Kitty Smye was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 1922 and was to become the first ‘Irish’ winner of the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship, at Broadstone in 1951, since May Hezlet in 1907 bridging a gap of forty-four years.
Mrs MacCann secured two national titles in 1949 and 1961 and was selected for the 1952 Curtis Cup team but didn’t play by reason of illness. Kitty played for her country in the home international matches sixteen times between 1947 and 1965 and won the Midland Senior Championship on four occasions and the Leinster Championship twice, in 1948 and 1958 and the Munster Championship once, in 1958.
Kitty was born into a golfing family, her father was a scratch player, who played in the South of Ireland championship on occasion, while two of her brothers Gerry and Willie played off 3. Her greatest disappointment was probably her non-participation in the 1952 Curtis Cup matches.
Catherine Smye first signalled her ability to compete at the top level in 1947 when she was narrowly defeated by Philomena Garvey in the Leinster Scratch Cup. The match put Miss Smye on the map and made her a shoo-in for the home internationals.
The Irish Ladies’ Championship in 1947 at Royal Portrush was to be her first of three finals against Miss Garvey all of which she eventually lost. Now twenty-four years of age and a five handicapper, her length from tee to green was impressive and in some cases she could reach the green in two where other competitors could not hope to match such a feat. If she had a flaw it was that her short game was erratic.
Miss Smye hadn’t long to wait for the victory march, as the national championship moved to Baltray in 1949. The County Louth Golf Club was the lair of the two greatest women golfers in Ireland at that time and while the punters expected Miss Smye to put up a serious challenge they couldn’t seriously have expected her to take the Cup. Miss Smye had the upper hand and played some beautiful golf with her “fluent swing” and her short game was not its usual unpredictable self. This was Miss Smye’s first national championship and as the years moved on she proved to be one of only two people to loosen Philomena Garvey’s stranglehold on the championship.
Miss Smye was now Mrs P G MacCann having married Mr. Pat MacCann on the 16 February 1950, the bridesmaid was one Clarrie Reddan.
Between 1953-1956 Kitty didn’t play in the national championship, either by not entering or giving her first round opponent a walkover. When she did return, it was in style, albeit faltering at the last hurdle in a repeat of the final from ten years previous. The 1957 national championship was played at Royal Portrush and Kitty proved her game was back to its best taking joint second in the Leitrim Cup where many of the players hadn’t returned their cards due to torrential downpours in the afternoon. The final proved to be a humdinger for the quality of the golf and the tension it produced. Both players went around Portrush in seventy-seven strokes in the morning match and went in all square. The quality of the match continued throughout the afternoon as Miss Garvey played the sixteen holes in level fours. After taking the lead at the twenty-second hole Miss Garvey was never to relinquish it, proceeding to take the next two holes with threes but Kitty birdied the twenty-seventh and eighth as she reeled Philomena Garvey back in, the next two were halved and the following two exchanged holes when Kitty was wayward on the eleventh and her opponent unable to find the green at the next. Philomena pulled ahead again with a birdie at the thirty-third hole and a piece of magic on the thirty-fourth where she nearly held out with her spoon for an albatross to take her to three up and to secure the championship.
Philomena recalled the Portrush final against Kitty and felt she played better than she had ever done in any other final in beating Kitty by 3 & 2. She had to:”because Kitty was playing really too well, and every hole I won from her was well and truly earned. I holed a few more putts than she did, and that was the difference between us.” she went on: “I was three up with six to play in that match and lost the 13th and 14th – the 14th being, of course, Calamity Corner. When Kitty hit a superb second at the fifteenth to within five feet of the pin memories of the 1946 final began to haunt me. I hit a good one too but it was six feet or so away. However, I sank mine and Kitty missed her’s and I must say I never felt more relieved in my life”
In 1960 the Championship moved to Little Island, the Cork golf club, at which stage there were considered to be four challengers for the title, the “Big” four as one paper referred to them. As usual there was Garvey and MacCann but now added to this group was Mrs Pat O’Sullivan and Mrs Zelie Fallon who had earned their spurs in previous championships.
The match itself was played in scorching heat and the final score to some extent masked the supreme golf exhibition witnessed over the thirty-six hole final. Phil was one up after the first eighteen but moved up a gear covering the next nine holes in two under par leaving her with a five up lead by the twenty-seventh hole and continuing to thwart a late surge by going two under bogey for the next five holes. This was matchplay golf at its very best with Kitty covering the thirty-two holes in 139 strokes compared to Philomena’s 133 strokes. During the morning round the lead had changed hands three times but in the afternoon Phil lost only one hole, the twenty-eighth, when the Tullamore player birdie the par 5. Phil hit right back and responded in kind with a birdie of her own after sinking a two foot putt.
The 1961 Championship was played over the Royal County Down golf course and it immediately gave Mrs MacCann a scare, in her first round match against an eighteen year old Miss Elisabeth Barnett playing on her home course. Despite a sore leg Mrs MacCann appeared to be in control turning three up after covering the stretch in one under fours (35). Mrs MacCann’s golf began to deteriorate and although halving the tenth and eleventh with a four and five respectively, she lost the next four leaving her one down. Needing a birdie at the next to square the match again she provided it, helped by a superb drive off the tee. At the last two Miss Barnett’s in-experience began to tell as she spent much of these two holes playing out of rough or sand, eventually giving the two holes to a relieved Kitty MacCann. Despite this set-back Miss Barnett in two years time would be in the final of the Championship. The Newcastle track had a bogey score of seventy-seven and measured over six thousand three hundred yards. In the second and third rounds Kitty moved comfortably into the quarter-finals defeating a local player Mrs J Kirkwood and Miss Ann O’Leary by the fifteenth and her challenge for the title was helped immeasurably by Mrs Fallon’s shock defeat to Miss Joan Beckett a relative unknown at this level of championship golf. Kitty was set to face Heather Colhoun, a 1959 finalist, Leitrim Cup winner and international, in the quarter-finals. The match was uneventful as Kitty coasted through to a semi-final match with Mrs Pat O’Sullivan who was not at her best and although unlikely to have ever beaten Kitty, in this instance, there was no consistency in her game. Kitty won the first three holes but her opponent had it back to all square by the seventh but another poor patch by Mrs Pat O’Sullivan saw her two down at the turn. Two very short putts missed on the eleventh and thirteenth saw Kitty go four up and the match was by then all but over, however the quality left something to be desired and even Kitty recognised her poor play and made to the practice ground before the next day’s final.
The final match was between Kitty and a relative newcomer in Miss Ann Sweeney from Cushenhall and while this must have been a glorious moment for Kitty it must have been tainted slightly by the fact that neither finalist really played well. Even though a strong wind blew on the day there could have been no reasonable explanation for the number of bad shots played especially by Miss Sweeney who was obviously unnerved by the occasion. Miss Sweeney’s short game, although by no means perfect, kept her in the match during the early stages as from tee to green she found herself continuously plagued by every defence the golf course had to offer, heather, bunkers and dunes, this together with Ms MacCann’s short game being absence without leave from the day’s events as nobody could remember her making a putt of any consequence during the day resulted in an below average spectacle. Miss Sweeney was obviously distraught with her golf so much so that when given any kind of opportunity to end the torture she took it with both hands. Upon reaching the thirty-third hole in four shots both players were equidistant from the pin and Kitty was four up, Ann needed to sink her putt and her opponent to miss to take the match to the next hole. Miss Sweeney decided not to pursue the matter further and conceded the hole and the match giving Kitty her second championship victory. In fairness to Kitty MacCann sometimes the play of your opponent dictates ones own play or at the very least reflect it.
The golf was of such poor quality that it left one commentator to say “the tournament started badly and deteriorated so much (so) that the final was considered the poorest quality final in years…”
While Kitty MacCann was entered in the 1962 and 1963 Championships, the former returning to the scene of her first victory unfortunately she had to withdraw from the event before competing at all.
Mrs MacCann only started entering the Ladies’ Amateur Championship in 1950 presumably because the venue that year was reasonably close to home. Kitty went out in the third round to the legendary, Mrs G. (Jesse) Valentine, a previous winner of the title from Craigie Hill, by one hole. Both competitors seemed to be affected by nerves as there was many small putts missed, this may have been due in no small part to the delays they were experiencing between every shot which seemed to have a unnerving effect on Jesse who uncharacteristically hit an unusual number of bunkers. In the earlier rounds Kitty brushed aside Mrs McCullah of the USA by 7 and 6 and this set up a match against Moira Patterson a potential player in that years Curtis Cup team and an eventual winner of the event in 1952 at Troon. The Irish Independent stated: “This was opposition of top class and Mrs MacCann met the challenge with grand coolness and considerable skill.” The match was neck and neck to the ninth but while a drive and an iron got Mrs MacCann home Miss Patterson fell short with two woods and this differential between length seemed to un-edge her, as she seemed to force the ball when playing the remaining holes, doing so at the expense of accuracy. Eventually Mrs MacCann took three of the last seven holes and recorded a significant 4 and 2 victory. All of this must have given Mrs MacCann the confidence to compete the following year and her husband probably paid no small part in egging her to compete for the ultimate prize in womens’ golf. John Kelly the professional also convinced her to play in the Championship and tutored her in her drives and long irons while Harry Bradshaw provided her with guidance on her short game. All this preparation and encouragement led Kitty to the 1951 Championship at Broadstone in Dorset.
In the third and fourth rounds Mrs MacCann beat Mrs J Beck, now playing out of Berkshire by 2 and 1 and then went on to beat Miss Allen of Bramshaw by 1 up. Kitty was now the sole Irish survivor as Miss Garvey who had beaten the previous year’s champion in the morning match failed to repeat the task in the next match against a lesser opponent. Mrs MacCann had an early scare against Mrs Allen losing three holes early in the match but once she found her putting rhythm she hauled her opponent back onto level terms by the ninth. The match had still a few more acts before the closing curtain as she won the eleventh only to pick up at twelve and found herself stymied at the thirteenth. Mrs MacCann showed her metal by birdieing the sixteenth with a three and the eighteenth to close out the match in what must have been an exciting match to watch.
It was into the quarter and semi-finals and two hard fought matches against a wiser more imperturbable Moira Paterson and Jeanne Bisgood, the eventual results would bear out the difficulty of these matches as both went into extra time. The following days headlines said it all as Mrs MacCann held her nerve to come out ahead in two gruelling matches against tough opposition.
On Thursday, 7 June, 1951 Kitty MacCann, “a quiet unassuming 28 year old” entered the annals of golfing history as she took the most coveted prize in the Ladies’ amateur golf. Sometimes the achievement has not quite received the recognition it deserves in the Irish psyche and becoming the first Irish player since the great May Hezlet in 1907 when Hezlet and Adair represented the golden age of Irish ladies’ golf was a huge achievement.
If there was ever proof needed that Kitty enjoyed her golf it was plain to be seen during this final, whatever the shot her temperament remained upbeat and always smiling. Kitty was on top of her game in all departments and it was clear from early in the final that she was more than a match for her opponent on the day and this to some extent detracted from the excitement for the impartial observer. Bearing in mind the previous day she had played forty-one holes before making it to the final, her casual attitude to playing golf and her understanding that at the end of the day it was just a game, held her in good stead. The attitude in no way diminished her will to win as was clear from the previous day but the world wouldn’t stop turning if she lost. At her side for the final round was her husband, a continuous source of encouragement, who was probably as, if not more excited by the outcome than Kitty, as the match was conceded he rushed across the thirty-third green to “plant a kiss on his wife’s cheek”. Also there, was her father an avid golfer and her brother-in-law Raymond, all having flown over earlier in the day. Their flight needed special permission to land at a military airfield close to where the Championship was being played.
Kitty recalled the match in later interviews when her abiding memory was the pervasive heat during the Home Internationals and the Championship proper and the endurance required in playing two rounds daily over six days. This was magnified given a particularly gruelling penultimate day when she had to play forty-one holes before securing her place in the final against “bunty” Stephens. In an interview with Colm Smith she stated, “I lost half a stone or more during the week. It was really hot but I like the heat even though my arms were sore. But when you are young and fit you don’t mind.”
During the match Miss Stephens didn’t seem to get to grips with the wind as her approach shots were invariably left short. Kitty got off to a faster start, taking 2,4 and 5 only to lose the next hole but continued to capitalise on Miss Stephen’s loose play by taking 7 and 8 but lost the ninth to reach the turn 3 up. The match remained three up as they went in for lunch. Kitty continued to tighten her grip on the Championship winning the twentieth with a birdie four and despite losing the 22nd and 26th, quickly recovered by winning the next with her prodigious length to secure a birdie, and went into the final nine holes three up. The next five holes were halved as Miss Stephens failed to convert some putts. On the final hole Kitty was just off the green in two while her opponent had found sand and when she failed to get out of the trap at a first attempt her fate was all but sealed and eventually conceded the hole and the match.
L to R: Miss Jean Donald (North Berwrick), Kitty MacCann (Tullamore), Frances Stephens (Birkdale) and Jeanne Bisgood (Parkstone).
Kitty MacCann of Tullamore, Offaly died peacefully on 29 April 2010 at 88 years of age.