2006: Pitch and Putt

By Liam Kelly

We Irish know how to talk.

And when we have something to brag about, you won’t find us backward about coming forward, as they say in County Kerry.

Funny then, that Ireland is the world leader in a sport – Pitch & Putt – that was endorsed by Greg Norman and is played as recreation by Padraig Harrington. Yet its status internationally remains a huge secret in our own backyard. Also largely ignored is the secret army of more than 11,000 citizens who claim membership in Pitch & Putt clubs nationwide.

Throughout the country, they play their weekly competitions on courses that usually are situated in high-density areas and therefore accessible, but they remain anonymous to the media and consequently to the sporting public.

Take, for example, Portmarnock, the scenic coastal area 10 miles from Dublin. There you’ll find the internationally renowned Portmarnock Golf Club. Down the road, is the Bernhard Langer-designed course at Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links.

Sandwiched between them is the tiny Portmarnock Pitch & Putt Club. It is snugly situated on less than five acres, and could fit comfortably within the total square yardage of the first hole and practice area on the Langer course.

Every weekend the Pitch & Putt players head to their competitions, women on Saturdays, men on Sundays. They come by car, they walk from their houses. Some arrive on bikes, their pitching club and putter strapped to the crossbar. They may carry some rain gear in a plastic bag or a mini-rucksack. You don’t need much equipment.

By contrast, Mercedeses and BMWs bring the golfers to the two big courses. TaylorMade clubs, Callaway bags, caddies and all the pomp associated with the commercial aspect of golf are much in evidence.

The cost of a round at the two golf clubs averages 125 euros (approximately $158) and would pay almost a full year’s dues at the Pitch & Putt club, where the members putt on excellent greens and enjoy pretty much the same pleasure and frustration found on regulation golf courses.

Ask Ailish (Irish for Elizabeth) Kelly how it feels to fail to get out of a bunker or to three-putt on the pocket handkerchief greens, or to have a bad back nine after a good outward half. Ailish, my 82-year-old mother, is the oldest playing member at Portmarnock Pitch & Putt Club, and she’s still competitive, having recently won a club singles competition.

She still takes particular pleasure in a victory from two years ago, when she was teamed with a 16-year-old lad in a 36-hole, mixed-foursomes event. After a strong first 18, the youngster’s head began to swell and his concentration waned. Ailish firmly lectured him with advice you might hear on any of Ireland’s championship courses: Focus and play one shot at a time – on her way to a great comeback.

Among Ailish’s fellow members is Ger Ward, recently crowned European champion, who has won seven Irish Women’s Match Play titles and three national Stroke Play championships.

Ward and other heroes of Pitch & Putt – such as Ireland’s No. 1 male player, Ray Murphy of Templebreedy, County Cork, and top lady Christine “Chrissie” Byrne from Kilcullen, County Kildare – are admired by the game’s adherents in much the same way that golf fans put Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley on pedestals.

That is the limit of their fame. Nobody outside the Pitch & Putt universe appreciates the talent of these players, or the high esteem in which they and other top Irish players are held abroad.

A number of factors contribute to that situation, including, ironically, the golf boom.

Pitch & Putt, which is played on 9- and 18-hole layouts measuring no more than 1,000 meters (1,100 yards) in total with the longest holes 70 meters (77 yards), can claim to be the cradle of golf for the majority of the 250,000 members of Irish clubs.

Former Walker Cup winner and European Tour professional John McHenry, now the director of golf at Ryder Cup venue The K Club, played competitive Pitch & Putt as a youngster. Harrington still plays occasionally, and Graeme McDowell got his start with a cut-down 7-iron and a putter on a par-3 course near his home adjacent to Royal Portrush.

Until the 1970s, golf was restricted to a relatively wealthy minority, in part because of a dearth of regulation-sized courses. So Pitch & Putt offered many Irish citizens their only chance to play golf.

Some stayed in the game and excelled. Others took advantage of the grounding to move on to golf as interest in the game exploded and more than 150 courses opened in the past 20 years.

Pitch & Putt continues to attract youngsters and is a great “starter set” before graduating to golf, with beginners acquiring a grounding in proper etiquette and rules.

But these days, children make the transition to golf much earlier than they did in the past. Youth golf programs cater to younger age groups than before, and public golf is readily available.

Affluence and the Celtic Tiger economy also have prompted parents to get their little darlings full sets of name-brand clubs. Irishmen young and old increasingly hail from the “Grip it and rip it” school, and wannabe Tigers start to think only of how far they can hit the ball. Irish citizens who give up soccer, rugby and other team sports in their 20s and 30s often gravitate to golf, whereas years ago Pitch & Putt might have been the outlet for their competitive urges.

On a positive note, the formation this decade of the European Pitch & Putt Association (EPPA) and Federation of International Pitch & Putt Associations (FIPPA) bodes well for the future.

But an organization called World Pitch & Putt floundered in its bid to build excitement for the sport in the United States. That group’s founder, Sean Lynch, an Australian of Irish ancestry, and the late Ron Wilson, pioneered the game in Australia.

Greg Norman enthusiastically endorsed the venture and hosted a major launch of World Pitch & Putt at The Medalist in Florida in October 1991. John Manning, a former Pitch & Putt Union of Ireland official and now a key figure in FIPPA recalls it was an impressive launch, but never gained traction.

“They probably needed to have courses well established so they could show the media and the influential people the benefits of the game in action,” Manning says. “The game also grew in Ireland from the ’40s through courses being developed in communities and clubs being formed and those clubs competing against other clubs from other communities. The States is so big that you wonder if that could happen, but I still believe Pitch & Putt has a great future.”

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