Feature Interview with Ivan Morris

August 2012

Ivan Morris has been a category one golfer for over fifty years. He has competed in countless international and regional amateur championships. Voted Golf Nut of the Year by the Golf Nut Society of America in 2002 (the first non-American to receive the dubious accolade) based on the strength of his first book Only Golf Spoken Here, Ivan is also the author of The Life of O’Reilly and The Doonbeg Ghosts. He  co-authored Larry Lambrecht’s stunning photographic coffee table book on Irish seaside golf Emerald Gems and has been a contibuting editor to Golf Digest Ireland since 2003. He is a member of the Irish Golf Writers Association and the European Golf & Travel Media Association and has had articles published in Great Britain, the United States of America, Denmark and Sweden. Ivan writes a weekly column in the Limerick Leader newspaper and was editor-at-large of the annual almanac The Essential Golfer’s Guide – Ireland. His latest book, Life As A Way Of Golf is available as an e-book on Amazon.com or in hard copy format from the publishers, www.bookhub4u.ie.

1. We will get to Ireland and some of her great courses in a moment. First, please discuss the health benefits of golf.

Swinging a golf club is more demanding than some people think. More calories and energy are burned than would generally be thought when you play a game of golf. To prove the point, try swinging non-stop and see how long you last? If you can keep it going for more than sixty seconds you are super fit. It’s more likely that you will be shocked at how soon your arms will turn to jelly and the club will fall from your hands. Provided they walk and do not ride in carts, dedicated golfers are not as mad as they might appear. By walking and playing a lot, golfers can get themselves into better shape in an enjoyable way that is hugely beneficial to healthy living.

In Life As A Way of Golf, I write about the research undertaken in 2009 at the renowned Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that on average, golfers live a life span of 5-7 years longer. The average death rate for the 300,000 registered Swedish golfers is 40% lower than for other citizens of the same sex, age and socio-economic status. How this was discovered is simple. The national mortality register was compared with the handicap records of the Swedish Golf Federation; data emerged that golfers die at an older age than non-golfers with a noticeable and significant decrease in mortality rates in line with the holding of a lower golf handicap.

Of course, maintaining a low, single-figure handicap involves playing a lot of golf, which also supports the argument that being out in the fresh air and walking at a reasonable pace for up to 5-miles to complete 18-holes regularly has to be good for you.

2. For those with a short attention span, what one tip from your new book Life as a Way of Golf do you most wish to pass on?

Gosh! That’s a tough one to answer in one sentence and I don’t even propose to try. I wanted to get so much off my chest. As I say in my book: if only I realized sooner that golf is a privilege and supposed to be fun. It’s not a crusade or an obligation. My life would have been more serene if I had realized that. All golfers are faced with roughly the same set of psychological problems. Mental toughness is an acquired skill in exactly the same way as learning how to play a skidding wedge or flop shot. If only I had realized sooner that being inscrutable and happy in one’s own skin is as important as sinking putts?

While I always suspected that the ‘correct mentality’ was an important part of any golfer’s makeup what I did not know is that self-control is more important than ball-control.

Also, it takes a while to learn something new and then it takes at least as long to forget what you have learned so you can carry it onto the course and play without thinking about it any more. It’s all a matter of sticking to a simple, pre-shot, routine. The better you keep to your routine the easier it will be to maintain the optimum rhythm of your swing. Routine and rhythm are linked. Maintaining one’s rhythm and routine when coming down the final stretch is the key to playing well when you are trying to bring a winning score home. Poor thinking and poor rhythm can cause more problems than poor mechanics.

Until you can square the clubface; look at the target; look at the ball; waggle the clubface; square the clubface again and fire without inhibition or further thought, you cannot play golf well. Playing the game too slowly and thinking too much about the various swing movements is one of the main reasons why the majority of golfers find golf so difficult.

After playing the game for over fifty years, I’m hugely disappointed that the 5-hour round, caused by overly long and ‘too’ difficult courses, is taking the ‘fun’ out of the game to the extent that it is slowly killing it. The 5-hour round is the biggest threat to the game’s future. There is no doubt that a less lively ball and shorter golf courses would provide a more sustainable game.

If you treat golf as fun and play as much as you can – you’ll have a healthy and fulfilled lifestyle. The kicker being that the better you play, the better you will enjoy the game. An improving golfer is a happy golfer. At 66-years old I am not yet beyond the stage where I harbor hopes of beating ‘Old Man Par’ occasionally. If I read my own book and follow my own advice, I bet I would!

3. Please expand on “the superiority of match play.”

Whatever about professionals who play tournament golf for a living – match play is the ideal format for amateurs.

Only a tiny minority of golfers will ever have had the chance of winning a tournament and finding out if they have the composure to cope with the strain involved. Few golfers ever taste the queasiness that accompanies finding oneself close to achieving a significant success. If there were more match play events at club level, more golfers would have the opportunity to experience unforgettable, pressurized moments. Having only to beat the player in front of you and not an entire field involves a different attitude. It is golf at its purest, consistent with the earliest roots of the game.

In match play, the best part is also the worst part in that every game is played to a conclusion, providing both a winner and a loser. Whether you play good, bad or indifferent doesn’t matter. The idea of playing well but losing to somebody who managed to play better can be disappointing but it is an essential part of the challenge.

In an 18-holes match played off handicap, anyone can beat anyone on a given day. The club duffer can beat the club champion in a one-off situation and live on the glory forever. The club champion would have to live in the constant fear of losing his revered status. He could play extremely well but be sent packing by somebody who raises his game and shades him on willpower and a little luck.

Ivan Morris shows the playing form that has worked so well for nearly six decades!

4. You purchased a set of hickories now that you are playing less formal competitions. What have you learned from playing them?

Hickory golf is terrific fun! Very quickly, I learned that when using my hickories my miscues were caused by trying to overpower the swing instead of using a smooth and even tempo.

The poor technique and timing that one might get away with when playing with modern clubs receives short shrift. One is forced to ‘listen’ to the golf club and develop a more harmonious relationship with it. One has to feel as if the club head passes your hands in the hitting area, a completely different sensation to the ‘late hit’ employed in modern golf. With steel shafts, one must control the club head but with wooden shafted clubs one has to swing ‘easy’ and control the shaft. The titanium clubs of today are built to transfer power instantly but with antique clubs the impact takes longer for the energy to transfer and produces a noticeably different sensation. I love it!

The obvious loss of distance is irrelevant if one plays off the correct tees, say, 6000-yards? There is a noticeable loss in height and backspin but adjusting increases one’s skill. The most difficult part is judging how much the ball curves or runs along the ground. Golf was originally an along the ground game as much as in the air game – that’s real artistry. I have discovered that my good shots with hickory are just as good as any I can manage with modern technology and my ego is massaged whenever I manage to play a hole perfectly. Of course, when I hit a poor shot (only the slightest miss-hit will cause it) it’s acceptable to blame the equipment. I do enjoy that!

5. You received lessons from Eddie Hackett. What was he like? What did he mean to golf in Ireland?

Eddie Hackett was a selfless and saintly man. He wanted to be a priest but failed the medical. While working with Fred Hawtree in Belgium, he developed an interest in golf architecture. When illness forced him to retire as golf professional at Portmarnock GC, the Golfing Union of Ireland appointed him as their first national coach and roving ambassador. He accepted that challenge in the spirit of a missionary, traveling the length and breadth of the country in a large van full of equipment for sale and as a golfing proselytizer and helping to expand interest in the game everywhere he went. He was a vital part of the Irish golf explosion in the 1960s.

My first encounter with Hackett was in 1963. He turned up at Donabate GC during the Leinster Boy’s Championship and handpicked about a dozen of us for special coaching which took place on the spot and then, off and on, at various venues for the next year or two. I’d receive a phone call from the Munster Branch GUI to tell me to attend a ‘clinic’ somewhere. He took a personal interest in our progress and was in constant touch with our various home clubs without us boys knowing it.

As a golf coach his ideas were mostly gleaned from the legendary, Henry Cotton to whom he was apprenticed at Temple GC. He devised skills challenges for us. I took to this like a duck to water because it made golf an imaginative, athletic pursuit. We hit balls with our feet together, with one hand, standing on one foot and anything that he could think of. He wanted to ‘educate our hands into finding the ball’ and teach us ‘shot-making.’ We were also brought onto the golf course to play preordained shots. At the end of every session, we had to hit the obligatory tire until our forearms ‘screamed.’

I remember an occasion during the Munster Boys Championship at Ennis GC when he brought us to the tee at the short, par-4, 3rd hole (probably 290-ish at the time) and challenged us to drive the green. When none of us succeeded, we were ushered to the apron of the 4th green (where there was a diagonal ridge and exaggerated false front) and given several ‘goes’ from different angles at sinking a chip shot. It was great fun.

As Eddie went around the country, he gradually became more and more involved in advising golf clubs how to upgrade their courses. At first, it was mostly how to turn 9-holers into 18. I was too young to have ever walked over virgin land with Mr. Hackett but fellows who did have the pleasure – tell me that he never took a note and had a photographic memory. His philosophy was to allow nature itself to be the architect and just ‘dress up’ whatever the Good Lord had provided.

So-called, modern ‘experts’ deride the fact that the vast majority of Hackett’s courses were basic and rudimentary without making allowances for the times in which he lived or the brief chosen for him by the GUI. Hackett may have been the original instigator of ‘minimalist’ design – a much revered concept today because it encourages ‘cheap golf.’ Hackett’s most outstanding ability was the art of finding a passable routing over bland and often unsuitable land and then supervising the building a course for novices (not sophisticated elites) on a tiny budget. When you look at a Hackett course you have to remember the constraints under which he operated. In the circumstances he was a genius.

6. What is your favorite Hackett course and why?

Waterville – even though it wasn’t exclusively his design work alone and allowing for the all-embracing, beautiful ‘improvements’ that Tom Fazio has carried out since. It is probably my favorite links in Ireland although I would prefer to name five or six as my (equal) favorites. I eschew ranking golf courses – rating them yes but ranking them? No!

7. Ireland has long been a sports mad nation and recent years have seen unparalleled success on the international stage in particular for rugby and golf. The 2006 Ryder Cup was described as the largest sporting event that a county Ireland’s size could stage. As you point out, Irish Golfers have claimed “an astonishing six out of seventeen consecutive majors since 2007”, more than any other country including their much larger neighbor to the west. Is there a link between the economic success that the Celtic tiger brought and the current crop of sporting trophies?

If anything it was the other way around. Ireland’s successes on the sports fields may have given the nation as a whole ‘a certain amount of confidence and arrogance,’ which sadly became reckless on the part of the greedy and stupid. From about 2005 I knew that trouble was brewing. Nor was I the only one, I heard plenty of grumblings. The politicians and bankers wouldn’t listen. They were in love with the gravy train. Unfortunately, those who behaved impeccably have been hurt as much as those who deserve a whipping. Some people who should be in jail are still enjoying the high life. The Celtic Tiger is an obscene episode.

8. What role did Padraig Harrington and the little known Englishman Howard Bennett play in this success?

Huge! Padraig Harrington has been voted Ireland’s greatest ever sportsman. I wouldn’t go that far but he is certainly inspirational and he did help to change the mindset of not only golfers. How could somebody with a perceived ‘unexceptional’ natural talent achieve so much? He did it by clever application and had the good fortune to take his chances. In The Life of O’Reilly, his first caddie on Tour, John O’Reilly, speaks about Padraig’s dedication and hard work with admiration and awe. Padraig was also lucky to have good people around him – none more so than Howard Bennett and his wife, Caroline, who is a walking golf encyclopedia.

When the GUI brought Padraig into their elite coaching fold as a late teenager, Howard Bennett was the national coach. Ireland is a small place. The golf community is closely-knit. Everyone knows one another. Ireland’s elite, representative teams operate exclusively in an all for one, one for all environment. Aspirations, knowledge and experiences are shared in an open and generous way. Thanks to his training as an amateur, Harrington had no resistance to sharing his ‘secrets’ with his fellow, Irish pros and amateurs. The confidence and confidences garnered have helped everybody in the Irish golfing community to raise their games. It is as simple as: ‘If he can do it, so can I.’ With such clear, confidence-boosting, headlines to follow, the heady rewards available for thinking ‘big’ and practicing hard will never again be undervalued by Irish golfers.

Ireland has always had good players and great courses for them to play on but ‘good’ coaching and preparation was practically non-existent until the 1990s when a soft-talking Englishman, Howard Bennett, came on the scene as National Coach. Bennett’s contribution to Irish golf is immense. He laid superb foundations, dismantling the insurmountable barriers that had impeded earlier generations and sowing the seeds for future success. Harrington is Howard’s prime exhibit. Together, while following their own agendas they have, more than anybody, helped to bring about a sea change that is as much psychological as technical.

Bennett coached sound practicing drills, bunker play, psychology, physical fitness, punctuality, attitude, warm up, diet, stretching, desire, course management, yardages, further education and nerve control. He even recommended yoga. He was extraordinarily thorough. He never raised his voice or got edgy. He was always dressed neatly and a wonderful role model. His expressed goal as national instructor and I can quote him directly was to crack the Irish ‘mentality’ and be able to produce just ONE golfer who embraced his advice in full as he believed that if he could get that ONE guy to embrace his philosophy in full that he would have done his job.

Padraig Harrington was that man. Already, Howard Bennett is a forgotten man in Irish golf but he was the visionary that changed the psyche of Irish golf forever.

9. Thank you for bringing the short film of Jimmy Bruen (link) to our attention. You have written about how the Irish golf swing can be” idiosyncratic” with a tendency to hit harder and even to play cack handed. Can you identify reasons for this individuality?

James Bruen was briefly the best golfer in the world in 1938 when WW2 intervened. I am glad I saw him in action in the Irish Close at Killarney in 1963. Apart from Graeme McDowell’s peculiar action, Irish individuality at the elite standard is rapidly dying out. I blame the brilliant golf coverage and analysis on television these days and a much more enlightened PGA-driven coaching regime.

The cack-handed idiosyncrasy stems from Ireland’s national game of hurling (vaguely similar to lacrosse.) There are plenty of club golfers in Ireland who play good golf with left below the right. I know of one excellent player at my home club who plays cack-handed as a right-hander through the green but then does the opposite when he putts by going at it from the left side with his right hand underneath – go figure!

When I took up the game in 1960, coaching was primitive. There was no TV let alone the opportunity to watch golf on it. Indeed, there was no TV in our house until after I left high school in 1964. All of my learning was done from books and magazines. I largely figured it out for myself. Unfortunately, what I needed most was a wise mentor and mental coach. I never learned to control my emotions on the golf course. I could be ecstatic or suicidal in no particular order within five minutes! To be honest, while I can now accept that I am no longer a good enough player to be getting cross at a muffed stroke, I still have my ‘moments.’