A lifetime at Lahinch; Robert McCavery and a family tradition

PGA professional Robert McCavery, who retired in 2015 after a 54-year relationship with Lahinch

A few years before Alister MacKenzie journeyed to Georgia to build Augusta National with Bobby Jones, he spent considerable time in Co Clare, redesigning Lahinch Golf Club with the help of the professional Bill McCavery.

A native of Newcastle, where he’d served his apprenticeship at Royal County Down under Mr Robertson, McCavery had jumped at the chance to move to Lahinch in 1927 and help MacKenzie with the layout of the new links. 

He remained there as head professional until he passed away just 48 hours after Lahinch had staged the Home Internationals in 1987 and it fell to his son Robert, who has recently retired after 54 years at the renowned links, to assume the reins.

In his book, a century of Golf at Lahinch, Enda Glynn writes that Bill McCavery was appointed for a term of six weeks and his first wage was £3 a week.

“Because of his Northern Protestant background and with the memories of the War of Independence still fresh, it was a difficult transition for ‘Gentle Bill’. But he made Lahinch his new home, married a local woman and gave his life to Lahinch Golf Club.”

His work in laying out the new links under MacKenzie cannot be understated, though his son has come way with this memory of the great architect.

“He just said MacKenzie was an awkward man to work for — very demanding and very cranky,” Robert said when recalling his father’s memories of the creation of the Lahinch we know today. 

Cranky or not, MacKenzie’s handiwork eventually proved to be good for the McCavery family as the links’ fame eventually spread worldwide.

No doubt it was old Bill’s attention to detail that helped. He arrived for work at 8.30am every morning and worked until dark. 

“As he made his way home for lunch, he examined the second green and removed any undesirable grass from the green. Bill McCavery gave wonderful attention to detail. As he went around the links, he always carried a scissors in his pocket. He used it to cut any weeds from the greens or unusual grass from around the holes. 

“His only break from work was a few holes on Saturday afternoons with some local members, When Summer came, they left him to play with visiting golfers. When they returned again to play with Bill in the Autumn, he always greeted them: ‘When all fruits fails, welcome haws.’”  

“Lahinch will make the finest and most popular golf course that I, or I believe anyone else, ever constructed,” MacKenzie had said. The cost of the development was set at £2,000 and both the golf club and the town of Lahinch has certainly made good on the investment since then.

In fact, Lahinch has been utterly transformed over the past 50 years and the days of Percy French’s “Are Ye Right There Michael” are now very much a thing of the past.

The famous song was composed at the turn of the 20th century, when Lahinch Golf Club in its infancy. It was created to parody the state of the West Clare Railway system , which stopped at Lahinch and helped keep the great Lahinch Golf Links Hotel (burned to the ground in 1931) well stocked with golfers.

Because of a slow train and the decision of the driver to stop for no apparent reason, French, though having left Sligo in the early morning, arrived so late for an 8pm recital that the audience had left. He was sued for libel by the railway but arrived late for the hearing. Asked why he was late, he told the judge, he’d arrived by the West Clare Railway. Needless to say, the case was struck out. 

West Clare was another world in the 1920s and 1930s and when Robert was born in 1941, it was still a quiet backwater, even if the annual South of Ireland Amateur drew some visitors in summer. 

“There are thousand in the village in the summer now,” he says. “In my time, Lahinch was just the main street and a few side streets but there are houses all the way to Ennistymon now.”

Robert with Phil Mickelson...

Glynn writes how McCavery Snr would use one of his favourite sayings when greeting the annual Lahinch visitor: “Welcome back to the salty waters.”

Still, it was the centre of the universe for Robert, especially when the South was in full swing.

“I saw a lot of finals,” he says. “From 1948 I saw most of them.  But Lahinch was a very quiet place in those days. The village population was no more than a couple of hundred and there was nothing to do except play golf. So most people played golf as there was no GAA or hurling team in the town at the time.”

McCavery vividly remembers John Burke, winner of 11 South of Irelands. 

“He was good. Very good,” he says. “He had a very good short game.”

That’s exactly what’s required to do well at Lahinch, especially when the wind is blowing. And event though is has changed greatly since the last batch of changes were made by Martin Hawtree at the turn of the century, “ground hurling” still works well.

“The changes have been a marvellous improvement because up to that the course was not always in great repair. Now it is has been in top condition for the last 15 years.

... and Tom Watson

“Back in the 1950s, the only visitors were the ones from Galway or Limerick or Ennis, or occasionally from Dublin. The Americans didn’t start coming until the mid 1960s when TV became popular and golf took off in Ireland after we won the Canada Cup.”

Slowly, life changed for the club professional at Lahinch, who only worked for seven months a year until more recent times.

“My son works up at the club at the shop now and he does five days  week, eight hours a day. But in my day, we had seven days a week for seven months and then it was quiet. 

“The season started in March in those days and went on until the end of August. Then there was a members’ week in September and after that the locals would play. Winter was quiet with the bad weather in the west, with all that wind and rain.

“Keeping the ball low to the ground was always the way to play Lahinch. Leave the wedge in the bag on a windy day and just get that chip and run shot going.”

Robert didn’t get a huge amount of time to hone his own game but there was a period in the 1960s and 70s when he made it his business to get out and about on the Irish circuit.

It wasn’t easy in an era when money was scarce and transport tough to come by.

“You could get the West Clare Railway until the end of the 1950s but it was very difficult to get around in those times. We didn’t have cars and there were that many cars in the country in the 60s and 70s anyway. So if I wanted to go to Dublin or Dundalk to play golf, I had to get a lift from one of the boys. It was a full day for me to travel to  Milltown in Dublin and a full day job to get to Warrenpoint and a full day to get back. But I loved it, loved to play in an Irish Championship or a Pro-Am.”

In an era when visitors were still thin on the ground and the members of Lahinch paid just three guineas a year in fees, club repair and club-making, which he had learned from his father, was all part of a day’s work.

The former professional's shop at Lahinch.

“My first memories of Lahinch were starting out as a caddie when I was a youngster,” Robert recalls. “I went to the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon, left in 1959 and started my apprenticeship with my father. 

“We did a lot of club-making in those days. It really was the big thing. There was no such thing as Ping or Titleist or TaylorMade back then as far as we were concerned.

“We’d make woods by the batch, which was what all the pros in the country did at that time. You’d shape the heads and insert the lead behind the head and under the plate. Then the club would be plated and shafted and varnished and gripped. It was a very satisfying way to work and I still make wooden putters with wooden shafts, though I need an operation on my hand right now.”

An honorary life member of the club, Robert is a living link, a precious connection between the great origins of Lahinch and the characters that made it the much loved club it remains today.

“I had 54 years of life as a PGA professional and I would thoroughly recommend it,” he says with obvious pride. “You always meet nice people in my line of work and I made more than my share of friends, both from here and abroad. 

“As the assistant, I was the one shoved out to play with many visitors because the Americans loved to play with the pro. It was a pleasure to do it and I still have all those pictures I used to have up in the shop.

“Of course, the big stars came too — Ken Venturi was one of the first overseas members and there was Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and all the others that came after them. 

“It’s was a very healthy place to live and work and that’s what I enjoyed most about it. I was out in the fresh air, working in a beautiful place with great colleagues and meeting wonderful people from all over the world. What more could you want.”