If Muskerry Golf Club's Martin Lehane was the self-professed 'worst pro of all time', how come over 500 members came out to honour him when he retired? Tony Leen charts a Tin Cup-type affair
If interviewing Martin Lehane was an illustrated 18 holes, one mightn’t bother shading in the fairways. More likely, we’d spin a yarn left and right, with hooks, draws, fades and those dastardly shanks, the sweet and the sour of life as a golf club professional.
Lehane is 68 now and retired two years after 38 summers as the pro at Muskerry Golf Club in Cork. His was a ‘Tin Cup’ sort of life; a Roy McAvoy devil-may-care charmed and carefree career that took him to Glengarriff, Tralee, Ennis, Shannon and, most enjoyably, at the famed Quimper resort in north-western France.
He dismisses himself as one of the most uncouth golf pros in the country, one as likely to tell a member he couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo, or that she had a swing as elegant as a gym sock on a shower rod.
When Costner’s ‘Tin Cup’ character taught swings, he did so in poetic verse: ‘Lowly and slowly the club head is led back, pulled into position not by the hands, but by the body, which turns away from the target, shifting weight to the right side without shifting balance. Tempo is everything, perfection unobtainable, as the body coils down at the top of the swing. There's a slight hesitation. And now the weight begins shifting back to the left, pulled by the powers inside the earth. It's alive, this swing! A living sculpture and down through contact, always down, striking the ball crisply, with character. A tuning fork goes off in your heart and your balls. Such a pure feeling is the well-struck golf shot.'
Muskerry’s finest might be a tad more prosaic: ‘Just hit the f*cking ball’.
But Martin Lehane became hugely popular as a sort of a gruff outlier in the genteel world of golf, gin and breeches. He fed the local kids with sweets and treats when he hadn’t a bob for himself and he warned anyone who saw his generous side to share it with no-one. He had a snarly reputation to preserve.
On the night he retired and arrived at Muskerry to be granted honorary life membership by the club committee, over 500 folk from all walks, including good ones spoiled, wedged into the clubhouse to see off one of their own and a good ‘un. The man who learned his short game from watching Ballesteros. Who learned Jimmy Bruen techniques from his father. Who led the first round of the French Open. Who turned down a life as a personal golf pro to the rich and famous in Cannes.
All for the lure of Muskerry’s bark and banter, mending clubs and throwing occasional pearls of wisdom in the direction of members seeking swing salvation.
“I came in seven days a week. I took perhaps one week off a year, but this wasn’t work,” he shrugs. “I’ve seen the other side. I was thinning beet with my bare hands at 12 years of age.”
The man who replaced him in 2018 as Muskerry club pro, Fred Twomey is widely acknowledged as one of the leading teachers in the game. He says: “I’ve met Butch Harmon, Pete Cowan and Howard Bennett, and Martin knows more about golf than anyone I’ve ever met. He knew Christy O’Connor Snr, Jimmy Bruen and Harry Bradshaw. He’s seen some stuff.”
The granules of our three-part interview lay untouched for most of the last year. His was a yarn for a night sitting at the counter, bouncing from Feherty to Seve, from Des Smyth to Mark James, from Ballybunion to Brittany. Listening to Martin Lehane on the rare occasion he ventures into full sentences is a wonder. As long as one isn’t planning to put shape, sequence and structure on it.
One moment he’s revelling in how he got his PGA professional cert by default, the next he is handing over to Fred Twomey after arguably the longest run as a club golf pro in Ireland. It took him a bit to settle, mind.
Here’s a flavour.
“I left Muskerry in 1970 when I was still 17 after four and a half years of an apprenticeship under the pro there, Timmy McElligott, the man I would eventually replace. I went to Glengarriff Golf Club for a short while and then to Tralee when Timmy rang and said ‘you are doing nothing down there, it’s about time you took this thing seriously. There’s a job in Shannon’. I was there for three and a half years and in that time, I reckon I gave three lessons. I playing poker half the night – I never drank, gambling was my vice – and eventually they said to me ‘we’ve enough of you’.
"I headed for the bus back to Cork with my bag of clubs when this fella pulls up alongside me.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Heading outta here. Home.’
‘I’ve no job.’
‘Would you take a job in Ennis?’
“The secretary-manager brought me back in the car, sat me down and started. ‘Right, eight o’clock in the morning you start, you cut the greens, you are the pro then from 1pm through to dark. I was there for 18 months – a pretty good record for me - and for someone who hardly taught in Shannon, I made a lot of money from teaching in Ennis. Having the few bob changed my perspective on things cos I was always one who was happy to have enough to feed myself.
“Afterwards I came back to Cork and Pat McCarthy from Fas gave me a job. One morning I am sitting there with a bottle of milk, welding away. My brother Michael was the assistant in Muskerry (he’s now in Douglas as assistant greenkeeper), and he started telling me of this French man offering him a pro job out there. McElligott was saying if he didn’t go, would I consider it?
“So I arrive in France on a four-month contract with no French. I met the taxi driver at the airport with one word: Montparnasse. I drew a picture of tracks on a piece of paper for him and off I go with his directions to the train station. Quimper? Platform 6, six hours away. When I arrived, the girl is standing on the platform: ‘We will go to La Foret, where the golf course is and we will talk more tomorrow.” And so it began.
“The following morning, the boss man, Monsieur Nargot (the spelling is phonetic and he couldn’t remember his christian name) arrived and said to me ‘I hear you are not too good at getting up in the mornings. The first morning you are late here, you are gone home’. Obviously McElligott was talking to him. ‘Oh and here’s 1,000 francs for you to start and you are teaching at 2pm’.”
Quimper-Cornouaille claims to be the oldest course on Brittany’s glorious south coast. It is also one of the most scenic.
“About three months after this, this fella arrives, Monsieur Jamer, I can never remember his first name. He asked me would I accompany him for a round of golf. The caddies started giving me the nod, this fella was a multi, multi-millionaire. He was the first person I’d seen who owned his own golf cart. He drove it around, didn’t open his mouth. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.
“Eventually after five years, with my mother’s health not great, I decided to head home. So my rich friend gets wind of this. He had got used to playing me in the afternoons, when the club cancelled all my lessons to facilitate his game. He stayed around for the summer, and if his game hadn’t gone well with me in the afternoon, he’d be stewing. ‘Right, fix me’, he’d bark.
"And I got paid extra for that as well. ‘How do we get on so well’, I asked him one evening? ‘Very easy’, he said. ‘I have everything, you have nothing, but you don’t want anything off me. I am now making you an offer: I live in Cannes. You can have a job in the afternoon, four days a week, I’ll pay you a salary, and if it is raining, we don’t play’. Basically, his personal golf pro in Cannes.
“’Nah’, I said, ‘I couldn’t be bothered’. So I came back to Ireland and drew the dole.”
He was 27 then and had seen a bit of what tour golf could offer. If you wanted it badly.
“I led the French Open after nine holes one year, 1978. It was at Le Touquet, we had qualified on the Monday at nearby Hardelot where I played with Mark James. It was his first pro tournament, he was English strokeplay champion that year. Arrogant sort. I shot 72, he shot 74. When the tournament started, I was two under after nine, Ronnie Shade from Scotland was one behind me. ]
"That was the end of me though, I finished 73 for the first round. I was top ten around Brittany, but this was another level, a level you had to work day and night for.
“One of the things I learned early in my golf life is that you have to have some special string to your bow. If not, you are going out the door in the morning with little to differentiate you. At Le Touquet, I watched Seve Ballesteros practice evenings. I was inside his ball on the last four holes earlier, but he was three shots better than me.
"The difference, the talent, was putting and short game. I watched him become so efficient around the greens. I was sitting on a pole at the back of the practice area. He stared me down. I said ‘I’ll say nothing, just watch’.”
Back in Quimper, he was hustling a handy living. Every Saturday he played with the captain, every Sunday the club president. Everyone put eight francs into the kitty – there might be 40 playing – and I cleaned up for months on end until they got pissed off and put a stop to it. The course was made for me. I’d finish work at 7, but flake balls around it all night. You couldn’t beat me there. The record was 71 when I arrived, but it was my 63 when I left.”
The draw of home was stronger now, and Lehane understood the meaning of a lesson from his father many years earlier.
“My old fella, Dan, has three county medals, he played with the ‘Barrs. Now he could play golf. He had 13 threes in 18 holes at Muskerry. One of my first Pro-Ams here as the club pro, I am back to the bridge (the 16th hole) in about level par and I banged out a drive on 17 when I heard one of the old fellas saying ‘his old fella would beat him with his left hand’.
“Which was true. When I was 16, I was practising, and he’d have this dog around the place looking for golf balls. He hadn’t played in years. ‘We’ll have nine holes’, I say. He bate the shit out of me, and from that day I understood the difference. He was a golfer, a talent. I was manufactured.”
Between McElligott and himself, Muskerry was served by only two pros for an incredible 70 years.
“When Timmy retired, the secretary here, said ‘Martin, the job is yours if you want it. There were a few obstacles though. The committee wanted me on a year’s probation, they knew how I had got my PGA credentials (Lehane and Tommy Maher had turned back at port when the PGA event in the UK was cancelled, though they were given their certs anyway). I ended up staying 38 years. I was decent at club repair, good at teaching when I wanted to be, and I could play a bit too. ‘I would say to members, ‘I saw you playing last week, you wouldn’t bate a bull on the arse with a shovel’.
"They accepted me. The members knew the character they had. If I told them they weren’t worth teaching, I would add that they needed to bring their hand over a bit to strengthen their grip. I wasn’t giving them 27 things to do. When the kids would come into me, I’d send them off with Mars bars while I fixed their clubs. They grew up but never forgot.”
He lived both ends of the gig - the glamour years in France, the marvellous uncertainty of bouncing from one club to another, the settled security of a permanent posting.
“You move around but that was the life of a golf pro. Things are different now. You must be more disciplined, more educated, more tech savvy. Before, some lads fancied the drink, so when I’d got for an interview, I would wear my shiniest Pioneer pin, and shur, I nearly had the job before anyone even mentioned golf. From the mid-seventies on, the game changed in every sense.
“Basically, I did my bit of teaching, bit of club-fixing, I never regretted staying in Muskerry for so long. How could I? I was my own boss. I had a great life, there wasn’t a morning I didn’t look forward to coming into work. Because to me, it wasn’t work.
“And I knew not to outstay my welcome near the end. Freddy is a better teacher than me. The club said to call in for a letter saying I could come and go as I pleased. Honorary membership. Not bad for a fella who started off caddying at 13.”