Rugby players in an Irish Open Pro-Am are not an unusual sight. Along with GAA stars and jockeys, they are a staple of the pre-tournament entertainment at this annual stop on the European Tour. Yet today’s Pro-Am at Lahinch should resonate more than most with the rugby community for there are strong bonds between the iconic Clare golf club and doyens of the oval-ball game, and those from Munster in particular.
Former British & Irish Lions heroes Keith Wood and Paul O’Connell will be teeing it up this morning in the company of former Ireland team-mate Shane Byrne and their flamboyant professional Andrew “Beef” Johnston, while ex-Leinster and Ireland wing Luke Fitzgerald will play in the company of last year’s runner-up Ryan Fox (himself the son of All Black legend Grant Fox), former Kerry footballer Tomas Ó Sé and sports broadcaster Joe Molloy.
Both Wood and O’Connell are regulars at Lahinch. Wood’s father and former Lion Gordon used to own the 19th Bar on nearby Main St while Lahinch member O’Connell, like current Munster and Ireland prop Dave Kilcoyne, has a house in the town.
Perhaps no one better exemplifies the rugby link with Lahinch, however, than this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open chief marshal, Martin O’Sullivan. The long-standing Lahinch member is also a recent former president of the Irish Rugby Football Union and the current chairman of Limerick AIL club UL Bohemian.
O’Sullivan, with help from Lahinch historian Fr Enda Glynn, took time out from his preparations organising the tournament’s huge army of volunteers to shed a little more light on the golf club’s links with rugby.
“Enda told me only this morning that (Ireland’s 1948 Grand Slam-winning captain) Karl Mullen played Open week at the club in 1947 and won two cups in one day, which is pretty significant, so there are lots of links like that,” O’Sullivan told the Irish Examiner yesterday.
“For instance, there was Jamesie Maher, who was the brother of TJ Maher, a president of the Irish Farmers Association back in the 1960s and who became an MEP. They were from Tipperary and Jamesie was a captain here and he was also doctor to the Ireland team for years.
“And then we’ve had members like Des Torrens, who was from Ennis and played for UL Bohs actually — he was capped by Ireland in the late 1930s. Paul Murray was a chairman of the Irish selectors and a grandfather of Jody Fanagan.
“But Mullen, he was captain of that Ireland team (which also won the Triple Crown in 1949) that included Jim McCarthy and Bertie O’Hanlon, two Corkmen, Dolphin men, both of whom had houses here in Lahinch and were members for many, many years.
Fr Glynn added: “I remember Jim McCarthy coming here, and seeing him. All the talk was of Jim McCarthy, who won the Triple Crown — a big, strong, powerful man. He was a one handicap and he used to come and play the South and he was the talk of the place.
“That was while he was still playing rugby whereas Bertie O’Hanlon would have come after his rugby days.”
O’Sullivan also mentions the Lahinch-based Crows & Prawns Golf Society, of which he is a member.
“That’s probably a story all on its own,” he joked, “but at one point we had four rugby internationals in the Crows & Prawns, sadly three of them have passed, Al Moroney, Mick O’Callaghan, who was Sunday’s Well and Young Munster who died last year and lived across the road from here, and Paddy Lane, another former chairman of the IFA who was also an MEP and is I think still the only Old Crescent man to be capped by Ireland.
“I think the three boys might have played in the same Ireland front row in 1964 but the other, surviving member is Tommy Doyle, Mick Doyle’s brother. They played maybe two or three times together in the back row for Ireland.”
The list goes on and on to the modern day and a Lahinch golfing community that now includes former Ireland team managers Pa Whelan and Mick Kearney, current golf club trustee John Power, a former Ireland A international, the twice-capped Mick Sherry, father of former Munster hooker Mike Sherry, and ex-Ireland back rower Mike Gibson, who will be one of O’Sullivan’s marshalling volunteers this week.
Then there is the Munster legend O’Connell, who was at the course on Monday of this week and will be teeing off his Pro-Am round from the 18th in this afternoon’s 1.30pm shotgun start.
“Another connection this week, of course,” adds O’Sullivan, “is Colm McLaughlin, the boss of Dubai Duty Free and the brother of Ray and Feidlim, both of whom played for Ireland. We need to mention our sponsors!”