The tee shots may not have travelled as far as they once did and the swings were not quite as well grooved but the former South of Ireland champions who assembled at Lahinch yesterday demonstrated they could still teach the modern tigers a thing or two when it came to manoeuvring a golf ball around a links in demanding conditions.
The stars of the past returned to West Clare to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Lahinch club. Among them was the successful Ryder Cup captain and 1991 champion Paul McGinley; Killarney’s Michael Guerin, a hat-trick winner of the South from 1961 to ’63; Rupert Staunton (1965 and 1972); Vincent Nevin (1976 and ’78); Michael Burns (1980); Adrian Morrow (1983 and 1996); John McHenry (1986); Barry Reddan (1987); Mark Gannon (1988) and several others of a more recent vintage.
Jody Fanagan of Milltown, the 1995 winner, had the distinction of beating Pádraig Harrington in the final — although he doesn’t look at in that light given that the pair were close friends and many times foursomes partners for province and country, not to mention helping Britain & Ireland to defeat a US team containing a young Tiger Woods at Porthcawl in ‘95.
“I first came to Lahinch in the mid-80s when we’d stay in Pat McInerney’s Sancta Maria hotel,” he recalled. “I wasn’t a real competitor at the time, I was just learning my way, it was half social, half golf, and nowhere beats Lahinch for a combination of both.
“If you weren’t a serious player, you could do both and it was great fun. You couldn’t beat the atmosphere. Everybody seemed to be on holiday and the crowds were always bigger than anywhere else.
“Then it all happened in one year in 1989. I got to the final against Stephen Keenan but lost on the 22nd. It’s funny, I got to three finals here, ’89, ’94 and ’95, I won the one I shouldn’t have won and lost the two I should have won. Golf is a weird game.
“I finally got over the line at Lahinch in ’95, beating Pádraig. He was the number one player in Ireland, he had won every stroke play event in the country for 12 to 18 months. He had played two Walker Cups but had never won the South and the Walker Cup was coming up again in September that year. I needed to win some championship to get picked. We were pals, we played a lot of foursomes for Leinster, Ireland and GB & Ireland, and to beat him in the final gave credence to making the team. I birdied 17 and 18 to win by one hole and without doubt that was a contributory factor to being at Porthcawl two months later where I played with Pádraig in the foursomes and we won our matches.”
Fanagan reached his third final in 1996 only to lose to Adrian Morrow by 2 & 1.
“I was able to play Lahinch, some courses suit your eye,” he explained. “You drive it into certain areas every time and you either like a course or you don’t and Lahinch was one of the places. It had a great atmosphere and was very good to me. I haven’t played since ’08, Shane Lowry beat me in the third round and I was very impressed, I thought he was a super player.”
And as we shook hands, Jody was quick to remind me that “my grandfather Paul Murray won the South back in 1940”. As they remind you around here with every justification, Lahinch and a proud tradition go hand in hand!
Another South champion with plenty to celebrate yesterday was Mervyn Owens, winner in 2003, and rejoicing in the victory on Sunday of his Mallow club-mate James Sugrue.
“He played great golf,” Owens said. “He works very hard. It doesn’t always come straight away and at 20 he’s still very young. He has great potential and could have a career in the professional game.”
Owens himself tried his luck in the professional game a couple of years after his South victory. After three visits to the European Tour School, he didn’t pursue a career in the pro ranks and indeed plays little golf these days. Yesterday, though, he looked to be swinging as well as ever and clearly enjoyed being back in Lahinch.
“I was watching James’s parents on Sunday and seeing how they were feeling on the sidelines, I was appreciating how mine must have been feeling when I was playing in the final in 2003,” he said. “They are good memories. It’s always nice to come back to Lahinch and even nicer to come back knowing you had won it once before yourself.”
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