Back to the Future at Lahinch

By going back to the Alister MacKenzie prototype Lahinch has secured its future and ensured that some of the top golfers in the world are coming to North Clare for this week’s Irish Open writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh after meeting up with club stalwart Martin Barrett who is steeped in the old and the new and who has stories to tell.

Former Lahinch captain and president Martin Barrett.

“THERE has always been a Barrett on the links.”

There’s a quiet and understated, yet a forceful and justifiable pride in Martin Barrett as he says those words, opening the trapdoor of his mind as he goes to his family’s storied association with Lahinch — himself and his five brothers; his father and his five brothers, all of whom are as much part of the links’ lore as the goats are with their grazing rights.

We meet in the Coast Hotel at the top of Main Street, a bit more altitude up the Miltown Malbay Road to where the old Golf Links Hotel used to stand and you’re looking down over it all — the terrain that the Barretts know as well as farmers know their land, or as well as old fishermen from up the road in Liscannor and out towards the Aran Islands know the floor of the sea.

“If I had one look back in history,” he muses, “I would love to look back at that building, the Golf Links Hotel, because I heard at night time it was majestic. 

“The ladies in their long gowns and the men in their plus fours smoking their cigars. You know, you could get from St Pancreas Station in London to Lahinch station in 24 hours….and they came.”

With the Barretts there to meet them — six brothers in all, who worked on the course, whether it was caddying, in the caddies’ shack, or tending to the links. “The first South was in 1895 and my uncle Johnny caddied in that when he was very young,” Martin reveals.

“He was the eldest in the family and they all worked on the links. He became caddy master, my dad worked as a groundsman, my uncle Patty worked as a groundsman, Matthew, who died young worked there, then my Uncle Michael did for a while, but he went away to Scotland and learned the art of club-making.

“Johnny became the most known because he became caddy master. He minded the members clubs, but as well as that he used to open the links in the morning. He had to tidy it up, get it ready, the bar and everything and then he’d go over to his place and would stay there all day. 

“He had to stay at night time until the last member left the club. He’d lock it up — he’d work from six in the morning to 12 at night, seven days a week. He was just devoted to it — it was a way or life for him and he was a great character.”

Three of the brothers fought in the First World War, all living to tell the tale as they returned to Lahinch to take up where they left off on the links, even Patty who could never work again because of his war wounds, had a role to play.

“He came back with a wooden leg,” says Martin, “but he was right next to the links, in the home house that was down near where John Burke built a new par three after a lot of the eighth was washed away. 

“The hole bordered onto to the stone house called Green Lawn. It had a big garden, a haggard, and my uncle Patty — because he only had one leg and couldn’t work — used to mind it, sowing lettuce, carrots, parsnips. Down at the end of the garden he had a wooden seat and he’d sit there for hours every day and smoke his pipe and the people playing golf would come up to chat to him. That was part and parcel of it. He was part of it.”

There he saw the two most storied championships ever held in Lahinch come to a climax — famous 1946 duels of John Burke and Joe Carr in the South of Ireland final and Philomena Garvey and Clarrie Reddan in the Irish Ladies Close final — while other members of the clan were on the other side of the wall working in different capacities. Johnny organising the caddies and Paul out the course, with the next generation soon following the same path.

“My brother Paddy caddied for Paddy Leydon every time he won the South Ireland and he won it four times,” says Martin. “I remember ’57, the last one he won — it was the year I began caddying, stating on Whit Weekend 62 years ago.

“I was seven years and caddied for the princely sum of one shilling and ten pence. There were no caddy cars in those days, but they weren’t big heavy bags, they were canvas with sometimes only six or seven clubs in them.

“You had to judge the player going up the first, gauge how good he was and after two holes you knew and you’d be able to tell him what club to use. There was no yardage in those days. It was on the job training.

“My uncle gave us the tough jobs because we were family,” he continues. “My brother Johnny got a slap from Bishop Browne of Galway one day and he left him on the ninth, but if he did he was barred from caddying by his uncle, because he had let the bishop down. He had shamed us. My other brother Matthew caddied with him for five or six years and had no problem with him.

“I remember caddying for a fella in ’57 — I remember Johnny’s words as if it was yesterday. It was late in the evening and he said ‘you go and keep up with that man, mind him and he’ll be good to you’.

“Tommy Walsh, who owned the goats, used to caddy for him, but he had got old so I was given the job. He was a fella called JJ McHugh from Donegal — he played nine holes and when we came in he gave me a red ten shilling note. There was no one being paid that kind of money — he was here for a fortnight,  a week at Whit and then in September, and every day I got a red ten shilling note. We have a cup that honours him. The first club I ever owned it was JJ that gave it to me — a six iron.”

WITH help from that six iron Martin became a golfer — going from caddying to playing, from carrying bags in the South of Ireland to playing in them, from being team-mates of such legendary figures as Paddy Leydon and Greg Young to following them as club captains, from playing against big guns like Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke to playing a lead role in driving the course re-design that’s now bringing McGinley, Clarke et al back for the Irish Open.

“So many golfers came from caddying,” he says of his own education in the game. “Going back to my  father’s time, you had the great John Burke, Tommy Queally and Sligo Hayes — they were all good caddy golfers.

“Caddies became golfers because they were always on the links,” he continues, “even though we couldn’t play on the golf course — we were hunted off it. Down beside the present third hole — at the gap at the end of the village we had our own little nine hole course along the side and that’s when we played. Sometimes we ventured onto the golf course in the evening but we’d be chased off it by the pro if he saw us.

Lahinch caddy master Johnny Barrett with his caddies in the 1960s.

“When I joined it was Greg Young who moulded me, he was a mentor to me when I came on the Senior Cup team — I was only 20. He taught me all the right things. He was a great man and a great player, with lady luck robbing him of three of the five South finals he lost, while also lost an Irish Close final in Ballybunion.

“I played Paul McGinley in the South — not the year he won it but the year before. The following year he won and he got on the Walker Cup team. Darren Clarke used to stay with me above in the house on School Road — in 1990 he came and everyone was talking about him. Everyone was saying ‘who is going to be second’. He had already won the North.

“I drew him in the second or third round. He won the first two holes off me starting with 4, 4. On the third we both missed the green and chipped to about ten feet. Darren holed and I missed; the same thing happened on the fourth up the hill, which is now the third. I was four down. We came to the Klondyke and I was in behind the pin in two and about 18 feet away. Darren was over on the sixth tee with a good long pitch — I was saying ‘good, at least I’m going to get a hole back’. He put his pitch to ten feet and I was saying to myself ‘will I go for this or nudge it down and hope he misses’. I went for it and knocked it three feet past and he duly holed, leaving me with a putt to avoid going five down. 

“All I could hear in my head were the dogs barking — I thought I was going to get a dog licence, which would be the worst thing. I holed the putt and then won a hole off him and came off the ninth green three down saying ‘at least he can’t beat me a dog license’. He still beat me at 15.

“After Paul beat me his father Mick, who I knew well, came over to me when the match ended on the 17th to get my opinion on what I thought of him. I could see he had it. These golfers were a new breed at Lahinch, ready to go pro, while before that you had career amateurs.

“Players like Vincent Nevin, Pat Mulcare, Rupert Staunton, Mick Morris — they were coming here every year and everyone knew them and there was a festive atmosphere because the players were so familiar. When Greg Young was in the South finals there were 5,000 following the matches — they came for everywhere.”

Now, nearly half a century on that festive atmosphere is set to return to Lahinch with the pros and the latest coming of Paul McGinley and the stellar line-up he has secured as the tournament host, with Martin Barrett’s role in that process being traceable back 20 years, and over 90 years when you putt his late father Paul into the picture.

When Dr Alister MacKenzie mused in 1926 that Lahinch would “make the finest and most popular course that I, or I believe anyone else, has ever constructed”, one of the people who helped make that happen was Paul Barrett, who worked as a groundsman on the course.

And it was that link which informed Martin Barrett’s captaincy of the club in 1999, with the fruits of the work that started that year being the great building block for Lahinch to finally take its place on the Irish Open rota — 20 years on and the 20th  ever Irish Open venue.

“I had been saying it to people right throughout the ‘90s that it was time to restore Lahinch to its MacKenzie design,” says Martin, “so when I found myself on committee there were enough of us there who were like-minded — it was time to act.

“We only really had MacKenzie’s course for about eight years, ’27 to ’35 and then we lost a lot of its integrity. We were called a MacKenzie course but I knew we weren’t because all his greens had been levelled and turned into tennis courts virtually after the committee took the decision in ‘35 to flatten four greens and then over the two or three years they flattened about 14 of them. 

“When we started restoring it in ’99 it was under my stewardship, with the committee deciding that I would be the Lahinch man working with the architect Martin Hawtree. We trusted him to do it because was a great student  of MacKenzie, but Lahinch members showed great courage to go ahead with the project, because without doing it we were already pretty well rated. 

“We as a committee had agreed to do it, but we had to go through an extraordinary general meeting. We had to get the approval of two-thirds of members. It was great we got it.

“We’d lost several holes over the years. I knew where the original greens were because my Dad had shown them to me and I had a written document about it. The shape of the whole course came back. Now, you look at it and Lahinch would be in the top three in Ireland, after Portrush and County Down.

“It’s not the best golf course, Portrush and County Down are ahead of it, but Lahinch is the best overall product. In America I would safely say that Lahinch would be talked about more than any other course in Ireland. It’s the golf, but it’s also apart from the course, the village, the atmosphere in the place. The friendship. Everything.”

Fitting then that some of the best golfers in the world — major champions and major champions in the making — should get to sample Lahinch’s unique atmosphere, on and off the course, with the Barretts’ links to major champions coming full circle, as Martin reveals a reel nugget from his family’s past.

“My uncle Michael, who turned pro, ended up in America and worked first of all with the Spalding Golf Company in New York. He went in the ‘20s and in the fall of ’29 Bobby Jones came up from Atlanta — he knew the owners — and he said he’d like a new set of woods. The owner said, ‘I’ve the man who will make them for you — he served his time in Scotland’. 

“It was my uncle Michael who made the woods for Bobby Jones and he went on to win the Grand Slam in 1930 — the US and British Opens, the US and British Amateurs. In the fall of that year he came back up to New York and he gave my uncle a great tip — a few hundred dollars when there was $500 to the pound back then. That allowed him to come home to Lahinch for a couple of months.”

Bobby Jones, Lahinch, Alister MacKenzie, Augusta.

That’s history, some history, with the Barretts as common denominators steeped in it all.

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