There are almost no fairytale stories in sport. Every success happens for a reason. Usually, the reason is fairly ordinary — a combination of good structures, savage work ethic and genuine talent.
And so it is with the new Masters champion, Danny Willett.
The most interesting thing about Willett is that he began his golfing career on a public course. Now, this is not an Oliver Twist story — he is one of four brothers born to a Church of England vicar and a mathematics teacher. But it is a basic lesson in the importance of making sporting facilities available to the public in an affordable way.
The first public golf courses in England and Scotland were built in the 1880s — the first public golf courses opened in Ireland only in the 1970s.
Earlier attempts to open public courses in Ireland foundered through the lack of public or private funding.
Indeed, the government of the Irish Free State had actually agreed to fund a public golf course in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1926, only for the project to be abandoned.
That course was to have been set out on the Fifteen Acres in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Its origins lay in a deputation received by the first government of independent Ireland in November 1924. That deputation — laying bare the type of men who dominated golf in Ireland at the time — consisted of two unionist lords, two doctors, two men from The Irish Times and a catholic priest.
The deputation was met by the two most important members of the government: WT Cosgrave as President (later the office renamed as Taoiseach) and Ernest Blythe as Minister for Finance.
The deputation was well-received and the proposal was pursued to the point of a course being staked out.
There were objections from those who used the park and those who wished to use it more for their own ends.
Among the first were racehorse owners who used the Park for training — these objections were quickly overcome.
More difficult were the objections of the Minister of Defence, who stated that his department wished to use the Phoenix Park as a facility for civil aviation.
The great glamour of the 1920s was the burgeoning world of flying aeroplanes — it was a credit to people within the Irish government that they were moving to embrace this modernity.
Against that — in what was to prove a rather typical experience — there was a turf war between the Department of Defence and the Department of Industry and Commerce as to who would take responsibility for aviation.
In the end, of course, the aerodrome was never built at the Park — the Commissioners of Public Works noted that the Phoenix Park Act required that it be maintained as a “public park for the general purpose of the recreation and enjoyment of the public”. Ultimately, this recreation did not include a public golf course.
Proposals for a different type of golf course in the Phoenix Park were considered in 1938.
The first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde had just been elected. He was a keen golfer and plans were drawn up to build him a golf course in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin.
The ambition was to create a course that would “enable His Excellency to take exercise and recreation without leaving the precincts of An Áras”. Hyde was a keen golfer and the view was that only a small amount of work would be needed to adapt the existing grounds (some rolling, the use of natural obstacles and the constructions of some bunkers).
It was recalled at that time that there has previously been a private course at Áras, when it was the home to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
That course had been built in 1902 and had been used by the elite of Irish society until the outbreak of the Great War.
It was estimated that making the new golf course for the President would cost £44 and its maintenance would not exceed £20 per annum.
It appears that, in the end, the course was not proceeded with and Hyde had the grave misfortune of suffering a massive stroke in early 1940.
By then golf was expanding in Ireland — but expanding in a very particular way. The number of golf clubs grew and grew. Between 1924 and the outbreak of the Second World War, 71 new golf clubs were established. The development of provincial branches of the Golfing Union of Ireland — the development of local, provincial, and national competitions — oversaw this expansion. For example, after the establishment of the Connacht branch in 1924, 16 new golf clubs were established across the province in the decade that followed.
In the process, the golf club became a focal point of social life in city suburbs and in country towns for Ireland’s expanding middle class.
This was a point readily acknowledged by WT Cosgrave when he spoke in 1926 on the occasion of Clontarf Golf Club becoming an 18-hole course.
The imagery conjured up by Cosgrave in his speech was of men enjoying ‘”relaxation in moderate healthy exercise when his day’s work is done, benefitting his health and making himself stronger and fitter for the battle of life” and of an “equable atmosphere in the clubhouse”.
Cosgrave attempted to dismiss the idea that golf was “a game which may be indulged in only by the well-to-do”. The difficulty was that at many golf clubs the pretensions of the Irish middle classes were prone to manifest themselves in outright snobbery. It took a long time for that to change.
It’s what makes the reaction of those who played with Danny Willett so refreshing.
Perhaps the best was the unfussy expert opinion of one who played with Willett when he was young: “He wasn’t especially good; he was just a normal boy who liked playing golf.”
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