Links Life at Lahinch

The McCavery clan are associated with Lahinch Golf Club since 1927 — former club professional Robert McCavery reels in the years of that involvement that saw the club move from a seasonal part-time operation to a full-time business writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

Robert McCavery at Lahinch Golf Course

ROBERT McCavery disappears outside for a few minutes to get some tools of his golfing trade that have been his since birth, well before it, in fact.

Just over 90 years ago, when the McCavery name first planted itself in Lahinch, this was the place referred to as the Hotel Field — where local farmers had either the grazing rights or the hay rights to the undulating terrain in front of the Golf Links Hotel.

Now it’s a housing estate in up-village and higher altitude Lahinch, with a bird’s eye view of land and sea — one spawned by the success of the golf club as the village gradually grew up around it and ate plenty of green grass along he way.

It’s where 78-year-old Robert McCavery lives, providing a bridging link between the old and new Lahinch and its golf — something that the retired pro at the high seat of the Clare golfing experience does on a number of different levels.

You see this when he reappears in the door with a block of wood in one hand that’s raw, coarse and ready for sculpting, while in the other is a beautifully varnished hickory-shafted putter that wouldn’t have been out of place in Bobby Jones’ or Walter Hagen’s bag, or in a museum now.

“This is what being a pro was like in my father’s time,” he says, “because this is what you had when he came to Lahinch. The pros were club-makers and green-keepers in those days — keepers of the greens they’d call them. They wouldn’t work on the course, but would supervise the work, the cutting of greens and tees and everything on the course.

“Most of the pros around the country were making clubs — the few pros that there were, as they were very scarce. He was the only one in Clare. There were two in Limerick — one in Castletroy and one in Ballyclough. 

“Making the driver you’d start out with a rough timber block and you’d cut out the piece for the face of it, then the piece on the bottom for the plate, then you’d put a shaft into it and put a grip on it. That was with the wooden clubs. The iron clubs were easier and they were only assembled. You and the iron head and you’d put the shaft on then put your stamp on the club,” he adds.

The McCavery stamp has travelled the world — first it was William (Bill) McCavery’s when he was club professional in seven decades, now it’s Robert McCavery’s, who between being his father’s assistant and then his successor racked up a further seven decades of service to club and course.

“You’d make a set or irons in a day no problem,” he says, “because you’d get the heads ready made, but the woods were different, because you made them from scratch.

“For a timber shafted club the shaft would be spliced onto the head — you’d have a ram’s horn in the face of the club to protect the timber. The head was permission, the wood was from the roots of the persimmon tree grown in the southern states of North America.  

“You’d cut out a piece of timber at the back and you’d pour your lead into it. Whatever weight you wanted it decided how much lead you put in. Making the clubs you’d boil the glue pot on a primer stove — it was made of cows hooves and the smell was horrible.”

So horrible that the scent never really leaves you, but McCavery will tell you that it was a great trade, a craft and a skill that was obviously as well learned as any master carpenter’s would be.  

“There’s one of these in Anchorage in Alaska,” he says holding up the hand-crafted bespoke putter once more. “Americans mostly buy them. They buy them to hang them up on office walls or at home, but they’re in told places too — they’re all over the world. The late country music singer John Denver had one — he played here and was presented with one and then years afterwards he rang the golf shop below about it.”

“I answered the phone,” recalls McCavery’s wife Anne, “and it was ‘Hello I’m Jawyn Danever’,” she adds.

“We didn’t believe it was him,” says McCavery, “but it was. He was at a concert in Dublin and he rang because the putter had fallen out of the buggy and got damaged. He sent it down and we got it repaired and sent it onto where was playing his next concert.”

It’s the kind of thing that can always happen at Lahinch, with the famous links — hewn by Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie, Martin Hawtree and others and visited by golfers from the artisans to the aristocrat classes, Open champions and everyone — having seen it all ever before the Irish Open makes landfall this July.

With the McCaverys having seen it all in their lives and times around the links that’s famous the world over.

“Dr Alister MacKenzie has been to Lahinch and estimated that £1,500 will make nine fine holes on the western side of the road. One of the features of the new course will be almost a total absence of blindness — a startling assertion to make about Lahinch, yet seemingly correct.”  The Irish Independent, 1926

IT was 1927 and exciting times in Lahinch,  The Cork Examiner reporting that Dr MacKenzie’s grand plans “will mean that the links will have to be completely reconstructed”, with the committee backing the architect who would later be associated with Augusta National even though “a considerable sum will be required”.

Robert McCavery with golfing legend Tom Watson.

It wasn’t the only investment made in Lahinch’s future that same year — 27-year-old Bill McCavery was also appointed as the new professional, taking over from local man Willie McNamara. He was Lahinch’s third pro, the original of the species being Dubliner James McKenna, before McKenna, whose home place was where Kenny’s is on the Main Street is now, took over in 1899 for a 28-year stint at the helm.

Bill McCavery would become as local as the locals themselves, serving as club professional for 60 years between 1927 and ’87, but it took time for him to be accepted, as the Robert recalls. “Coming from Newcastle in County Down he was a black Protestant coming down to Lahinch,” he says. 

“It would be the same as me going up to Shandon Park or one of those places. He got a rough time when he came down here first. It was verbal stuff, but he weathered it though.

“For the first few years that he came down he only stayed for the summer season — there was only a few months golf in the year that time and then he’d go home to Newcastle for the winter. He married a local woman then, she was Reidy from the Lahinch/Liscannor area, in 1939 and settled down and that was it. 

“The Home Internationals were here in Lahinch in 1987 the week he died. They were on here on the Sunday and he died the following Saturday. He was £3 a week when he came first, so it was very different times,” continues Robert. 

“The membership was three just guineas — £3 and three shillings to join. I don’t know what it is now. There was really nothing in the village when he came here first. They had golf for those few months when it would be busy — June, July, August and maybe a week in September. That was it. The whole lot nearly closed down after that.”

But Bill McCavery was still busy, as in those early years he was the conduit for Alister MacKenzie’s work, with Fr Enda Glynn noting in ‘125 Years of Golf at Lahinch’ “it’s open to question whether the MacKenzie design would have been implemented so successfully were in not for the influence of the new professional. He would make his way to the club at 8.30 every morning and darkness would have fallen before he returned to his home in the village.

“The second green came in for extra treatment — he would examine it and remove any undesirable grass with a scissors that he always carried with him — as he passed it on his way to and from work four times a day.

“His only break from work was a few holes on Saturday afternoons with some local members and when Summer came, they left him to play with visiting golfers. When they returned again to play with Bill in the Autumn, he always greeted them: ‘When all fruits fails, welcome haws’,” added Glynn in the club history.  

“He took a great pride in the course,” says McCavery, “and he would have supervised all the changes that MacKenzie made. Before that the course was on two sides of the road. You couldn’t go out on the hills because they had no machinery in those days. It was too steep. Mackenzie brought all the course across the road and my father made sure it was all done. It was done bit by bit, because there were no diggers, JCBs or Hi-Macs in those days. It took time,” he adds.

The was MacKenzie’s design and McCavery’s attention to detail ensured the former’s assertion that “Lahinch will become one of the finest and most popular golf course, that I, or anyone else, ever constructed” slowly came into being.

Bill McCavery was an institution overseeing it all, just as Robert McCavery would be, having been born into the club in 1941 and totally immersed in all things Lahinch and its golf ever since then. 

As a kid in short trousers, as an apprentice pro to his father, then as his assistant pro and finally as the pro himself in succession to his father and beyond to the present day in retirement after his 54 years service to the club from 1959 to 2013, while the link is now maintained by Robert Jnr who works in the club shop.

“The home place, my mother’s place, was on the Main Street where the Golf Shop is now,” he says. “That’s where we lived, but I was always on the golf course, with my father helping around and learning or out on the course playing.

“The first South of Ireland I remember seeing was in 1948 — it was Joe Carr’s first win. I remember it well because I got a cut on my foot with a glass bottle when I was running down the course to watch the match. He was the best I saw in my time, because I didn’t see John Burke when he was winning.

“Caddying is the first thing I remember about the course when I was six or seven years of age. We all caddied; everyone in the village caddied. You could get two bags and it would be worth your while because you got double pay. 

“There way no caddy cars in those days, they weren’t invented. Johnny Barrett was the caddy master. He’d decide who went with who. If you didn’t like the fella who was coming, everybody ran and made themselves scarce and Johnny would be going around looking for a caddy.

“The worst of them all was the Bishop of Galway (Michael Browne). Anybody saw him coming, they’d be gone. He’d come for two weeks in the summer and he’d stay in the parochial house in Ennistymon — Linnane’s own it now, it was a lovely house up on the hill. He’d play golf in the afternoon. He had a terrible reputation. He was a pure dog.

“Starting out I got one and ten pence for the round; then it went up to two and four pence; then to five shillings; then to ten shillings. I stopped at that — I had graduated then from caddying then,” he adds.

At the same time McCavery had just graduated from Ennistymon CBS — it was 60 years ago this year as he started as an apprentice professional to his father, officially that is, because his real apprenticeship had started years before. 

“I did my Leaving Cert in the monastery in 1959 and then served my time,” he remembers. “You served your  time for four years, learning how to make clubs, minding the place.

“In my time starting it was seven days of the week for seven months of the year — there were five months of the year when you were doing nothing. The Americans started coming in the 1960s, while more people in Ireland got into golf because of television and the Canada Cup (World Cup) being in Portmarnock in 1960 with Arnold Palmer and all the big names.  They were showing golf programmes on television from America and the Irish people just picked it up and started playing more. 

Bill McCavery, who competed in the first ever Irish Open in 1927.

“That was the real start of it. There was really nothing in the 1950s, the hungry ‘50s. There were a certain amount coming from Ennis in the ‘50s, shopkeepers who would close their shop on a Thursday afternoon and play. Then they’d play on the weekends. You’d have a few from Ennistymon coming too, closing their shops and coming up on the Thursday as well. You’d also have a few from Kilrush, but there weren’t many more and that was it.”

IT’S all changed 60 years on from when McCavery was given his trade under his father’s wing — the crowds and the year-round volume of traffic on the course, the village of Lahinch itself, the big business of the game of golf. 

And now the coming of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open — when the international superstars from around the world will travel the same narrow-gauge route of the old West Clare Railway that the men from Black Watch Company did the century before last and pitched up in Lahinch to play the game there for the first time.

A far cry from when club pros like Robert McCavery got to play the game. “We didn’t play much at all because there were not many tournaments,” he says. “Playing a tournament was just a break for a few days, you wouldn’t make any money out of it. 

“It was very hard to travel in those days. Pros coming from the north of Ireland, even the south west, it was very hard to get to Lahinch. A lot of them didn’t have the money, they didn’t have cars.

“I remember going to Bundoran once, but to get from here I had to get the bus into Limerick, a train Dublin, get a lift from one of the senior lads in Dublin to Bundoran. I did it once and came back the same way. Nowadays you’d be in Donegal in three hours. It was tough in those days.”

It meant that McCavery mostly confined himself to Lahinch as the popularity of the game exploded around him, just as the trickle of superstars coming to the ‘St Andrew’s of Ireland’ cemented the place into the consciousness of world golf.

“Tom Watson, a five-time winner of the Open, came here several times and he’s a lovely man. Peter Thompson, another five-time winner of the Open was here and I dined with him afterwards in Barr Trá. 

“It was the time Michael Henchy was captain. He was another lovely man. Mickleson was here twice. He was here with the Walker Cup team and then years later before the British Open.”

All the while McCavery had one thing on all of them — just as he does on all Dubai Duty Free Irish Open entrants. He’ll be perhaps the only professional, playing or retired, in Lahinch this July who has played a professional tournament on the jewel in crown of Clare golf.

“The Irish Professional championship was here 1961,” he remembers, “I barely remember it, but I played in it. I was only a young lad at the time.

“Christy was the only one in the country at the time. Harry Bradshaw, Ernie Jones and a few more — they were the only ones who were capable of winning it. Christy was a great man in the wind to manufacture shots, because he was great in the wind. If it blows in July, that’s what you have to be able to do to win. He was out on his own that week.”

In the process, ‘Himself’ broke the course record with an opening round of 67. Years later O’Connor recalled his fondness for Lahinch when saying, “I came here in 1947 and later still recall marvelling at the magnificent workmanship of the professional, Bill McCavery, as he turned out superb wooden clubs for as little as 27/6d.”

All that remains is to see who will break Lahinch’s record when the Irish Open swings around.

The only certainty is that Robert McCavery will be there to witness it, like he was for Christy O’Connor’s tour de force all of 58 years ago.

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