Precisely two weeks ago Harvey, a category 4 hurricane and the most powerful storm to hit Texas since 1961, smashed into the lone star state bringing with it winds of up to 130 miles per hour. Catastrophic damage and the ensuing widespread flooding has meant thousands of people have lost everything and are now homeless. We’ve seen it all before, haven’t we? And, if we’re lucky, we’ve only seen it via the medium of a screen, be it a TV, laptop, ipad or phone. But, for me, this one is different. Very different.
Let’s rewind to the end of 1976. I was well into my second year at St Andrews University studying French and English. Where else would an avid golfer choose to study, after all? Life was good – I was playing on the university golf team, loving student life and pursuing my ambition of gaining a full International cap for Ireland.
One phone call was all it took to change everything. That call was made by Pat Park and she was offering me and a Welsh pal, Lisa Isherwood, full golf scholarships to switch our studies from our respective unis (Lisa was at Lampeter) and head off to Lamar University in Beaumont in Texas. Nowadays, golf scholarships to the States are common but back then only a few guys, namely Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle, had tried it and returned home not finding it to their liking. Pat was the first US college golf coach to recruit any females from the UK – and we were it! She had already plundered the talent in Canada and was hoping for similar success in Britain.
Beaumont lies around 85 miles east of Houston and is not the prettiest place I’ve ever lived in, being a big petro-chemical industry town. It was quite a shock for a green, naive 18-year old brought up on the north coast of Ireland and studying in Scotland who was used to seeing nothing but sea, sand and rolling golf courses. There are times in your life, though, when an opportunity presents itself and sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and go for it. I suffered six long months of excruciating homesickness – remember, no emails in those days, no skype, essentially no verbal or visual contact with your family. We communicated by letter. Receiving a phone call was a scary thing – it meant somebody had died.
It was the best thing I ever did. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some very influential mentors in my career and in my life and Pat Park was, and is, one of the finest. A really good player in her own right, she was an excellent communicator and inspirational in all she did for the team at Lamar. She steered us to consecutive National finals, the first in Hawaii, the second in Florida, unheard of for a uni like Lamar. Our relationship has survived the thousands of miles that normally separate us and I’m proud to call her my friend.
My stint in Beaumont changed the course of my golfing life. I returned to the UK and won a couple of British titles in a 14-month spell and achieved that longed-for Irish cap as well as British and Irish representation. The pro ranks beckoned and were followed by over a decade of coaching International sides. My time in Texas paved the way for me to make and enjoy a wonderful living from the game of golf.
After Harvey hit and I realised that Beaumont and surrounds were as badly affected as their better-known neighbour, Houston, I emailed Pat to see if she and her family were OK. After a couple of anxious days I received this:-
“We are quite safe. We have had our fill of rain the last 5 days but nothing we couldn’t handle. Beaumont and Port Arthur, like Houston, are devastated. PA got over 25 inches in one day, Beaumont almost 18. There was a time last night that it was raining 6.6 inches per hour in Port Arthur. Simply astonishing. Many, many residents have had to evacuate and will be spending time with friends and in shelters until they can get their homes cleaned up or rebuilt. We are probably talking about a few years to get things back to normal.”
I’ve had a look on the news footage at this area that I once knew so well. The clean-up job will be massive – as will the bill.
Last week the LPGA Tour was playing in Portland, Oregon and former world No 1 Stacy Lewis announced she’d donate all of her winnings to the Harvey Relief Fund. Stacy lives in The Woodlands, (one of the venues where we used to play college golf) in the northern suburbs of Houston. It had been over three years since Stacy won a golf tournament, an intolerably long time for one of the world’s best. In the interim she’s had a dozen runner-up spots but a final round of 69 saw her fend off her opposition. Naturally delighted to win again, she described the relief effort as “more important than anything. We’re going to be able to help (people) rebuild houses and get their homes back,” she said. In her live winner’s interview she was informed that her sponsor KPMG were matching her donation of $195,000 dollars – and that’s when she became teary-eyed.
I’ve spent a lot of time being teary-eyed thinking of Texas this past couple of weeks. The people are warm, down-to-earth and great to be around. I know many, many PGA Tour pros make their homes in the Houston area and are helping with significant donations. They’ll be needed – there’s a long, hard road ahead.
Go Stacy, Go Texas.