This year marks half a century since a female Irish golfer first turned professional. That individual was Philomena Garvey, arguably the greatest woman player Ireland has ever produced. Fifty years on, Paul Gorry looks at this remarkable player’s career, and at the development of a role for women Irish professionals in her wake.
The highlights of Philomena Garvey’s amateur achievements speak volumes about her calibre – British Ladies’ champion 1957, runner-up four times and semi-finalist on two further occasions; US Ladies’ quarter-finalist in 1950; selected for seven Curtis Cup teams and played in six, including two victorious sides. In addition, she played on seven Vagliano Trophy teams and represented GB&I twice against Canada. Domestically she was in a league of her own, winning the Irish Close an unparalleled fifteen times.
Phil Garvey was a native of Baltray, close to Co. Louth Golf Club. When she was growing up the star of Irish ladies’ golf was a local girl, Clarrie Tiernan (later Reddan). Phil first came to prominence in 1944, when she reached the final of the Leinster Championship at Hermitage as an 18 year old. Clarrie Reddan denied her victory on that occasion, but she won the Leinster title on six subsequent occasions. In fact, her only other defeat in the Leinster was in 1951, at the hands of Pat O’Sullivan of Tramore.
By 1946, when the Irish Close resumed after World War II, Phil was aged 20. She won the championship on her first attempt. Remarkably, of the 18 Irish Close championships played between 1946 and 1964, Phil won 14 and she was unable to play on two other occasions. So, in that era she was defeated only twice in an Irish championship – in 1949 (by Moira Smyth) and in 1952 (by Dorothy Forster).
Her decision to try her hand at professional golf came at the age of 37, by which time she had been one of the world’s leading lady amateurs for close on two decades. On 4 January 1964 the newspapers announced that Philomena Garvey had turned professional, becoming the first female Irish professional golfer. The rules on amateur status back then were extremely strict. As early as 1949 Phil had her status questioned by the R&A because she earned her living as a sales assistant in the sports section of Clerys department store. The very mention of contemplating turning professional was a breach of the rules. Consequently there were no rumours heralding Philomena’s announcement.
Ita Butler, who captained the victorious GB&I Curtis Cup team at Killarney in 1996, was a rising star in Irish golf when Phil took the step. ‘We were surprised when Philomena turned professional’ she recalls, ‘Professionalism was a taboo subject for amateurs then so there was no warning. But there was admiration for her courage in taking the step.’
At the time there were very few female professional golfers outside of the USA. Other than Jean Donald and Jessie Valentine there were really no professionals in Great Britain, and very little opportunity for competition. Being made an honorary member of the Irish Professional Golfers Association, Phil was able to compete in the inaugural IPGA Southern Championship in July 1964. The following month she made more history in becoming the first woman to compete in the Irish Professional Championship. There was no qualifying round and no half-way cut, so she completed all 72 holes, albeit finishing in last place.
Finding that she could not make a career as a club professional, a teacher or a tournament pro, Philomena sought reinstatement as an amateur, which she obtained in December 1967. Having been defeated in the early stages of the Irish Close in 1968 and 1969 she claimed her 15th national title in 1970. At the age of 44 years and 27 days, she became the second oldest winner in the championship’s history.
Phil Garvey’s amateur career was at a time when international travel was slow and expensive. Consequently, her overseas competition was limited primarily to the British Ladies’ and to team events. It was as a member of the Curtis Cup team that she got the opportunity to play in the US Women’s Amateur twice. In 1950 she lost in the quarter-finals to the eventual winner, Beverly Hanson. In 1954 she reached the Last 16 before Mary Lena Faulk finished her run. In Phil’s day an amateur had to finance their own travel. Had she lived in a different era she could have made an even greater impact on women’s golf.
Other Irish players were slow to follow her unsuccessful lead. In 1969 Gwen Brandom became the second female Irish golfer to turn professional. Her experiment lasted a decade. In 1986 Maureen Madill turned professional, and succeeded in making a career as a tournament player, teacher and commentator. Later in 1986 Lillian Behan followed Maureen’s example, giving Ireland two female professional golfers for the first time. In 1989, twenty-five years after Phil played in the Irish Professional Championship, Gillian Burrell became the second woman to compete in it. Forty-five years after Phil’s appearance Marion Riordan became the first woman to come through the pre-qualifying process to gain a starting place in the 2009 Irish Professional Championship.
Phil was justly honoured with a biography, Philomena Garvey – Queen of the Irish Fairways, by her namesake Paul Garvey, published in 2009 by The Liffey Press. Sadly, she died on 5 May 2009, shortly before the publication. Today Rebecca Codd is the sole Irish member of the Ladies European Tour, but there are a few female club professionals and teaching pros in various parts of Ireland. They all stand on the shoulders of this giant of Irish women’s golf.
[First published in the Irish Clubhouse, April-May 2014]