Norman Drew, a quick sketch of an Irish golfing legend

Norman Drew, a quick sketch of an Irish golfing legend

With the loss this year of Christy O’Connor Snr, Norman Drew — the first man to play in the Walker Cup, World Cup and Ryder Cup — remains a crucial link to golf’s gentler past.

Before the advent of TrackMan, core training, mental coaches and private jets, the game of professional golf was a far more genteel affair, played by hard-working club professionals little used to the finer things in life.

Yes, there was frequent travel, but much of it on trains the UK rather than jets in the US, where Norman Vico Drew made his Ryder Cup debut at Eldorado County Club in India Wells in California in 1959.

Those matches ended in a 8 1/2 - 3 1/2 win for the US but not before a 27 year old Drew took on the former US PGA and Masters champion Doug Ford in the opening singles on the final day and eagled the 18th, hitting a career three-wood to a foot to halve their tense duel.

“He said he was going to slow my game down and beat me,” Drew said when recalling his lone Ryder Cup match. “But Ford was the kind of guy who’d hit a seven iron and would set off walking before it started coming down.”

O’Connor would lose 7 and 6 to Art Wall that day but Drew still looks back fondly on the career of his friend.

"He was a genius with a wedge in his hands,” he said. “As a rough weather player he had few equals and I remember when we had a ballot on the best ‘escape artist’ in Europe, he won by a mile.”

O’Connor was also larger than life as Drew recalled when casting his mind back to one of the many Pro-Ams he played at the Galway man’s old stomping ground of Bundoran in Co Donegal.

 Norman Drew

Norman Drew

“We always had a good time though sometimes were stayed a little on too long after the round,” Norman recalled with a chuckle. 

“I remember walking off the 18th at Bundoran and Christy came over and asked what I was up to.

“‘I’m going into the clubhouse, of course’”, I said. “But Christy had other ideas.

“‘We’ll do the west end,’ he said. And off I went with Christy and Paddy Skerritt and Wattie Sullivan.

“I think he got the lads singing!”

If Clare native Skerritt was involved in the revelry, the scenes were probably reminiscent of the Lahinch man’s win in the 1970 Alcan International Tournament at Portmarnock, when he and O’Connor "let their hair down and had a bit of a sing-song."

“Christy always wanted me to belt out a few bars of How are Things in Glocca Morra,” Skerritt said. “That was his favourite.”

The evening over, the quartet trooped back to the hotel — Sullivan, Skerritt and Drew to meet their wives as O’Connor, the former professional, headed straight into the kitchen only to emerge with a roast chicken.”

“We had to fend for ourselves but Christy was so well known there, he could just go in and open the fridge. And off he went up to his room. It was a different time.

“Nowadays I wonder why they need all these coaches and doctors and psychiatrists. We turned up to play and said to the caddie, ‘Get that set of clubs on your back and no smoking today!’ You see, they’d smoke your cigarettes as well, you see. Take them straight out of your bag.”

Norman Vico Drew no longer plays the game he loves having broken his ankle four years ago.

“Christy was actually one of the first to pick up the phone and ask how I was,” the 84-year old recalled from his Belfast home. “I was playing twice a week but I had to give up golf. I couldn’t swing or turn at all.”

His son Gordon carries on the family tradition as the PGA professional at Donaghadee. But it’s all a far cry from Drew’s early days under Sam Bacon at Rossmore and Armagh, when he was paid £2.50 a week as a raw 22-year old assistant.

“Sam said to me one day, ‘You can be assistant if you like but I am not paying you any more than £2.50 a week.’

“It was five year apprenticeship and had to learn all the usual things in club repair and learn how to teach by going out with the pro and standing there, watching and listening, so you would know what to say yourself.”

Drew won five Irish amateur championships between 1950 and 1953 - the Irish Amateur Open in 1952 and 1953, the East of Ireland in 1952 and the North of Ireland in 1950 and 1952, earning a Walker Cup call up for 1953. 

“The telegram just said ‘Ancient’ at the bottom,” Drew remembered. “It was a special time.”

The Kittansett Club in Massachusetts was the venue and while a star-studded USA team, captained by Charlie Yates, beat Great Britain and Ireland 9-3, Drew would have his revenge at the Ryder Cup six years later.

Ford, then a 37-year old with two majors and 19 pro wins, tried to take him out of his rhythm by playing quickly but was denied victory by Drew’s 36th hole eagle three.

“That US team would have beaten any Ryder Cup team,” he said of a1953 US Walker Cup squad featuring the likes of Ken Venturi, Charlie Coe and Harvie Ward, who had lost to Joe Carr in the British Amateur final that year.

“I played Don Cherry and lost 9 and 7,” Drew recalled. “At one stretch he had six birdies in seven holes. Over 36 holes, it looks bad on paper, but it wasn’t very much when you think about it.”

As for his middle name, “Vico”, Dermot Gilleece got to the bottom of the story.

In 2012, he wrote: “Drew’s father, a Dubliner involved in engineering, lived on Vico Road in Dalkey before the family moved to Belfast where the future champion golfer was born. ‘I always assumed I was given Vico as my second name because of my father's home place’, he said. 

“‘My brothers knew me as Vico, not Norman. So did my school pals. As I grew older, however, the lads would shout 'Here comes VD'. He laughed. ‘My mother didn't like that. ‘You're Norman Vico Drew’, she said, ‘and you'll be called Norman from now on'. I have a photograph at home of Vico Road. Pity we don't own a house there now. It would be worth a few bob."

As a professional, Drew was very successful, winning a string of titles including the 1959 Yorkshire Evening News Tournament, the Irish Dunlop Tournament and Irish PGA Championship as well as three Ulster Championships.

 Norman with the legendary R T Bobby Jones in Atlanta, Georgia. Picture via  MDGolf.co.uk

Norman with the legendary R T Bobby Jones in Atlanta, Georgia. Picture via MDGolf.co.uk

Golf is now a TV sport for him and he admits to staying up a little too later to watch the conclusions of the PGA Tour events. The game is totally different but America and foreign climes remind him of that 1959 Ryder Cup and his partnerships with O’Connor Snr in the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960 and Dorado in Puerto Rico in 1961, when they were fourth both times

“In the Canada Cup at Portmarnock, I didn’t drive very well for nine holes and Christy was urging me to hit the three wood,” Drew said. “But usually I was very straight. Straight hitting and the short game were the strengths of my game.”

It’s a facet he pays particular attention to when watching golf on television and when he was still regularly down at Bangor even after Michael Bannon took over, he would be asked by his successor o run his eye over a teenage Rory McIlroy.

“Rory - he’s such a good player but when the wind blows, he seems, to all of a sudden to change his follow through and hits an awful lot of bad shots. And he’ snot just missing by inches but by yards and yards. I call them wides. 

“He was about 18 or 19 at the time. He was a super player but seems to hit these wides all the time. 

“With a nine iron you’d expect to put in inside an umbrella. With a wedge, you should be nearly knocking it in the hole very time. He can miss the shot by yards and yards. They want to hit it so hard all the time.”

Drew reported directly back to Bannon, not McIlroy, who admits tot this day that his short iron play needs work.

That said, the pride of Holywood impress still impresses Drew, who has seen some greats in his time.

“O’Connor was such a strong driver of the ball, I often wonder how he wold do with the modern shafts and balls,” he said. “He was hitting it as far as Dave Thomas, who could hit it 300 yards. That was some slack with that small ball. 

“Christy could hit one and extra 25 yards if he wanted and it looked to me that he just lengthened his swing a little in the backswing. But we could all add a little bit to our tee shots when we wanted to.”

The long game skills of Ken Bousfield and Dai Rees also impressed Drew, whose own short game was the envy of many.

"If I had had Norman's short game, I'd have won a couple of British Opens," reflected the late O’Connor Snr during a Ryder Cup reunion at The K Club in 2005. 

At the time, Norman joked that the "perfect combination would have been Christy's long-game and my short game".

"I think Christy was getting tired of me missing the fairway at the Canada Cup in Puerto Rico in '61," said Norman.

"After a while on the tee, he was whispering to me out of the corner of his mouth, 'three-wood, three wood'.

He hit that three wood so sweetly in the 1959 Ryder Cup at Eldorado that even Sam Snead, the US playing captain that week, expressed his envy some years later.

“Ford was at the Kerrygold in Waterville some years later and said to Snead, ‘This is the guy who made three on 18 in Eldorado in ’59. 

“And Snead smiled and said, ‘I caught a few big fish in the lake and I got some ass, but never an eagle on 18!”

This first first appeared in the 2016 PGA Irish Region Yearbook