Ireland’s first outright win in the Home Internationals came in 1950 at Harlech. Before that England and Scotland dominated. Traditionally the team was captained by one of the players, but in 1948 Charles Hezlet was appointed as the first non-playing captain. Hezlet was one of the country’s most renowned amateurs, the first Irishman to reach the final of the Amateur Championship and a three-time Walker Cup player. He was to remain captain until 1953. In his first two years the Irish team finished runners-up, losing out on the title by the narrowest of margins. His third outing proved even more successful.
When the team of 12 was announced in September 1950 its composition did not meet with universal approval. Paddy Leyden gained his first cap when his only achievement to date had been reaching the final of the recent South of Ireland championship. There was more criticism about the inclusion of Jimmy Bruen. Bruen’s brilliance as a golfer was not in dispute. The fact that he had not competed in any important event in Ireland during that year caused the Irish Times correspondent to comment ‘whether it is in the best interests of Irish golf to pick people who do not play in the Irish championships is open to question’. He suggested that uncapped up-and-coming young players such as Norman Drew and John Glover were deserving of being blooded.
The matches began on Wednesday 27 September 1950 with Ireland losing the foursomes 3-2 to Scotland. Then play as abandoned due to torrential rain. The following day Ireland beat Wales 10-5 and Scotland beat England. On the third day Ireland took the first four foursomes against England and lost the last. In the afternoon England won six of the ten singles, but overall victory went to Ireland, 8-7. At the same time Scotland and Wales halved their match. So the championship was decided on the singles encounter with Scotland, postponed to the Saturday. The Irish won four of the ten singles, three were halved and three were lost, with a result of 5½ to 4½ in favour of Ireland. Combined with the foursomes played three days earlier that meant a draw, leaving the Irish as champions.
The star of that first Irish victory was Max McCready of Dunmurry, the 1949 Amateur Champion. He won all his six matches, including the three foursomes in partnership with Bruen. Joe Carr lost only his first foursomes, while the other leading performers were Cecil Beamish and Cecil Ewing. Paddy Leyden was unfortunate in not being played at all. However, he joined Carr and Ewing in Ireland’s second Home Internationals win in 1955 at Birkdale. By then the brief but sparkling amateur career of Norman Drew was long over. In November 1953 he turned professional, following the example of fellow international Michael Ferguson of Dundalk, who made the move earlier that year. They were the first high profile Irish amateurs to become professional, and it was a long time before their career path became the norm.
After the Home Internationals victory in 1955 the third win was a long time coming. It was not till 1983 that another outright championship was achieved, and it was the first on home soil, being won at Portmarnock. By then it was becoming the natural progression for the bright young things to seek a career in professional golf. Philip Walton had just taken the plunge and Ronan Rafferty was already established on tour. Another trend was beginning to effect the composition of the Irish team. Young players were taking up scholarships in American universities, and their availability for Irish teams was being dictated by their college coaches.
The next Irish win was at Lahinch in 1987, followed by back-to-back victories in 1990 and 1991. Four winning teams in the space of nine years was a record never repeated by Ireland again. It provided the opportunity for Garth McGimpsey and Liam MacNamara to establish themselves as the only Irish players to have been on four winning Home Internationals teams. Mark Gannon was the only other to have played on three. Though many young Irish players were moving to the professional game by that era, most of those on the winning teams were career-amateurs. In a few cases younger players, like Eoghan O’Connell, who represented Ireland in the European Team Championship during the summer were under the thumb of American college coaches by September, when the Home Internationals were played. That became more prevalent in the late 1990s. For example, in 1998 Michael Hoey, then Irish Amateur Open champion, was unavailable for the Irish team as he had just started in Clemson College. Of course, each of the four home countries suffered by the dictates of the American college system.
Ireland had two more wins in the twenty-first century – 2003 and 2008. In marked contrast to the norm in the previous decades, not one player was on both these winning teams. The composition of Irish teams changed phenomenally between our earliest winners in 1950 and our most recent in 2008. In 1950 Joe Carr was the youngest member at 28; in 2008 Eoin Arthurs was the oldest at 25. In 1950 the average age of members was something like 35; in 2008 it was more like 21½. In 1950 they were all amateurs for life; all but one of the eleven in 2008 subsequently turned professional.
For decades the Home Internationals were held in September. The last time this happened was when Ireland won at Muirfield in 2008. Following that the matches were push back into August, presumably to address the American college schedule interference. However, this caused other problems with the congested golfing calendar over summer months. The matches now clash with the US Amateur championship. This fact was highlighted spectacularly last year, when the GB&I Walker Cup team was announced after the international matches. Seven of the ten places on the team went to English and Welsh players who chose to compete in the US Amateur rather than representing their country.
Once an essential stepping stone to GB&I teams for career-amateurs, now of secondary importance in the eyes of GB&I selectors, the Home Internationals are symptomatic of how amateur golf has changed from a goal in itself to a training ground for the professional game. Nevertheless, those who compete for Ireland in these internationals can be proud of donning the uniform and continuing a long and distinguished tradition.
[First published in the Irish Clubhouse, Issue 4, 2014]