Feature Interview with Ivan Morris

page 2

10. What are your favorite half dozen courses in Ireland? Is it because they are fun or hard? What criteria are most important to you in judging a golf course?

I like a challenge as much as the next man but ‘hard’ is not the word I use; testing or challenging is better. Apart from a reasonable standard of conditioning, being in a nice place, enjoyment and the desire to come back and play a course again and again are my primary criteria.

Way back when ‘Ballybee’ was dog rough and by that I mean you could lose your caddie and/or bag of clubs let alone your ball in the rhubarb, I was brought down there to learn my trade by my early guru/mentor, Fr. Gerry Enright. As a result, I am not intimidated by any golf course unless the fairways are out of reach. Pine Valley? Piece of cake! I like courses where par is tough but bogies are easy to come by, if you are clever.

I love Waterville for its unique setting and ambiance. It’s such a beautiful place and the seafood restaurants aren’t half bad either. My wife loves it too. She is a 33-handicapper and I reckon a good golf course should be as much fun for her as for me. Some of the shots I saw Sam Snead play there in the mid-1970s will be etched in my memory forever.

I’m particularly fond of Rosapenna’s Sandy Hills and Valley layouts. Whenever my wife and I go there, she enjoys the relative flatness of The Valley and being able to see the ball run and run whereas I like the relatively, ‘unforgiving’ nature of the ‘Hills.’ It must tickle Pat Ruddy no end that the Valley Course is the lesser ranked of the two in spite of the fact that none other than Old Tom Morris and Harry Vardon once laid their hands on it. The more dramatic, Sandy Hills layout designed by Ruddy was conceived as a stringent test but like any good course if you are hitting it long and straight it can be tamed.

Royal Portrush’s Dunluce is a strong candidate for Irish primacy. I have had some thrilling moments there. Its Valley layout is clearly the lesser challenge but it is worth playing at least once.

I used to find Pat Ruddy’s European Club a bit ‘too tough’ for me until I swallowed my pride and moved my personal teeing ground a touch forward and Ruddy answered my prayers by trimming the rough. For my level of golf, it now has the right balance between toughness and fun. Ruddy was far-seeing enough to build plenty of tee options which means you can tackle a course of 7400-yards, 6700-yards, 6300-yards or 5569-yards and various combinations in between. That’s the way it should be. There was a time when I’d automatically head for the farthest back tee. Not any more – I done got me some sense. Ruddy can make The European an exceptionally strong test (as he did for the Irish Amateur won by Rory McIlroy and the IPGA Championship, won by Padraig Harrington) but he doesn’t always have to, I like that. Of course, the greatest attraction of all is the chance of an audience with the irrepressible Mr. Ruddy himself over a cup of tea and the ‘best apple tart in the world.’ Afterthought: Ruddy’s 20-holes concept is unique and typical of the man. I heartily applaud the idea. Those two extra par-3s that occur as Nos. 7A and 12A are great value and anything but warmer uppers. Indeed, 12A is arguably the best one-shotter of the five. Break 80 for the twenty holes and you can call yourself a ‘golfer.’ I am very proud to have done it.

In recent times, I tend to play at Doonbeg far more often than I do at Lahinch or Ballybunion. The total package at Doonbeg is irresistible. Sometimes, I go there simply to practice. It also seems better suited to my hickory golf because there are less changes in elevation. The service I receive at Doonbeg makes me feel like a King. Off the back markers Lahinch and Ballybunion are formidable but try playing from the ‘blues’ at Doonbeg and you will be on your knees begging for mercy. And yet, from ‘the whites,’ Doonbeg is the easiest of the three and the most fun to play.

Portmarnock has a reputation for being a supremely ‘fair test’ that is well justified. One receives more ‘honest’ results at Portmarnock than any links I know. It’s always a thrill to go there and keep a sharp look out for the ghost of Harry Bradshaw. I’ll never forget the day, when playing in the Irish Amateur, ‘The Brad’ found my ball lying deep in a bush left of the 18th green. As I walked up, I asked: “How is it, Harry? Am I alright? Have I a shot?” When he said: “Not a hope, young fella!” I took a penalty drop right under The Brad’s nose and holed out my pitch for the unlikeliest of pars.

The liberally bunkered and gorse infested, Cork Golf Club at Little Island beside the Lee Estuary, could be called the Black Diamond of Ireland. In my mind, Cork is every bit as good as that renowned, rustic course in Florida. Alister MacKenzie designed Cork GC in 1927, so it is not surprising that it should be rated so highly. The holes along the estuary are the most memorable and give that part of the course a ‘linksy’ feeling. The scenery is superb, with some interesting shipping activity always taking place along by the shore. Watching a supremely composed, Peter Thomson win the RTV Tournament at Cork in the late 1960s is a favorite memory. I learned so much about course management by studying the way Peter played within himself and plotted his way around in sub par figures.

11. Like most of the world’s great courses, Lahinch and Ballybunion went through a multi-decade evolutionary process before becoming the world class designs that they are today.  Do any of the following courses have the potential to move into Ireland’s upper echelon of courses: Carne, Enniscrone, The Island, Old Head of Kinsale, Dooks, or perhaps another?

Every course can’t be in the top tier. If they were it would devalue them all. Carne has some great holes and marvelous scenery but because of its location, it lacks the financial clout to achieve its full potential – so what? The members enjoy it. Visitors are welcome and they can come and go as they please. Being in such a remote, sparsely populated area is an insurmountable handicap. If there are a few rough edges, consider them part of the charm. Carne delights one minute and kicks one up the backside the next. That’s proper golf!

Enniscrone is one of Hackett’s better efforts, especially since Donald Steel made a few well-chosen tweaks. Enniscrone has the biggest dunes in Ireland but it suffers from the same handicap that bedevils Carne – a lack of resources but the potential is unlimited and the welcome is warm. Show me a better hole than Enniscrone’s 16th.

I have played at The Island only once or twice but did enjoy it hugely. There are several holes that would fit seamlessly into any course on the R & A rota. Forever overshadowed by Portmarnock nearby, it clearly has what it takes to be in the ‘Irish Premiership.’

To be frank, I wouldn’t see Old Head ever evolving into one of Ireland’s best. It’s a course well worth visiting once for the novelty value due to its unique location and spectacular views but to play golf there on a regular basis would not be my cup of tea!

Formed in 1889, Dooks & Caragh GC is one of the oldest clubs in Ireland but it has one of the newest links. For 100 years the links remained a steadfastly quirky, 9-holes monument to those early days as the members resisted all efforts at modernisation. In 1970, it was finally agreed to expand to an 18-holes circuit. Ignoring convention and good sense, responsibility for designing one new hole was given to each member of a 9-man committee. It could have been a disaster but a surprisingly acceptable result was the outcome. As the Club entered its second century, Martin Hawtree, fresh from his success at Lahinch, was engaged to fine tune the inevitably ‘uneven’ outcome of those laudable ‘homemade’ efforts. Hawtree changed ‘everything’ while managing to provide the feeling that he had hardly laid a hand on the place. Playing at Dooks recently with a 26, 15 and 9-handicapper, we had a thrilling match that ended all even – a tribute to the course and the handicap system. Some of the best courses in the world have a ‘link hole’ to get you from one piece of exciting ground to another. At Dooks, it’s unusually in that the link hole is the 1st but as soon as you walk over the hill to the 2nd tee, the stunning view will make you forget your troubles and concentrate on playing proper golf for the 17 delightful holes ahead. My favourite hole at Dooks is the 16th. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it was originally conceived by the most gifted golfer on the ad hoc committee – Dr. Billy O’Sullivan of Killarney fame. The drive has to fade around a strand of wind-blown trees and stay clear of the tangly scrub before a precisely weighted second shot to a shelf green surrounded by menacing, gorse bushes is undertaken.

12. A large parcel of land near Dooks holds special meaning/promise to you. Tell us about it.

Clearly visible as you make your way around Dooks is Inch Island where 1250-acres of the most stirring golfing ground imaginable is waiting to be turned into a rival for Trump International in Scotland.

My friend, Dr. Arthur Spring, who followed a similar career path to Mackenzie by dumping medicine and becoming a golf architect has an ‘interest’ in the place but, in spite of his well-established, political connections he has been stymied by the environmental lobby from undertaking what he declares would be a ‘dream project’ with unlimited potential. I will allow Dr. Spring tell you about ‘the saga’ in his own words.

“Early in 1994, I began working on laying out a course on Inch. I was convinced that a golf course at Inch would be good for Kerry from both an ecologically scientific and socio-economic point of view. The Planning Authority intervened and told me to stop because they deemed that a golf course would create ‘a traffic hazard.’ By late 1996, when engineers had proven that this was incorrect the EU Habitats Directive had come into force and I found myself snookered by a law that was being enforced retrospectively. There are many important habitats in Castlemaine Harbour but a golf course wouldn’t impinge on them. My golf course requires only 40 acres of short grasses whereas there are, in total, 1,250 acres at Inch. I envisage completely natural fairways and roughs. All I want to do is shape the tees and greens; not a single sand dune would be damaged.Look at what has happened at nearby Castlegregory where the Natterjack toad population in 1988 was under serious threat. Since the golf course was built there wildlife has prospered. The toads thrive on the large numbers of insects that are attracted by the profuse flora on the golf course. And, by the way, there is no plant life specific to sand dunes that benefits from grazing. Occasional trimming of roughs is far better for sand dune flora than the grazing cattle and sheep that currently roam the property. As for the gangs of quad bikers who whiz up and down the dunes at weekends, I’ll say nothing! A golf course would not only prevent such abuse but it would monitor and control ecological and wildlife preservation in its own interests.”

So far, Dr. Spring has failed to convince the politicians and a biased, anti-golf lobby. When will people realize that instead of destroying flora and fauna, golf protects and enhances it?

Provoked by my own question, I decided to walk over Spring’s proposed 18 holes at Inch this week. I knew that the site was exciting and vast but I was overwhelmed. What impresses me most is that Arthur has, as is his wont, managed to identify 18-fantastic holes with all of the characteristics that every great golf course should have. The fairways are in natural valleys. Many holes require no more than building tees and shaping greens and bunkers. There are several changes of directions on the routing plan to maximize the effect of wind and weather. There is plenty of room between the holes and there will not be any safety issues or any visual or auditory disturbances – provided you ignore the quad bikers that are ‘allowed’ to whizz up and down the sand dunes with impunity. If it is ever built this Spring layout will be rated very highly within a few short years.

The tee shot at Spring’s proposed 2nd hole at Inch, played in a southernly direction (prevailing wind comes from 2 o’clock).

 

Flanked by magnificent dunes, a natural hole runs in a westerly direction in the centre of the Inch site, just waiting to be revealed.

The spectacular green site for Spring’s 16th hole at Inch.

 

Some good will come out of the recession if people in high places begin to appreciate that a golf course as dramatic as Inch would be a boost to Irish tourism, the Irish economy and Irish golf.

13. One of the chapters in your first book Only Golf Spoken Here is a hole-by-hole match play of Lahinch and Ballybunion, two clubs where you have been a long-term member. Given the changes to Lahinch, could you please update it?

That ‘fun’ Lahinch-Ballybunion comparison got me into some hot water at the time! Here is my updated version of Lahinch V. Ballybunion:

1 – L, 1-up.

2 – Match all square.

3 – L, 1-up.

4 – L, 1-up.

5 – Match all square.

6 – Match all square.

7 – Ballybunion , 1-up.

8 – Match all square.

9 – Ballybunion, 1-up.

10 – Match all square.

11 – Ballybunion, 1-up.

12 –  Match all square.

13 – Match all square.

14 – L, 1-up.

15 – L, 2-up.

16 – L, 1-up.

17 – L, 1-up.

18- L, 2-up.

14. Many people are surprised to learn how close Ballybunion came to financial extinction in the 1970s. To whom do we have to thank for its survival?

The Old Course at Ballybunion has always required the most acute precision, especially when playing approach shots to the narrow, plateau greens. When I started playing golf over 50-years ago, my father used to dispatch me with the wise words ringing in my ears: “If you can beat par at Ballybunion, you can beat it anywhere.”

Ballybunion Golf Club these days has enormous green fee income – austerity my eye! If anybody had forecasted the current situation thirty years ago when the annual sub was $60 including GUI Poll Tax, and the daily green fee was $5, they would have been considered mad. But it should never be forgotten that if the “Save Ballybunion Golf Club Fund” undertaken in 1976 as the brainchild of Sean Walsh and Jackie Hourigan had not succeeded, parts of the course would be under the sea by now.

It is impossible to exaggerate how poor the financial state of the club was throughout most of its existence. In 1976, an overdraft of IR£40,000 ($65,000) was ongoing and without any impression being made on it. Enough was enough as far the club’s bank manager was concerned. Provoked by the bank’s rejection of an application for an extra loan of $160 to purchase a carpet, Hourigan and Walsh were stung into action. The full story is in Only Golf Spoken Here.

15. Portrush was recently awarded the Irish Open. Is it time to take the The Open Championship back there?

Yes! But I am still somewhat skeptical that it will ever happen. I would suggest that if golfing challenge alone was the criterion, The Open could just as easily be played at The European Club, Portmarnock or Waterville in the Republic of Ireland, Kennemar in Holland, Royal Zoute in Belgium, Falsterbo in Sweden or Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. For heavens sakes, isn’t it supposed to be THE Open? Sadly, methinks that self-interest and commerciality is at the heart of most of the decisions made by the R & A these days.

16. You write of how Castletroy GC where you learned to play golf has changed for the worse. What mistakes were made there? Can other clubs learn from those mistakes?

Oh dear! You are unwittingly stoking up the fires of a battle-scarred, small town, local rivalry! I was, in fact, indoctrinated across the city at the archenemy, Limerick G.C. (a.k.a. Ballyclough.) I must have spent half of my golfing life battling in torrid, inter-club matches with rival teams from Castletroy – but it was the type of golf I enjoyed the most!

My criticisms of the ‘pitch’ owned by what I playfully call the archenemy can be applied to so many other re-dos that put achieving more length on ‘old, beloved terrain’ ahead of all other considerations. When tees are pushed back into corners or other unnatural positions, visibility becomes impaired and you are left with an unsatisfactory result.

Over the years, I have played a huge amount of fulfilling golf at Castletroy. Both clubs, by the way, were founded by different generations of the same family. Alec Shaw founded Limerick in 1891 and his son, Malcolm, was the principal mover and shaker in getting Castletroy up and running in 1937. I meet Alec and Malcolm Shaw’s descendants regularly – John and Edward Shaw (who live in Boston) – and they are as keen as mustard. Those Shaw’s have incredible generational golfing genes!

Dating back to 1948, Castletroy’s annual 36-holes, scratch cup is one of the oldest and most eminent in Ireland. An impressive list of former winners stands comparison with any similar, one-day event. James Bruen, Max McCready, Joe Carr, Tom Craddock, Des Smyth, Liam Higgins, Denis O’Sullivan and David Sheahan are previous winners. I may have spoiled the ‘class’ of the event by winning three times myself in 1974, 1980 and 1985, which is close to the summit of my achievements in the game.

Castletroy is a more picturesque and naturally endowed piece of property than ‘my’ home course but since it has been lengthened I am in no hurry to play it again. Limerick is a more enjoyable, albeit easier course. It’s a strategic test, where if you slip out of position the recovery shot is always possible if you are skillful enough whereas Castletroy is inappropriately penal for what is, after all, a member’s course.

17. Over the past 40 years perhaps as much linksland became available in Ireland for new courses as in the rest of the world combined. In general, was the land well used? Or did the architects snuff out too many of the small undulations with their bulldozers?

The golf ground in Ireland is second to none! We have the most dramatic golf courses in the world. I thank my lucky stars that I am an Irishman with so much ‘talent’ in my backyard. If I wanted to be an arch critic, I just might get away with saying that at Waterville, the fairways were flattened too much and that RTJ1 made a mess of the Cashen Course at Ballybunion (which has been rectified since.) If Eddie Hackett or another native Irish architect had been involved, I dare say ‘mistakes’ caused by a lack of understanding of Irish conditions and weather could have been avoided. At Waterville, it’s more than likely that the ‘American influence’ of Jack Mulcahy and Claude Harmon dictated ‘flat’ fairways. Left to his own devices I am sure that Hackett would have left the rumples untouched. If it is heaving fairways you want, I suggest you try Enniscrone, Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, Castlerock, Lahinch, Royal County Down and Baltray, for starters and hack on from there!

18. What were the key events that changed golf in Ireland from a minority sport for the ascendant classes to a mass participation sport in a relatively short time?

First off, may I heartily recommend Early Irish Golf researched and written by Col. William H. Gibson? Bill is the supreme authority on this subject.

A combination of the Irish Rising in 1916 and the outbreak of WW1 changed everything. The Anglo-Irish ascendancy lost its grip by having to go to War. The native Irish moved in, took control and never relinquished it. But, golf remained a relatively small game enjoyed almost exclusively by members of the professions and merchants until the late 1950s when Joe Carr helped to create unprecedented interest by winning The (British) Amateur Championship. When Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor Senior won the Canada Cup in Mexico in 1958 and Fred Corcoran subsequently decided to bring what was effectively the World Cup of Golf to Portmanock in 1960 – the whole country went golf mad at the sight of Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer pulverising the golf ball. I got caught up in it myself and the rest is history!

19. What do you mean when you write that golf is a lifestyle more than a pastime?

If you knew the Morris family who lived at 14 Shannon Drive, you wouldn’t have to ask such a question! I grew up in a golfing household. My parents were passionate enthusiasts. My three brothers and I foozled around with our grandfather’s cast off clubs in the backyard from an early age but we were too involved in other sports to have time for formal golf until later.

Golf was so prominent in our house that my mother put a notice on her kitchen door, which read: Golf Spoken Here! One of her sons thought that this did not reflect the true situation and he added the word ‘Only.’ When I wrote my first book, I couldn’t think of a better title than Only Golf Spoken Here. My mother may have been the keenest golfer of us all. She never neglected her duties but she made us rush our meals if she had a fourball appointment. I was her swing guru because I always had my nose stuck in a golf book. It was a regular occurrence to have to get up from the dinner table and go into the garden to explain some fine point about the set up or swing. If we passed each other on parallel fairways she’d rush over and ask me why she hooked, sliced or topped the ball. Whatever I said she always went back to her game confident that she now had ‘the secret.’

My Dad was more laid back but he played at least twice a week. He was a good putter and a doughty competitor if £1 was at stake. I was going to call my latest book Golf as a Way of Life but my daughter, Caroline (a libraian who knows about books) said that it wasn’t accurate, Life as a Way of Golf would be better. I have always heeded the sensible women in my life!

Since the age of 20 when I went to Eckerd College in Florida on a Rotary International Students Scholarship and played on the golf team, golf has dominated my life. From then on, I forsook my burgeoning rugby and soccer careers and henceforth golf became a critical part of my lifestyle.

My wife didn’t mind because she was a golfer before we met at Woodbrook G.C. She says she could easily keep track of me because I was only ever in three places – at work, at home or on the golf course. I have many regrets about things I did and things that happened to me in golf but have no regrets about giving the game so much time and devotion. It did pay me back but not in quite the way I expected.

20. What exactly is a golf nut?!

I’d say probably someone who comes off the course after a bad day and in the locker room or at home begins rehearsing his swing without a club in his hands and is suddenly convinced that he has found ‘the secret’ and he will play flawlessly next time? My own golfing experience has been a bit like that. It took me a long time to figure out that playing golf was not so much an exercise in self-flagellation but something to be enjoyed. I’m glad I found out before it was too late.

Ivan Morris proudly accepting his Golf Nut of the Year award in 2002 from Tom Jewell who won it the prior year.

 

THE END