There was a time when Irish women’s golf got huge coverage and names such as Philomena Garvey, Kitty MacCann and later Mary Gorry, Claire Hourihane and Mary McKenna were household names from Malin Head to Skibbereen.
Mary McKenna is still a household name in golfing circles but one wonders what the name recognition factor would be for Paula Grant, Mary Doyle or Danielle McVeigh, or for 2016 Curtis Cup stars Maria Dunne and Olivia Mehaffey or even our Olympians Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow.
Post Rio, it’s possible that the names Leona and Stephanie will ring a bell with the sports nuts and the young girls they are inspiring to fly the flag.
A former president of the Irish Ladies Golf Union, Miss McKenna is thrilled to see how Irish women’s golf has blossomed competitively over the past 20 years.
With Leona Maguire firmly established as world amateur No 1, Olivia Mehaffey the No 5 [she's now No 3] and Stephanie Meadow making in-roads on the LPGA Tour, things are on the up.
It’s dream stuff considering that Ireland won the Ladies Home Internationals in 1901 and 1907 and didn’t win again until 1980.
We’ve won four more since then — 1986 and three in row from 2002 to 2004. But incredibly, given the high standards, investment and a wealth of top players, success is still hard to achieve. Media coverage is still a hard sell
Just a few weeks ago the Irish Girls’ team won the Home Internationals for the first time. But while Leona is now about to join Stephanie in the professional ranks and more Irish girls are taking up the game than ever, Mary McKenna has a bee in her bonnet.
No only did RTE struggle to be on the ball with mentions of big Irish performances in the women’s majors — coverage of the domestic game continues to fade — but Rory McIlroy intensely annoyed McKenna with his comments at The Open.
The four time maior winner from Co Down said he didn’t feel it was up to him to “grow the game”, even though we are in an era when golf needs its biggest stars to go that extra mile.
“I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game,” McIlroy said at Royal Troon. “I got into golf to win championships and win major championships.”
McIlroy elaborated on his comments the following day, saying he felt he did his bit and improved lives by giving to children’s charities.
“Look, again, the next generation can play golf if they want or they don’t,” he said. “It won't make me any less happy.”
Forget about his decision to skip the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games because of the Zika virus or that Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow did an outstanding job of growing the women’s game by playing brilliantly there.
McKenna believes McIlroy has a debt to golf and to Ireland and Irish sport.
“The problem is the coverage we get in the press,” Mary says of the women’s game. “Stephanie was joint second after the first round in the Canadian Open and yet RTE covered every other golf tournament on the planet and there wasn’t a word about it at 8am news the next morning.
“If they are covering it, people get to know about and come to watch it. They become interested in it. But all we get is Rory, Rory, Rory. I mean Rory has let us down so badly it is not funny.
“His remark about not being in the game to grow the game — Come on, Rory. Where is your head?
“The GUI have put him through their system and helped him get onto the tour. He is a multi, multi talented person. You can’t buy a Rory. You can’t make a Rory. He just has that something.
“But at the same time, a remark like that, I just thought it was very, very poor. He should be in the game to grow the game, because the game has made him a multi-millionaire.
“He says he in the game to win? They are all in the game to win. Play in the Inter-club foursomes and you are in it to win. We were all there to win.
“You played in championships and your goal was to get as far as you could and if you could win, brilliant. But you are there to try and encourage others to play and to promote the game.”
Mary looks now to Leona Maguire, Stephanie Meadow and Olivia Mehaffey with immense pride but she’s more concerned with growing the game at grassroots.
While the three stars will be wonderful role models for the next generation, she wants clubs to do more to encourage young girls to get out and swing a club.
“The clubs themselves have done so much in promoting golf, particularly girls golf and junior golf,” Mary says. “We have over 150 juniors in Donabate. We have won the Fingal Trophy for the last three years. We have had Nicole McGavisk playing on our senior foursomes team at 16 years of age.
“The women have been a little more progressive than the men in this regard. The girls are allowed play on these teams. I am not sure if everybody is happy about playing a 14 or a 15 year old kid but that’s how you help them.
“Put them into a club jersey. Give them the honour of playing for the club and they will love it. And you will keep them.”
The ILGU does its bit but McKenna knows its the club volunteers who are the key people in the game.
“The work, time and effort that people put in is massively encouraging,” she says. “The Union has put pressure on clubs to allow girls to play in all club competitions and that’s great.
“When I started. I was only allowed to play in the monthly medal. So my mum joined me as a full member when I was still a junior and that meant I could play every weekend in the ladies’ competitions.
“The Union has done a lot of work in encouraging clubs — and it hasn’t been easy in a lot of places — to let the girls play.
“Okay, they can’t win the majors. That’s fine. There are five or six competitions they can’t win, such as the Lady Captain’s or the Lady President’s prize.
“But let them play. Let them lose their shots and become good. Then they become the Leonas and the Stephanies and the role models and they all want to be little Leonas and Stephanies.
“They were all there at the Curtis Cup to see the standard and the spirit in which the matches were played. We were just so proud to host it here in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Golf Club did a tremendous job.”
What pleased Mary as much as the great win for Great Britain and Ireland was the performance of a veteran like Maria Dunne, who is 32 and holds down a full time job.
“Maria Dunne came out of the traps and she was so, so good,” Mary says. “She has been a true amateur for so long. She was superb.
“It also proved you don’t have to be an 18, 19, 20 year old, which is the way the game has gone these days. Fewer of the low handicap, slightly older women are now playing. There are so many Juniors. Look at the entries for all of the Championships — they are 80 percent under 18.
“That is not good either because you want to keep the Maria Dunnes and the Emma O’Driscolls, all that gang who have come through training and played as internationals.
“We want to keep them playing golf, keep them playing internationals and keep them playing inter-club competitions. When you have good player in a club, they bring up the standard of the club.”
Like the men’s amateur game, there is a dividing line between the full timers — the young students who are subsidised by the men’s and ladies’ Unions — and the working amateurs.
“People have to work for a living and can’t get a week off,” she admits. “Then there is the expense element. So maybe some events have to change and there has to be more strokeplay, which I don’t like to see.
“I like to see the matchplay element of it. Maybe that’s why we don’t do as well as we could in internationals — too much strokeplay. Matchplay is a different game and a different mind set. You have to try and get a balance.
“Nowadays, things are geared more towards High Performance and grooming players for the professional ranks, I have no doubt. But they have to remember the amateurs who just want to compete.
“The girls are now so good because they are sent away to events. Maybe they should stay and win at home first. Maybe we don’t teach them how to win.
“There is a path there — play and win a home competition, then win a visitor’s competition. Play the provincial championships at every level and then proceed. There are a lot of good players who haven’t won an awful lot.
“So while it is great to see Irish girls go to college in the US, we are losing these people to club golf here. We’d like all these top players to be playing in our national events.”
Mary McKenna is hugely proud of the achievements of Irish’s new stars and what our players have achieved. But she believes she is right to expect success given the investment that has been made in what is a golden generation of talented players.
“Yes, it is huge that we won the Girl’s Home Internationals for the first time this year. But it took us an awful long time. We almost won it in Donabate two or three years ago and Holly Muse won the 18th green to beat Annabel Wilson and steal it from us.
“I mean these kids are like professionals. They are sent to everything. They get everything. They have everything. So they should be winning it. And the ladies will be disappointed that they didn’t do it as well.
“Everything is going for them and the other countries at the moment are just not as strong. It’s like the rugby. Teams go through a period when they are poor and then they build up again. So we are certainly strong in girls golf.”
Having strong role models is crucial for the future. But having a heavy media presence is just as important.
“With Stephanie and Leona doing as well as they did in the Olympics, it’s fantastic. Leona was really fantastic and she’s ready for the tour. I made my Curtis Cup debut at 21. Leona is only 21 now and she already has a whole lifetime of achievements behind her.”
All Mary wants now is a little more media interest.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges facing women’s sport,” she says. “We have to get more coverage. And if they give us more coverage, I guarantee you people will want even more coverage. So we have to fight for it and I’d like to see Sport Ireland do just that and do more to fight our corner.”
Mary McKenna played in nine consecutive Curtis Cups and won 12 domestic titles, including eight Irish Close crowns.
This feature first appeared in Golf Digest Ireland in August