It’s hard to know where to begin this week but I’ll start at the top, with Trish Johnson, still competing fiercely in her 50s and winner of the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick in Indiana. It’s a tough Pete Dye course and Trish led from start to finish after an opening round of 67, five under par, in tough conditions. Only she and Michele Redman, who finished second after the 54 holes, were under par at the end, with TJ on 212, four under, three strokes clear.
First prize was $90,000, which is not to be sneezed at. “It feels fantastic, this is the reason you play golf,” Trish said as she clutched the trophy, proving that true competitors never die until they stop holing putts. Laura Davies, as excitingly erratic as ever, shared third place, recovering from a 1st round of 79 with a 3rd round of 68. Alongside her were Helen Alfredsson and Wendy Doolan. Liselotte Neumann was also up there, in sixth place..
Davies was the first Englishwoman and European professional (see Lacoste, Catherine, amateur, for an earlier, equally stunning champion) to win the US Women’s Open, in 1987, followed by Neumann, the darling of Sweden, in 1988. The incomparable Alfie really should have won the title at Crooked Stick in 1993 and what they all showed us was that Europeans could be not just good but world class. It was probably the beginning of the end of the American dominance of women’s golf because the rest of the world began to believe in herself. The Americans were still good but Annika Sorenstam arrived; and Se Ri Pak; and Karrie Webb; and so it goes on.
Lorena Ochoa, Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, Yani Tseng, Shanshan Feng, Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn are just some of those girls who’ve grown up to show that golf, much maligned and mocked and, apparently, on its last legs, is a global game. The LET, reportedly in its death throes yet again, may be limping along but a few days ago the tour hit the headlines when a 14-year old Thai schoolgirl called Atthaya Thitikul won the intriguingly titled Ladies European Thailand Championship, to smash Ko’s youngest-ever-winner label. (The New Zealander was 15 plus when she won her first LET event.) I’m not a big fan of prodigies – feels a bit creepy at times, to be feting tots just because they’ve qualified for a golf tournament; I keep my fingers crossed, reserve judgement and hope that they’ll mature into vaguely functioning adults.One of the best examples of how to do it is Nancy Lopez, who is now 60, a grandmother (gasp) and recently married again, to Ed Russell, a long-time golfing buddy. Not long ago I mentioned her in glowing terms and was horrified when the person I was talking to looked at me blankly (not unusual) and asked, “Who’s Nancy Lopez?” (gobsmacking). Where to start? There have been better golfers – not many better people – but she’s on a par with the late, great Arnold Palmer when it comes to charisma and the effect she had on her sport. It’s also a bit alarming to realise that it’s 20 years since one of my all-time favourite moments in golf, when Nancy, darling of the home crowd at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, failed yet again to win the US Women’s Open title she craved.
Sounds cruel, doesn’t it? To be glad that Nancy, one of my all-time favourite people, lost her last chance to realise a lifelong dream. Like Sam Snead she was never to win her national Open. I’d have been delighted if Nancy had won because it would have been the stuff of fairy tales. She was cheered on by a huge, supportive, emotional crowd on the final Sunday but she came up against an implacable opponent who had her day of days and produced a performance that matched the major championship heroics of Jacklin, Faldo, Ballesteros, Woosnam, Langer, Olazabal, Rose, McIlroy, any US-major-winning European you care to mention.
Alison Nicholas, known as Big Al because she was, at most, 5-foot tall, was born in Gibraltar, brought up in Yorkshire and lived in Birmingham (West Midlands). She was a mainstay of Europe’s Solheim Cup team and by 1997 was a tough, experienced competitor who remained calm in the middle of the mayhem and held Lopez at bay. The American, three shots behind after three rounds, had three birdies in the first four holes and made up no ground. Nicholas had a birdie and pitched in for an eagle three at the 4th. Game on. As the round wore on, I ditched my neutrality and admitted that I really, really wanted Al to win. Nancy’s status as a legend was already assured but this was Al’s big moment and she proved up to it, taking home a trophy that was nearly as big as she was.This week the US Women’s Open Championship is at the Trump National course at Bedminster in New Jersey and the golf has already been overshadowed by talk of the potential presence of the POTUS. He’s expected to hotfoot it from France, where he’s been doing a bit of state visiting, so keep an eye on Twitter for the latest score on the presidential front. You may have to dig deeper for details of the golf but give it a go: try the USGA, LPGA and Golf Channel websites.
Finally, and on a different level altogether, I’d like to remember Louise Solheim, who has died at the age of 99. Wife of Karsten, inventor of the Ping putter, Louise was the Solheim family’s rock, a wonderful woman, kind, astute, quietly formidable and beloved by all who knew her.
My heart is bursting! “What with?” you may ask. The answer is with pride. PRIDE. Nothing more, nothing less. My home town, my home course, Portstewart Golf Club, where I’ve been a member all my life, is the venue for this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by The Rory Foundation. The place I’ve played thousands and thousands of rounds with friends and family, the place I’ve hit millions of practice shots, the place I’ve dreamed my dreams, is front and centre stage of European golf for a week. I so wish Mum and Dad were here to see it.
The week started on Tuesday with an invitation from the matchless Barry Funston, the big shaker and mover of The Rory Foundation to an evening with Rory, James Nesbitt and Pep Guardiola. Heaven! Forgive my exuberance, but when you’ve had a lovely, golf-imbued life as I have…and then met oodles of these players….and then they come to your own stomping ground! Well! You can just imagine!
The incomparable Michael Moss, the recently retired secretary manager of the club, but the current, very busy, tournament guru, is working every hour imaginable with panache, humour and efficiency. His successor as secy/manager is Judy Hutton and she has certainly hit the ground running, supported by the collective golfing community along this north coast. It’s a true community effort. But perhaps the true, largely unsung, hero is Bernard Findlay, the man entrusted with preparing the links for the world’s great players. He and his team have truly delivered, so limitless congratulations to them all.
Patricia and I have been lucky enough to travel the world with this sport and this week it’s like having all your best mates from the players, caddies, media and managerial side all gathered together alongside your other mates and family who couldn’t break 100 if you gave them lessons from now to Domesday. That takes a bit of getting your head around! But it’s delicious! Forgive me for the paucity of words this week, but as they say say, a picture says a thousand words, so here are a few of my favourites from the first two days.
How will we ever return to normal?
For the second week in a row I feel completely redundant. Maureen had, as usual, got her blog in first, I read it and thought: can’t do better than that, she’s said all I wanted to say, with passion, panache and photos. Time to put the wine away and go to bed.
None of us has ever seen Portstewart the way it is this week. No cars on the beach for a start, unheard of in the summer but a real bonus for the photographers, with the sand at its most pristine. You have to drive past the golf club to get to the beach and this week, with the European Tour at its biggest and best in town, you probably have to be Rory McIlroy to drive onto the sand – or a policeman on a quad bike. I’d have taken a photo but he’d zoomed off before I could press the requisite buttons. Too slow on the uptake as usual, which is not such a problem for us scribblers who can arrive late on the scene and still catch up.
Mind you, it’s still nice to be on the scene, if only to try and puzzle out later what on earth was happening before your very eyes. I tootled round the first nine after a leisurely breakfast of seafood chowder and wheaten bread by the world’s best 1st tee and realised again just how beautiful the place is. Did we really grow up here? How lucky were we? Aren’t all golf courses like this? And Portrush? And Castlerock? The short answer is no. Not only are our home courses some of the best in Ireland, they’re some of the best in the whole wide world. So why shouldn’t Justin Rose, the Olympic champion, be striding down the hill at the 1st? Or Hideki Matsuyama, who must surely become the first Japanese to win a major and open the floodgates? Or the latest explosive Spanish talent that is Jon Rahm?
Chema, Jose Maria Olazabal, twice Masters champion, one of my favourites, is here and I’m ridiculously delighted to think of him, the man from Fuenterrabia, at Portstewart. Wee places that can launch people out in to the wider world. The place is littered with them this week: wee boys – and girls – who had big dreams and discovered they really could take on the world. Some go on on to believe their own publicity and think they’re better than they are but a goodly number remain grounded and, mostly, level-headed whatever the adulation and remember that they’re human. They’re the ones who are loved and respected, faults, foibles and all.
“Rory’s a bit grumpy this week,” someone who failed to get an autograph said, before adding, “Beef has time for everyone.” Yeah, but. Beef (sometimes aka Andrew Johnston) is not hosting the event on his (more or less give or take a few miles) home turf, trying to be all-singing, all-dancing, all-things-to-all-men-and women as well as all-swinging. He only has to concentrate on his golf – and selfies with one and all, including fellow beardies. Rory, the defending Irish Open champion, is donating his prize money this week to the Rory Foundation and he’d really rather like to make the cut. As it is, he’s lightly golfed this season and his practice time is limited by the nature of the week. Even for a young, fit human dynamo, something’s got to give and if he had any sense, he should just check out Mo’s “Drive Up, Drive Off Sandra” tip and forget about the practice ground altogether, though that goes against the professional grain.
Of course, he could also read Be A Player, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott’s latest book, as insightful, thought-provoking and full of good sense as ever. Or, even quicker, he could talk to Jude O’Reilly, Ireland’s answer to Pia and Lynn. If you’ve dug enough dirt and made the hands bleed enough, making the mind work better is the final frontier.
Mention of the mind brings me to Padraig Harrington, who has his own unique way of thinking and is warming up for Birkdale, where he won the Open so magnificently in 2008. I was on the spot yesterday when Padraig launched his drive at the 7th (his 16th) well left into thick, tangly, inhospitable rough. He took a drop, hammered his recovery well up the fairway and narrowly missed his putt. Wonder what that added up to, I thought. Nothing more than a par 5 according to the scoreboard. Huh?
I bumped into Caroline Harrington at the next hole and she explained that it was a free drop because the ball was plugged. Not only that but the spectators, being helpful, had picked up the ball to identify it and then diligently stuffed it back into the rubbish to try and ensure that it was lying as it had been. So there is such a thing as the luck of the Irish! And nothing like being there to see it.