Born in 1942, Bobby Browne grew up in the foothills of the Dublin mountains at Edmondstown and by the time he was ten years old, he was caddying regularly at the local club where characters such as Sydney Jackson, Maurice Cohen, Jackie Bloom and the pantomime baddie Vernon Hayden gave him regular employment.
The golfing bug bit hard and Bobby quickly decided that he wanted to make a career in the game. He joined Ernie Jones at Foxrock as an assistant in 1962 and moved across the mountain to Tibradden, commuting to work on an NSU “Quickie” and supplementing his wages by playing “shilling ones” on the practice putting green with the likes of John O’Leary, his first pupil and a future Irish Open winner and European Tour star.
Extra lessons and his prowess with the putter helped him graduate from the NSU to a Moto Guzzi. But he also boosted his income by looking after the young O’Leary, who had fallen in love with the game on a family holiday at Butlins, just a few miles from Laytown & Bettystown.
“I remember John’s father Willie O’Leary used to give me a pound on Friday for looking after John,” Bobby recalled. “He was my first ever pupil and became my caddie in assistants’ championships and other events. I think I can claim some of the credit for helping him fall in love with the game.
“I remember he had an old wooden driver, a Willie Nolan model with a big open face that he used to hit miles. Now and again he’d skip school and play snooker and golf. He was a very good rugby player too at Blackrock College, on the wing as I recall.”
After a brief spell under Harry Murphy at Newlands, Bobby secured the professional’s job at historic Birr in November 1965 and remained there until 1967, when a vacancy became available at Bettystown following the death of John McGuirk.
His son Seán, who would go on to become a professional himself and now assists with the running of the shop at Bettystown, was just one year old when Bobby and his wife Carmel rolled into the club for the first time.
Carmel was expecting their second child, Robert, at the time and the family lived in a caravan next to the first tee before eventually moving to a home in Laytown.
While he had spent nearly three years at Birr, the 82-mile drive from Dublin to Offaly made it difficult to keep in touch with his old friends in the metropolis, such as Howth’s Johnny McGuirk.
In fact, Bobby clearly recalls driving McGuirk’s new car to Bettystown in those early years and watching in dismay as one of John Drew’s cattle got loose and destroyed not only Justice O’Hagan’s garden, but also McGuirk’s brand new motor.
“It was pouring rain,” Bobby recalled. “And we were coming down by Justice O’Hagan’s when a bullock comes dashing out and jumps on the bonnet of the car, mashing the front of it. It was brand new with only 64 miles on the clock but even though I slammed on the brakes, it was too late.”
“Seconds later, the famous Justice O’Hagan appeared through the gate of his garden, followed by five or six more cattle and says, ‘Bobby, look at the state of my garden.’ But Johnny says, ‘Eff your garden, look at the state of my effing car.’”
In the end, good sense prevailed and McGuirk succeeded in having his car repaired at the farmer’s expense, though cattle continued to be a menace to the golfers before the course was enclosed completely.
Bettystown was a buzzing holiday resort in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the lack of fencing around the course made it difficult to hold on to pins and flags, which were regularly “liberated” by holiday makers in the early hours of the morning. This meant more work for the professional, who was forced to fashion pins from bamboo canes and make flags by cutting up plastic cement bags. Stones from the beach were used as simple tee markers before a child’s sandcastle bucket was used a mold for cement versions in later years.
Greenkeeping kept Bobby busy in those early years and admits that the extensive changes made to every hole on the course could never have taken place had it not been for the contributions of the members and the greens staff, especially Jim Reynolds and Tom Wilde.
“Jim was a genius,” Bobby recalled. “He cycled up here from Mornington every day and l reckon he knew more about grasses and chemicals than almost anyone else in the country at the time. He would cut his quota of nine greens with a push mower up until the late 60s and would have built most of the greens with a wheelbarrow and pure physical force. We would spend thousands on machinery now but it was a struggle to get a fiver at that time. Many of the members would have assisted in building greens and if we had an emergency job on, they would turn up in force to help lift and carry sods. It seems like a long time ago now.”
Money was still tight in those days and the treasurer, Con Murphy controlled the club’s purse strings with an iron fist, examining every expenses in forensic detail.
“I went to Lenehan’s hardware one day in the early 70s,” Bobby explained, “and I saw these red, aluminium signs with ILGU painted on them. So I took 18 of them at £2.50 each and the bill came into the club a few weeks later: Tee markers, £45. Mr Murphy comes out to me with the bill and tells me that £45 is far too much for tee markers. We had to send them back.”
The lengthening and upgrading of the golf course occupied much of Bobby’s time for the next 20 years, though the changes were not always welcomed.
“Some said that if the golf course was good enough for their ancestors, it should be good enough for us,” Bobby explained. “But they didn’t know the equipment was going to change or that the ball was going to change and it was vital that we carried out those changes.”
Apart from his work redesigning Bettystown and creating other courses, such as Bearna in Galway, Bobby continued to prove his worth as a coach, a player and an administrator. His work with junior golfers, which continues to day, made Bettystown synonymous with excellence in under-age golf. But he was also an accomplished player in his own right, winning the Southern Championship at Baltray in 1975 and the Moran Cup three times, including a fourball edition alongside his opposite number at Baltray, Paddy McGuirk.
An enthusiastic competitor on the European Tour from 1962 until his final appearance at the Irish Open in Killarney in 1992, he once held more than a dozen course records in Ireland but would be the first to admit that his putting and mental game let him down.
“There were other avenues to concentrate on apart from playing,” he said. “I loved teaching and I was heavily involved in improving the golf course here in Bettystown. As a player I suppose I was more accomplished as a one-round wonder. My attitude was poor but I enjoyed seeing pupils like John O’Leary do well. The game needed characters like John. He was flamboyant and he’d always have a bit of fun.”
Ironically, one of the highlights of Browne’s playing career came against O’Leary in the 1976 Carroll’s Irish Matchplay Championship at Tramore, when the master beat the student three and two in a first round tie that caused a storm of controversy.
O’Leary was one of the leading players on the European Tour at that time and had only agreed to play in the event on the understanding that the draw would be seeded, guaranteeing him a reasonably stress-free first round tie against one of the weaker players in the field. The organisers agreed and made O’Leary the top seed. But the Foxrock man almost withdrew when he discovered that he would be facing his former coach in the first round. Without the benefit of a practice round, O’Leary had problems clubbing himself properly and while he went round in level par, R.J. was in inspired form and won easily. Having come to the tournament straight from a pro-am on the Channel Islands, O’Leary was incensed with the organisers afterwards, threatening never to play another event under the auspices of the Irish PGA. “I think he was a little bit afraid of me,” Bobby chuckled. “But it was all forgotten about soon afterwards.”
Bobby’s popularity with the members grew each year and he always gave 100 percent, especially in events such as the Pro-Captains tournament. John Daly was captain in 1975 and for two weeks before the big event at Grange, Bobby refused to allow him to practice with any club other than a four-iron.
“John would be the first to admit that he is not the greatest golfer in the world,” Bobby recalled. “So I hatched a cunning plan. I took him out on the range with a four-iron and every time we had a problem in the tournament, I gave him the four-iron and we were going brilliantly. In fact, we were going so well that by the time we got to the turn, an official manning the scoreboard didn’t believe me when I said we had 27 and a half on the front nine.
"‘Bobby, you’ve got that wrong,’ he said. ‘You mean 37 and a half.’ But I told him I had made no mistake. There were drinks on the ninth tee, we had a gin and tonic, and on we went.
“Unfortunately, that’s when it all went downhill. John didn’t quite have a fresh air on the 10th tee, but he hit one right off the toe of the club and it scuttled through our legs into a big heap of nettles and we had a nine at the hole. Still, we finished third and John was so delighted to get a piece of Waterford Glass that it was just as big a thrill as winning. In fact, I won the Pro-Captains with Dick Walsh at Dundalk in 1993. Happy days indeed.”
Teaching gave Bobby even more pleasure than playing mid-week money matches with Des Smyth and Declan Branigan. And his coaching of players such as Philip Walton, British Amateur champion Michael Hoey, Philomena and Carol Wickham, Oonagh Purfield, Sheena O’Brien-Kenney, Deirdre Smith, Suzanne and Jody Fanagan, and Damien McGrane is still a source of great pride.
“Bobby is a wonderful club pro,” Des Smyth said. “He was great for the kids, great for the juniors. He had a fantastic interest in the game and he was a marvellous addition to the club.”
Hoey recalled: “He was real old school but a great teacher. He didn’t complicate things and I’ll always be grateful to him for the time and encouragement he gave me.”
Walton was just 16 years old when he lifted captain Con Murphy’s prize in 1978, beating Val Smyth on a count back. Indeed, Laytown & Bettystown must be one of the few clubs in the world with two Ryder Cup players on the list of captain’s prize winners following Des Smyth’s victory in Derek Alwright’s prize in 1970. Recalling his win years later, Walton remembers being so confident of victory that he tried unsuccessfully to place a hefty bet on himself with R.J.
“I walked into the shop and I asked Bobby what price I was,” Walton said. “I was 66-1 as it turned out and I remember slapping one of those old tenners down on the counter and walking away. But Bobby whistles after me, telling me I’ve forgotten my change. It was a pound a man, he said. I still said I wanted a tenner on it, but Bobby was having none of it.”
When Robbie met Bobby
He was just a teenager when he hiked two miles from Laytown railway station with his clubs on his back to take lessons from Bobby Browne. Little did Robbie Cannon know then that nearly fourteen years after he first made that trek, he would win his first amateur major and his first Irish cap in the space of a month. In an age dominated by full-time amateurs, Robbie’s victory in the 2009 South of Ireland Amateur Championship at Lahinch at the age of thirty was an outstanding achievement for player and club. Not only did he become the first player from Laytown & Bettystown to etch his name on that famous old trophy, he was also the first member of the club to win a major men’s amateur championship since Declan Branigan’s famous triple crown of 1981.
While he played most of his club golf with Balbriggan, Robbie knew Bettystown well through his connection with Bobby Browne, and he jumped at the chance to join when Ray Moore suggested that playing more links golf over the winter months might help his game:
"I had been going down to Bettystown since I was sixteen to get lessons from Bobby. I used to get the train from Balbriggan and walk the two miles up the road with my clubs on my back. Bobby definitely played a big part in my early development as a player and I will always be grateful to him. He is a fantastic teacher because he can spot anything in your swing. I had made the Leinster team in 2001, but I didn’t feel like I was achieving my full potential in the championships. It was Ray Moore who suggested that I might like to come to the club and it was huge for me to be able to play links golf all year round. Without a doubt, the move to Bettystown played a huge part in winning the South and making the Irish team."
Robbie beat Cork’s Gary O’Flaherty by 4 and 3 in the final of the 2009 South and his performance was so impressive that the Irish selectors had no hesitation in calling him up for the Home International matches at Hillside in September. It was not a memorable week for the Irish team, but Cannon played his part, winning 2 1⁄2 points:
"To win a championship and play for Ireland were huge ambitions of mine. It was a great thrill to pull on that green sweater and represent my country. To do it in Bettystown’s
centenary year made it all the sweeter."
Bobby Browne has introduced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to the game of golf. But he will always be remembered for his incredible contribution as Captain of the Irish Professional Golfer’s Association in 1971 and chairman for 20 years between 1969 and 1989, he represented the PGA of Ireland during its amalgamation with the PGA in 1984. Chairman of the Irish PGA in 2000 and captain in its centenary year of 2001, he played a major role in improving the lot of professionals and their assistants and the setting up of training schemes with ANCO. He was rewarded for his dedication in 2008 when he became the first recipient of the Irish PGA’s Distinguished Service Award in a ceremony at The K Club.
His wife Carmel, sons Seán, Robert and Ciarán and daughters Annette, Elaine and Sarah know just how big a contribution he has made and they can be justifiably proud of the achievements of one of the club’s greatest servants.
This piece is an extract from Out of Bent and Sand, A centenary history of Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club 1909—2009