I pitched up at Woburn on Wednesday evening for the 1st edition of the AIG Women’s British Open (and the 43rd staging of what is becoming a venerable, veritable, viable championship) and wondered if an old doll like me, now more or less out of the circus-like loop that is professional golf, would still know anybody at all. And would you believe it! The first person I saw was Jo Morley, the pride of Sale, a former Solheim Cup player who is still out here caddying such is her devotion to the game. That made me feel better.
Woburn always makes me nostalgic, thinking of all the happy tournaments spent here with Dai in the days of Alex Hay; this is where most of us got our first sight of immense talents like Karrie Webb (the sublime swing caused immediate double takes) and Annika Sorenstam (with her Dad Tom on the bag); it’s where we yomped after Laura Davies in her pomp as she displayed her Tigeresque powers of recovery from the most unpromising positions: how wide was the gap? There wasn’t one…….or at least it was invisible to all but Laura. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many gaps for DLD (she’s a Dame now you know) in the first round of her 39th consecutive Open appearance yesterday.
I wandered out to have a look at Maria Fassi, one of the new talents, who is from Mexico, so is not eligible to play in the Solheim Cup despite her US college credentials. Thank goodness for that I thought, then relented and thought what a shame. Fashionable and feisty, with a habit of giving her colourful skorts/skirts a Palmer-like hitch before belting the ball miles, Fassi looks like very good news indeed.
The golf at Woburn is the sort of game I was once used to watching day in, day out, so I used to know a bit about it but it’s not a game I ever played. My current version of golf was on display (in public but not to too many people, thanks be) last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The courses deserved better but it was a delight to play Moortown and Alwoodley, close together, virtually in the middle of Leeds, both designed by Alister MacKenzie of Augusta National fame, for the first time, on our lady captain’s stayaway and Wrexham, for the umpteenth time, as a guest on lady captain’s day.
Moortown hosted the Ryder Cup in 1929 and Samuel Ryder presented George Duncan, the home captain, with the trophy. It’s unlikely they ever encountered anything quite like Whittington Heath’s Trolley Dollies, who brought the clubhouse down with their immaculately timed appearance and blew away any opposition in the best-turned-out team stakes.
There was another familiar face on the wall at Moortown, looking impossibly young after winning the British Women’s Amateur Strokeplay title in 1983. Four years later she won the Women’s British Open (sponsored by Weetabix) at St Mellion and ten years after that the US Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon with one of the finest performances by any European golfer anywhere, ever. Still. It was that good.
At Alwoodley, just down the road, which reminded me a bit of Formby with its heather and bunkers and looked sublime in the sunshine (the golf, sadly, was neither sublime nor shining), the honours board provided another chance to remember all our yesterdays and the exploits of old friends and acquaintances.
Honours boards, distinguished or otherwise, are at the heart of a club, documenting its history and should be cherished and celebrated. If I get a chance to get into the clubhouse, I love looking at them, wherever I go.
At Wrexham on Tuesday, we were lucky because the weather held off bar a bit of a plump as we were playing the 9th. That meant I had time to indulge in a double Pimms (small measures…) to convince myself that it was summer and that my partner and I could claw back the 3-hole deficit against Delamere Forest, represented by Mo and Ruth. Since Lesley and I were representing the Rest of the World, we really couldn’t go down to a club pair, however distinguished and, in the end, the match was an honourable half – or tie, as modern parlance would have it.We all hit quite a few good shots but the jaw-dropping effort of the day was Ruth’s putt on the 3rd, which was so long it was almost extra-terrestrial. “Oh, no!” I said unsportingly (but honestly) as it approached the hole dead on line at a perfect speed. And, oh yes, in it went. Dead solid perfect. Brilliant.
I’m still hoarse, I’m still tired, I’m still proud, I’m still so, so happy! What a week! You could throw a thesaurus of hyperbole at it and it still wouldn’t do it justice. An Open in Ireland; an Open at Portrush; an Irish winner. It’s the stuff of dreams. It would be rejected as a film script as being too far-fetched, too perfect. Yet it happened and we all lived it, breathed it and, ultimately, celebrated it. God help Royal St George’s. Just how do you follow that?
My decision to eschew all work was one of my better moments. This was not an Open to be inside the ropes. It needed to be experienced in the raw, unshackled by responsibility and lack of bias, surrounded by tens of thousands of fervent, nervous, Irishmen and women all united in providing support for the one man Ryder Cup team that was Shane Lowry. And we prevailed. And Shane prevailed. And the party is continuing.
The week kicked off for nearly every member of our house party with a 6.35am appointment at the 1st tee on Thursday to see Darren Clarke, winner of this championship in 2011, hit the opening tee shot. With his perfect sense of occasion Darren, a fellow member of the host club, birdied the opening hole and I took a photo of him on the 2nd tee so I could have a picture of an Irishman leading an Open in Ireland. Little did I know what would unfold over the next few days. I walked every step of that first round with Darren while he crafted his even par 71 and Shane was already at work fashioning a very solid 67, flashing a warning shot across the bows of those who cared to notice. By day’s end he had tucked himself in behind the leader, the glacial JB Holmes, who had signed for a 66.
It was at this point, however, that the jungle drums across the course were beating out the dire news that favourite Rory McIlroy had knocked his opening tee shot OB and started with a calamitous 8. This was not in the script for the man who, as a 16-year old, had shot a course record 61 round the Dunluce course. As he always does, Rory fought back, but a lack of focus late in the day resulted in a ragged finish and a demoralising 79. The unfettered brilliance of a Friday 65 was not enough for Rory to escape the executioner’s axe and we saw deep into his soul in his honest and emotional interviews afterwards with various TV, radio and news outlets. Wanting so much to do so well in front of his home crowds ultimately swamped him. But he’ll work it out and he’ll be back.
Friday also saw the departure of three more of the six-strong Irish contingent. The Amateur Champion, James Sugrue from Mallow in County Cork, was one too many despite two steady offerings of 71, 73. Perhaps his dreams will be filled with that triple bogey 7 he took on the 14th. So near, yet so far.
Padraig Harrington, winner of the Claret Jug in 2007 and 2008 and the man responsible for making us all believe the Irish could win majors, shot 75, 70 to be two adrift and, heartbreakingly, Darren took 7 up the last when a 5 would have been good enough for him to play the weekend. He departed the 18th green with no words and moist eyes. Golf does that to you.
Graeme McDowell was full of emotion as well when he reached the last green on Friday, a second round 70 securing him a tee time the following day on the course he grew up on and which his younger brother, Gary, tends as part of Graeme Beatt’s magnificent ground staff. If you are Irish and a sports lover you are well accustomed to roller-coaster rides in support of your countrymen and women across local, national and global stages, but this was only Friday, for goodness sake, and I was already feeling more than a little wrung out.
Almost unnoticed Shane had recorded another 67 and when we wiped our eyes, sniffing loudly and pretending we all seemed to have wretched summer colds, there was an Irishman at the top of the leaderboard. Come ON, Shane-O!
Saturday was the day that the Portrush links put on its best bib and tucker with sunny skies and sublime views every which way you turned. It was picture postcard perfect – and so was Shane’s golf. Ten pars and eight birdies added up to a sensational 63, a new course record which included an inward nine of 30 which blew away the opposition. The result – a four-shot lead. Much was made of the fact that Shane had “blown” a similar lead in the US Open in 2016 at Oakmont but this wasn’t remotely similar. For starters, he teed off early on that Sunday morning in Oakmont in order to finish off his third round. He then left the course for a few hours before coming back for the last round – no time to come down from the high of snatching the lead or the huge adrenalin rush of that great finish to his third round. This time he drank in the universal plaudits on Saturday evening, took stock, relaxed and then had time to turn his mind to what lay ahead and prepare himself for the greatest day of his life.
And so to Sunday. G-Mac tacked a closing 77 on to Saturday’s 68 to finish on +4 and tied 57th and took himself off to the players’ lounge to watch his friend and organise the victory party.
The forecast was vile and it proved to be accurate but none of us cared, convinced our man could handle the conditions better than anyone. Sure hadn’t he won the Irish Open as an amateur a decade previously in weather you wouldn’t put a cat out in? That faith was put to the test very early on when Shane had played four shots and was still eight feet shy of the first hole. That’s when I learned that the simultaneous crossing of fingers, holding of breath and praying really does work when it’s multiplied by tens of thousands. The bogey putt was safely holed and his lead was never really threatened again. With the wind howling and the rain lashing the multi-coloured river of spectators flowed in and around the course, no one leaving, no one going in to the shelter of the tented village. The stands remained full and the number of brollies fighting the wind diminished as the litter bins filled to overflowing with their tattered remains. It was glorious. We felt we were all in this together. The predominant accents were Irish – from every corner of the island – no surprise really when you consider the home fans were quickest off the mark when the tickets went on sale.
And, finally, the 18th, and we surged up the fairway after our hero had sent his second sailing towards the green. The marshals were valiant – they had allowed us on the fairways short of the greens on the back nine so more people could get a decent view – but they had no chance on the last. Joyous, full-throated roars and unrestrained celebrations were unleashed and everywhere you looked arms were raised aloft as we all revelled in the moment of watching history in the making.. The giant, horseshoe stand was literally jumping as Shane tapped in. I’m not sure he ever did pick his ball out of the hole.
The man from Clara, Co Offaly, had carried all our hopes and he didn’t disappoint. He says we carried him, too, and we didn’t disappoint either.The party began. The party continues.
The unforgettable week ended with seven unforgettable words. Shane Lowry, Champion Golfer of the Year.
Aren’t we lucky, someone said, at our age, to have something we love so much, something we feel so passionate about, something that engages us still? It was the Friday evening of Open week and we were back home watching the telly, cheering on Rory as he put his heart and soul into trying to make the cut. Well, we weren’t merely cheering, we were roaring, screeching, straining every sinew to will every putt into the hole. He fell just short but we – and the thousands who’d stayed out late on the course – cheered him to the echo and felt very proud of him.
It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that he jetted off to Memphis a changed man.
And it left the stage clear for Shane, described somewhere as a relative unknown. Really? Only by someone who hadn’t been paying much attention, surely? I rather fancied Shane to do well because he was in good form, had won at Portrush and knew how to handle the links, whatever the weather. Luckily for him, I put no money on him – players carrying my cash invariably crash and burn – and he produced the performance of his life to win his first major title, to win THE major title.
It was a fantastic week from start to finish and one of the best things was staying with a friend who had filled her house with fellow golf tragics. We couldn’t have had a better time, getting over the surreal experience of driving to a course we’d known all our lives and realising that we were going to The Open……Can you believe it? Is this really happening? We weren’t exactly blasé by the end of the week but we’d got used to the idea and Portrush and The Open seemed like a natural fit, a match made in heaven.We had such fun that I’ve made a mental note not to watch Tottenham’s next Champions League final at the Horse and Jockey, one of the world’s great hostelries – where Spurs fans are thin on the ground and no one much cared who won in Madrid – but to round up the diehards who will understand why I was ecstatic to spot Pat Jennings, a keen golfer, making his way to the 17th green at Portrush last Saturday. Neutrals and objective observers need not apply. I was too slow to grab a happy snap of the sainted Pat but beamed all the way home. It was that sort of week.
We made lots of good decisions during the week – it was hard to make a bad call – and one of the main ones was being at the 1st tee for the opening shot; the other was staying until the death on Sunday, whatever the weather. As we were leaving the car in an already sodden car park (not too far from the entrance because we’d gone in late, pacing ourselves in the manner of ageing fairway trampers), I heard a man say to his wife: “We can always leave and watch it at home on television.”
I hope they stayed. The atmosphere was indescribable (as was some of the weather) and had to be experienced to be believed. It was electric.
Mind you, it was best to be well prepared, following the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing. My ancient Four Seasons raincoat, purchased in Edinburgh many years ago and a veteran of many a Ryder Cup (starting at Celtic Manor) and Open (it saw Darren win at Royal St George’s) worked wonders again as I sat behind the 7th green in monsoon conditions. By then everyone was in survival mode and there would be no charging challengers to upset the Lowry equilibrium. It wasn’t that sort of day. Just as the gales at St George’s were right up Darren’s fairway, so Shane, ably aided and abetted by caddie Brian ‘Bo’ Martin from Ardglass, was unfazed by the foul weather.
Sitting on my borrowed three-legged stool, with a sou’wester over my waterproof beanie as the rain hammered down, I was beaming. What could be better? Perfect day for Shane. Where else would I rather be? Nowhere. Nowhere at all. I snatched a few snaps but then panicked because I’d borrowed a friend’s phone and as the water bounced off the screen, I realised that she wouldn’t be happy if it succumbed to water damage, even if it was at the hands of an expert in such matters.
As the hordes, including Maureen and Brian, splashed off after Shane and Tommy Fleetwood, I joined two visitors from Canada who were sheltering behind the scoreboard at the back of the green. They were playing Portstewart the next day, for the first time, so I assured them that, providing they could see it, the view from the 1st tee was a match for anywhere in the world.
When the rain abated, I shook myself off and stood like a cormorant, wings out, trying to get rid of some of the excess water as seagulls blew in and out, scavenging for spectators’ scraps. I made my way up the hill to Calamity, to the viewing platform at the tee of one of the world’s most fearsome par 3s, where I wedged myself in comfortably to await the denouement. Most players underestimated the strength of the wind and some, like Matt Kuchar, had to abseil down nearly to the practice ground to play their 2nd shots. Kuchar had, in fact, hit a provisional ball safely left of the chasm and waved at the marshals to abandon their search. Too late, too late; they’d found his ball and he had to play it. I think he managed a 5.
I couldn’t quite see Shane hole his birdie putt at the adjacent 15th green – even the periscope couldn’t help because I didn’t dare leave my position with its prime view of the 16th tee – but I heard the roar and joined in. When the man from Offaly hit a no-nonsense tee shot to the front of the green, it was all over bar the shouting – and the singing – and the shouting – and the singing…..And the smiling. All ad infinitum.
Footnote: Sorry for leaving the three-legged stool at Calamity, Kath. I think it died happy…..