Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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MAJOR WINS

West of Ireland Open Amateur 1968

Alfred Dunhill Cup 1988

Hennessy Cognac Cup 1980, 1982.

Team Appearances

Ryder Cup: 2.

Alfred Dunhill Cup: 5 (1 win).

World Cup: 5.

Hennessy Cognac Cup: 3 (2 wins).

UBS Cup: 1.

Professional wins 20

Open Championship: 15+

Number of wins by tour

European Tour: 8 (tied 28th all time, check)

Champions Tour: 2

European Seniors: Tour 2

DES SMYTH
GOLF

‘What's great about golf is that you can start when you are four years old and you can play forever. You don’t get injured and it keeps you active. I’ve got friends of eighty years of age who jump out of bed in the morning to play a round. And they are marching! That’s living proof that there’s a long life after forty.’

So says Desmond John Smyth, champion golfer and Ryder Cup veteran, who was born in the port town of Drogheda, Co. Louth, on 12 February 1953. His grandfather and father were in the victualler trade, running a butcher and slaughter yard in Drogheda.[i]

Des is the third of four sons, all of whom developed a passion for the game. The origin of their fervour is not complex. They grew up in the village of Bettystown, less than one mile from the windswept links course of the Laytown and Bettystown Golf Club on the coast of Co. Meath.

‘That whole coastal area is something of a golfing Mecca’, says Des. ‘The golf club was very strong on promoting junior players and it became a sort of golfing nursery. My brothers and I all played football and tennis, but golf was the only sport you could play on your own. We started on the beach. And we slowly graduated to the club. I happened to be good at it and I started winning junior competitions which boosted my ego and inspired me to practice more.’

During the mid-1960s, Des represented his club in contests against rivals such as County Louth, Malahide and Royal Dublin. In 1968, he won the West of Ireland Amateur Championship in Rosses Point, Co. Sligo. He also won ‘a couple of scratch cups’. At the age of 16, Des also played for his school, - St. Joseph’s Christian Brothers School in Drogheda, when they won the inaugural Irish Schools Match Play Championships. The Leinster selectors duly took note of the youngster and picked him for their junior team in the provincial championships. By the age of 18, Des was playing at senior level for Ireland. ‘To play for your country is the highest level you can reach in any country’, he says.

He was scheduled to represent Ireland in the Walker Cup – the amateur version of the Ryder Cup – when injured in a car accident. As his wounded shoulder recovered, he was faced with a critical decision. Remain an amateur and have another crack at the Walker Cup in two years time. Or bite the bullet and become a tournament professional, aka, a golf pro.

He turned pro in 1974, shortly after his 20th birthday.[ii] ‘I’d always wanted to be a professional golfer’, he says. ‘I loved the idea of making a living playing golf. So now it was all about the prize money and I was looking to see what tours I could join’. It wasn’t an easy transition. ‘I had a rough ride because I just wasn’t strong enough to begin with and I struggled for four or five years.’

The butcher’s son from Co. Louth served his time in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. ‘They were pretty tough places to be thirty seven years ago’, he says. ‘They were small tournaments and you funded yourself so that when you won, you reinvested it. If you stuck it out, you became a better player. But it’s a hard world and a lot of guys came and went. You only read about those on top. You don’t hear about the ones who fall out the sides. There were times when I thought I’m not going to make it’.

In 1979, he had his European Tour breakthrough, winning the European Sun Alliance Match Play Championship. ‘That broke the ice for me’, he says. ‘That gave me the confidence I’d been missing. Confidence is such a big part of the game. Everyone hits a dip so its all about finding a way to improve, or cope, or move onwards.’ He went on to win the first of his six Irish National PGA Championships that summer and played on the European Team for the 1979 Ryder Cup.

For nearly forty years, he has played in tournaments all over the world, spending approximately nine months a year on the road. From May to September, he joined the European Tour, and otherwise he was often in South Africa or Australia. He also did six years on the Champions Tour in America. He was on the Ryder Cup team again in 1981, and played in five World Cups. In 1988, he partnered Eamonn Darcy and Ronan Rafferty to win the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews, and he personally finished seventh on the 1988 European Tour’s Order of Merit.

In 2001, Des used his signature long ‘broomhandle’ putter to great effect to become the oldest man to win a European Tour event, claiming the Madeira Island Open at the age of 48 years and 34 days. Two years later, he became the first European to win the US Senior Tour Qualifying School outright, scooping prize money of close to $1 million dollars in his first season. He was one of Ian Woosnam's vice-captains at the 2006 Ryder Cup which took place at the K-Club in Co. Kildare. He also won both the 2005 Arcapita Seniors Tour Championship and the 2007 Wentworth Senior Masters.

‘I always thought that there would come a point where I wasn’t making that much money because there’s young guys coming in all the time. But it didn’t happen. The game grew, the TV companies got interested and then Sky got involved because they have a TV on every wall of every hotel, pub and club. So a lot more money came into the game which meant that, while I was definitely working harder, I could keep making money.’[iii]

He continues to play on the European Senior Tour during the summer. ‘Basically every tournament lasts a week’, he says. ‘You get out on a Tuesday and you’re out there until Sunday, all day, every day’. He has also turned his hand to course design, most notably with what is considered to be a cracking links course at Seapoint near Termonfeckin in Co. Louth.

‘We have a great golfing history in this country’, he says. ‘It’s one of those sports where Ireland punches well above its’ weight. We’re a tiny country, yet we keep producing golfers who are hitting the top ten in the world. There’s 30 million golfers in America!’ He reckons Rory McElroy is ‘the best we’ve ever seen … he is the real deal and he’s going to be our Tiger Woods.’

‘I’m 57 and I’m going to play the European Senior Tour for a few years yet’, he says. ‘I’ve always enjoyed what I’d doing. I feel very fortunate because when I started at 20, I though if I get 20 years out of this and enjoy it and make a few bucks, that would be great. The way life has gone, I’m nearly 40 years at it and I’m still making a few quid. I know it’s near the end. In golfing terms, I’m way down the back nine in my career! But I’ve enjoyed the ride.’

FOOTNOTES

[i] Patrick Smyth, Des’s grandfather, married Noreen Fitzgerald from Co. Limerick. Des’s mother Josephine was the daughter of Dan Rock, an insurance salesman from Slane, Co. Meath. The Baltray connection comes through Mary Anne, daughter of a sailor called Patrick Sheridan, who was born in 1900 and grew up in Baltray. Patrick Jr. and Josephine had four sons Pat, Val, Des and Rafael and a daughter, Delores. Val had a particularly successful amateur career. Des’s wife and children also play golf. His wife Vicki is a daughter of the golfer Clarry Reddan (nee Tiernan).

[ii] I applied to the British PGA, which incorporates Ireland, and they assessed my ability, accepted me and I was in.

[iii] ‘The TV changed it all. It made people famous and rich but you still better be awful good because the numbers trying to get to the top level are huge. In the European Tour, there’s 115 exempt players whoa automatically playing on a regular basis. But there are thousands of us trying to graduate to get to there, because if you get there you’re in the big league.’

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.