By Dermot Gilleece
Though the West of Ireland Championship was well established at the time, Joes first visit to the Co Sligo links at Rosses Point was for the Irish Close of 1939. He remembers how the leading challengers, Jimmy Bruen, who was aiming for a third successive Close triumph, Cecil Ewing, John Burke and Joe Brown were each bought in the sweep for £50, whereas Gerry Owens went for something like £2 10s while Brennie Scannell and himself were effectively open to offers.
Along with Owens and Scannell, Joe stayed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation at the Point and on the practice days, they would have a quick snack before heading out to the course, whereas the more distinguished challengers would be enjoying a
slap-up meal in the Hotel. Anyway, the weeding-out process eventually delivered this quarter-final line up: Owens v Bruen; Scannell v Burke; Carr v Ewing and Roy McConnell v Brown.
The results were not quite what the local cognoscenti had anticipated. Hitting three-wood shots where is opponent was hitting eight irons, Owens still managed to beat Bruen; Scannell beat Burke, Joe beat Ewing and McConnell had defeated Joe in the semi-finals, he was eventually hammered 6 and 5 by Owens in the 36-hole final.
For 15 years after that, Gerry Owens took great delight in ribbing Joe that a champion wasnt worthy of the name until he had won his native title. And this didnt happen for Joe until 1954, when the Close was held at Carlow. By that stage, he had won no fewer that six of his 12 West of Ireland titles.
His early memories of the West were of weekends of joviality and mayhem. It didnt take him long to recognise such local characters as Frankie Kelly as people who were, in the immortal words of Myles na gCopaleen, to be avoided like the pledge. And of course, it seemed that Burke and Ewing were rarely if ever beaten.
Played on what became an extended Easter weekend, it offered competitors and spectators- some of whose interest in golf was highly questionable- the opportunity of drinking after the clock struck midnight on Good Friday, when almost the entire country was dry. It was a custom which prompted the Kilkenny golfer, Jim Murphy, to observe famously some years later: "You went down there feeling like Jack Nicklaus and returned home like Matt Talbot."
As an ambitious young player, however, Joe was most impressed by the golf course which he viewed as such an admirable test that he reckoned the best player would always win. But the weather could upset calculations and he could remember one qualifying round when he was 11 over par after only five holes and was lucky to get in with an 89.
"The success of the likes of Ewing and Burke at Rosses Point (they won 14 Wests between them in a 16-year span from 1930 to 1945), stemmed from the fact that they were excellent wind players," said Joe. "But I had no fear of them. I was just happy to be there, I was just happy to be there, competing against the countrys top players on one of our finest links courses. There are some great holes on the course, particularly the fourth, eighth, ninth, 14th and 17th. In fact, Rosses Point can boast some of the finest holes in the world golf.
In his early years travelling there, he would get a lift from somebody and stay in lodgings. Later, when finances were more healthy, he stayed at the Hotel and later still, when he and Ewing became close friends, he would be a guest in Ewings house in Rosses Point while the hospitality was reciprocated in Dublin.
There was a special appeal about the atmosphere around the Hotel, which offered wonderful comaraderie, a lively game of cards and no shortage of drink, though Joe was teetotal at the time. And for the serious competitors, it was the first test of a new season after dark, winter days of diligent practice. Normally, performances in the West were an accurate guide to how a player was likely to fare throughout the season.
After World War II, the growing prestige of the event and its importance in the amateur golfing calendar could be gauged from visits by such leading British practitioners as Guy Wolsteholme, Gerald Micklem and Sandy Saddler. And the prince of golf writers, Pat Ward-Thomas, was a particularly welcome visitor in 1962. that was when he wrote:
"For a long time I had promised myself a trip to Rosses Point, that fastness of golf far way to the edge of the Atlantic where, every year the West of Ireland Championship is played. I had heard tell of its beauty, of its savagery when great winds roared from the ocean and I knew, of course, that on the links a rare genius for golf was bred within the vast and enduring figure of Cecil Ewing. The very names of Rosses Point and Ewing were compelling and I need no persuasion at any time to visit Ireland.
"Rarely has a golfing journey has been so worth while. From the moment that Gerald Micklem and I left the bitter English spring behind, the days were filled with enchantment. Within the hour, it seemed, we were playing at Portmarnock with the blessing of Bradshaws incomparable rhythm to inspire us on an afternoon of sunlit stillness. That evening, as twilight drew down to darkness, Carr drove us across the quiet, flat countryside into a world of warmth and humour and a beauty that far surpassed the expectation.
"There is a spell about the land; the welcome and kindness of its people, the eternal entertainment of Irish stories told in voices soft and liquid as a mountain stream, the miracle of bars that fill, although doors remain firmly locked; the growing enthusiasm for golf and, above all, the setting. Mention must be made of an enchanting place that inspired so much of the poetry of Yeats.
"No wonder Yeats loved this country so. One evening, we drove along peaceful lanes, where only a rare gleam of catkin and blackthorn and gorse bespoke the coming of summer, to see the Lake Isle of Innishfree. The waters were still and lonely in the soft grey light; all around the browns and greens of the hills rose to darkening mountains and the sense of solitude and peace was complete."
The scribes journey was made all the more worth while that year by what proved to be third successive triumph for Joe, equalling his achievement from 1946 to 1948. "Carrs victory was nigh on inevitable," commented Ward Thomas. "He remains far away in a class by himself in Ireland and was never really hunted."
This was Joes 11th victory, a broken run which had started with an 11 and 9 thrashing of his old friend, Scannell, in wretched conditions in the 1946 final. "I took no pleasure out of doing that to Brennie, but the conditions were particularly difficult for a man wearing glasses," he said.
Meanwhile, the auction sweep to which he referred prior to the 1939 Irish Close had become an established part of golfing life at the Point, especially in the West. In fact, it was officially sanctioned at a Council Meeting of the Co. Sligo club in March 1942.
Needless to remark, when player valuations were made, Joe was no longer "thrown in" as an also ran.