, from 1970 on, is a past president of the ILGU and is a proud Irishwoman who was happy to accept her honorary MBE from the British ambassador in Dublin in 2012 in recognition of her services to golf throughout Britain and Ireland.
McKenna is at this year’s Curtis Cup in Dun Laoghaire doing what she does best, looking after her many friends not just from Ireland but from across the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, leaving centre stage to the latest protagonists, most of whom are playing in the match for the first – and only – time. If they’re lucky, they’ll already be starting to realise just what a special group they’ve joined even if they’ve set their sights on turning professional and making their fortune.
They’ll meet people like Jeanne Bisgood, Bridget Jackson, Belle Robertson and Angela Bonallack, who’ll bring players like Philomena Garvey, Bunty Smith, Maureen Garrett, Elizabeth Price and Jessie Valentine back to life. They might want to learn more about Polly Riley, Tish Preuss and Anne Sander Quast Decker Welts, in no particular order – at the last count she’d had twice as many Curtis Cup appearances as husbands. And if you ask, you’ll find someone who can tell you first hand exactly how good a player Barbara McIntire was. In fact, if you ask Mrs Robertson, she’ll tell you all about playing with and learning from Tom Morris – or maybe it was Tom Watson……Certainly, she quizzed Seve on his practice routine and has picked up tips from all the greats. For a golf nut, Dun Laoghaire is the only place to be this weekend.
Sadly, Carol Semple Thompson (CST), McKenna’s American soul sister, whose total of twelve Curtis Cup appearances as a player will surely never be equalled, is not here because her husband Dick is in poor health. We wish them both well and really miss Dick’s signature stars and stripes stovepipe hat, a look he carried off with aplomb and no little panache.
McKenna and Semple Thompson, competitors to their core, were quintessential team members and lifelong amateurs but they share a bond with two women who chose a different path: Laura Davies and Michelle Wie. Davies, a blonde bombshell from Surrey, who confounded the headmaster who told her she’d never make any money out of golf and became a Dame, played in the Curtis Cup at Muirfield in 1984 and Wie, a 14-year old wunderkind from Hawaii, played at Formby in 2004. They were exceptional talents who stood out from the crowd even then and have continued to do so.
This week, Davies and Wie are at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Seattle, playing in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, hoping to add to their tally of major championships.
Davies is now in her 50s and Wie, a wealthy woman the moment she turned professional as a teenager, has had enough injuries to make the strongest heart quail but they are both driven by a passion for the game and the competition. And that, more than anything, is what links them with Dun Laoghaire this week.
These days women’s amateur golf tends to be a specialist subject, relegated to a nano niche barely visible to the naked eye and who knows quite how the R&A, who have been financial saviours of the Curtis Cup for some years, will cope with their impending merger with the LGU. An alarming number of ladies have morphed into women but perhaps that’s a subject for another day!
In the meantime, it’s game on. Good luck to all. Play away please.