IT is probably true to say that Dermot Gillette has been and still is one of the leading golf writers not just in Ireland but in Europe and America too. He has had an extraordinary career. Two years ago Golf Digest presented him with a lifetime achievement award. He has attended 104 majors including 26 Masters and dating back to 1987 at Muirfield Village he has been to 14 Ryder Cups.
He is an affable character and is always happy to share historic golfing sporting moments that he has had the privilege to have seen at close hand. His recollection of great Irish golfing moments is unparalleled. So when he played in Carlow with the Dublin Journalists Golf Society recently The Nationalist were delighted to catch up with him. It was a joy to sit down and just talk golf with him.
The Dubliner has strong Carlow connections. He is married to Kathryn Harding from Tullow Street and coincidentally the first golf report he ever filed was the 1960 Midland Scratch Cup in Carlow. It was a big event at the time. Padraig Harrington won two Carlow Scratch Cups shortly before he turned professional but the 1960 winner was David Sheahan from Grange in Dublin.
It is said Gilleece has a photographic memory and his recollections of Sheahan gives substance to this.
“In 1962 David (Sheahan) gained international headlines when winning the Jeyes Professional Tournament in Dublin as an amateur. He became the first amateur player from these islands to win a professional event. He was studying medicine in UCD at the time, he played in the Walker Cup team and won the Irish Championship twice.”
The Carlow course has a special place in the heart of the world renowned golf writer.
“I was only 20 years of age. It is just a coincidence that I was sent down here but I have always loved this place because of the quality that is out there. I used to play a lot here in societies. Carlow was always a special treat because of the quality that is out there.
“People talk about a shelf of sand which is running across this terrain here and on in to Kilkenny. I think Carlow and Kilkenny are very similar because of the ground. It gives a special texture to the soil. I never remember it being muddy out there.”
He admits he came into sport quite by accident. A position arose at The Irish Press back in the late fifties. As he explains himself, at that time he hadn’t specialised in any one particular area of journalism. He wasn’t even a sports fanatic.
Gilleece started his career in here when the paper, instead of taking graduates from the provincial papers, decided to hire young men who had graduated directly from school. The Press wrote to St Joseph’s in Fairview who recommended Dermot. He did an interview and got the job as a copy boy.
“That was for a year and a half. Then they made me a junior journalist. Your chances of what you were going to cover whether it was sport or news depended on whether there was a vacancy. It so happened there was a vacancy in the sports department and I got that job,” Dermot recalled.
He found himself working alongside the giants of sports reporting at the time.
“I was a dog’s body. I did everything. I did a lot of GAA. Mick Dunne was number one GAA man in the paper at the time. Peadar O’Brien was number two. I would have been down the order at number three or four. I did soccer. I did rugby. It was a great grounding.”
He loved what he was doing but there was one drawback.
“The money was pretty skinny. Do you know something? The only regret I have about my career, and I wouldn’t regret any work I have done, but I was never paid a decent wage in my view. You were never paid enough for the unsocial hours. So much was expected of us. Weekends were gone. As soon as I joined The Irish Press I could never say I had a Saturday or Sunday off. That was when all the sport was on and when we were busy,” he said.
When it was put to him that he was doing a job he loved he doesn’t quite agree.
“Funnily I grew into it. I was never a sports fanatic. I liked sport and watched a fair bit of it. I played hurling for St Vincent’s as a minor but that went out the window when I got the job in The Irish Press. I was working weekends and that was when all the sport was happening.
“I got to like what I was doing. It was a great bonus to be able to meet people. You had a certain status coming down here and being treated very well as a twenty year old. Not because of who I was but for who I represented. I was sensible enough to be aware of that.”
During a printers strike in 1965 and as a journalist with the Irish Press Dermot was given a month’s protective notice. He went to London. As it turned out fate took a turn and he ended up coming back to Ireland.
“I was there for a few months when the Daily Mail decided to appoint a correspondent in Dublin. This was the beginning of English newspapers coming in here in the late 60s. They knew my work. I was working for the national Fleet Street papers so they appointed me. I worked with them for fourteen years up to 1979.”
He eventually ended up in The Independent and with the paper he covered the 1980 British Open at Muirfield won by Tom Watson. Shortly afterwards he was approached by The Irish Times.
“The sports editor saw me there, saw my work, must have liked what I did because six months later he offered me a job as Golf Correspondent.”
That was in March 1981. At the time the rugby and golf correspondents were the same person. If Gilleece is the voice of Irish golf in Ireland now then Edmund Van Esbeck was rugby’s equivalent.
“He (Van Esbeck) would cover rugby during the winter and golf during the summer. We had now reached a point where rugby was overlapping into the summer months and there was an Ireland tour to Australia. The famous one where Ollie Campbell played instead of Tony Ward. That is when Ned went to Australia. So The Irish Times concluded we were into a new era where golf and rugby had to be treated separately. They had been overlapping each other.”
His first assignment was a visit to Cypress Point in California in August 1981 to see Philip Walton and Ronan Rafferty partner each other in a Walker Cup match. Typically, Gilleece has a vivid memory of the occasion.
“In their opening foursomes Rafferty and Walton were drawn against Hal Sutton and Jay Siegel. They were arguably the two best amateurs in the world at the time.
“They lost the first three holes. But lo and behold didn’t they fight back, draw level and then went two ahead. In Cypress Point there are back to back par three holes. Walton chipped in on fifteen for a winning birdie and Rafferty chipped in on sixteen for another winning birdie. They won 4 and 2. That was my first taste of international travel,” recalled Gilleece.
It was also in Muirfield Village where Eamonn Darcy sank his famous five foot downhill putt as he beat Ben Crenshaw to clinch a 1987 Ryder Cup success for Europe .
“I will never forget what Eamonn said when we asked him afterwards what was going through his head when he was standing over that putt.
“I won’t use the expletive but he said to himself don’t miss. He didn’t.”
If Philip Walton will forever be linked with his Ryder Cup winning heroics on the last green in Oak Hill Country Club then the Irish writer remembers his brief flirtation with royalty at the same venue on the same day.
“Philip Walton winning in 1995 was wonderful. We were running around like lunatics. There was far more freedom in those days. It is not as restricted as it is now. We were running around particularly when Walton’s match became the key match. He birdied the 15th and that made him dormie. Walton had a four-footer on the 17th for the match. He missed. And I remember I came up behind the crowd. I said to this guy in front of me. Have you any idea how long Philip’s putt was there? Who turned around but Prince Andrew who I had tapped on the shoulder. I would say it was the guts of four feet. That is the way it was. We were all on top of each other.”
The Belfry in 1989 was special too when the late Christy O’Connor junior beat Fred Couples to clinch another great success
“Jacklin often talked about that shot. He said he went up to Christy just before he hit the shot and said one more for Ireland. Of course Jacklin knew the buttons to press and knew how patriotic Christy was. Once he mentioned Ireland he got the response he wanted. It was a magnificent shot.”
Golfers and golf writers sometimes go back to the point where great shots are executed. Gilleece did the same after O’Connor’s historic delivery.
“I remember going back to Christy’s shot in 1989 when there was nobody on the course. We went back the following morning. I remember looking at it and thinking it was frightening to think what could have happened. He has water to clear and there were three tiers on that eighteenth green. The pin was on the middle tier so he had to come up the first tier. The judgement involved and it is only when you see something like that when you realise what professionalism really means.”
You can’t leave The Belfry without alluding to Paul McGinley’s winning putt on the 18th.
“That was a wonderful nine footer breaking for the left,” recalled Gilleece who says Irish golfers are well equipped for match-play golf.
“We play more match-play golf than anywhere else in the world. If you look at the American system it is all stroke-play golf. Our guys develop their game in match play. The North of Ireland, the South of Ireland, West of Ireland-the only one that isn’t is the East and the Irish Amateur Open. The rest is match play. Fellas like Joe Carr develop a reputation as wonderful match-players. The mano-to-mano idea. We seem to like that. The excitement of going head to head with somebody.”
In 2007 Padraig Harrington bridged a 60 year gap to Fred Daly who was the last Irish golfer to win The British Open. Before that, there was almost a belief out there that Irish golfers couldn’t win majors. The Stackstown golfer changed that view and since then Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Graham McDowell and Shane Lowry have all won majors.
“Padraig proved it was possible. A lot of players and very talented players they have this mental block. I remember talking to a player who shall remain nameless. It was before the Open at Birkdale in 1991. I remember asking him was he looking forward to The Open.
The conversation went something as follows.
“Oh yeah, The Open is a big one.”
“Would you fancy doing well in it?”
“Of course I want to do well in it.”
“I said where would you like to finish?”
“Top ten would be great.”
“How about top five?”
“Yeah, its possible. If I got really hot.?”
“What about winning it?”
“He looked at me as if I had two heads.”
“They are all there you know.”
“Mentally, he had himself convinced that he would not be capable of doing it,” said Gilleece.
The writer maintains Darren Clarke would have once considered himself a better golfer than Harrington. Then Padraig won in Carnoustie and completed back to back Opens a year later. A USPGA championship followed closely afterwards.
By the time Clarke got to Royal St Georges in 2011 he was urging his mental coach, Bob Rotella to help him think like Harrington.
“Clarke would not have rated Harrington in their early careers. Clarke would have considered Harrington far inferior as a ball-striker. When Harrington won in 2007, it changed the whole picture. Clarke, at this stage, must have said Harrington had something which he didn’t see. He hadn’t seen the steel and the resolve which Harrington had. He knew he needed that if he was to win at the highest level.”
Bob Rotella changed Clarke’s approach and with it the Northerner became the second Irishman to win the British Open in three years.
Going back to 2008 with no copy to file for the Monday newspapers, Gilleece took the opportunity to watch Padraig Harrington close up on the final hole in the PGA Championship.
“I would have to say, it was as emotional as anything else. I was standing directly behind the green. It was Sunday evening. All the daily guys were working and I was working for the Sunday edition I could afford to go out there. I didn’t have any deadline.
“On the 18th, he drove a ball into a bunker. He went into rough and then pitched onto the green. He had an 18 foot putt and he sank it. I saw the putt, saw the reaction. Remember he had finished the second nine of his third round that morning. So he finished with 66, 66. He finishes his third round that morning with a 66 and then has another 66 later that day to win it. I remember he went over to his manager, Adrian Mitchell, and said
“Mitch, this is amazing, isn’t it?”
Gilleece says the golfer may then for the first time have realised the enormity of what he had achieved.
“I looked at him and thought amazing doesn’t say it. He was really very emotional. His mother, his wife, their baby and his reaction. He had that Sunday glare. Those wild eyes, the focus. I felt it was the one that moved me the most. Royal Birkdale weeks previously. He won it so comfortably, it didn’t seem to have the same drama. That eighteen footer at the last. That major is the one that really stood out,” emphasised one of Harrington’s great fans.
Gilleece retired officially in 2002. Before retiring the sports editor in The Sunday Independent came to him and asked was he interested in working for them. The paper gave him a large degree of flexibility.
“It has been very good to me. The Sunday Indo has given me a great outlet. It allows me my own space. I ring the sports editor on a Monday morning. He asks me what I have. I tell him and there is very little discussion. He gives me a free hand,” revealed Dermot who also hinted he may not do this for much longer.
“As a daily man, working one day a week this was money for old rope. They gave me a contract. That was in June 2002 and I am still with them. I would imagine it won’t be for much longer, I am thinking of packing it all in.”
On reflection one cannot but help that would be the golf reader’s loss. Dermot Gilleece, a true gentleman, still has an encyclopedia of knowledge, has some great stories, great anecdotes and tells them so well.
By Kieran Murphy