Garvey, Philomena

Philomena Garvey (1926-2009)

On the 18th May 1944, nearly a full year before V-E Day, two ladies from the County Louth Golf Club faced-off in the final of the Leinster Scratch Cup, one of them, the eventual loser, would represent the face of ladies golf in Ireland for the next twenty five years and would achieve accolades at both national and international level, surpassing anything that had been achieved before. It was a youthful, if inexperienced golfer who played in the final that day at the Hermitage Golf Club but the golfing scribes immediately saw her potential:

“a promising player who imparts that pleasing crispness to impact of clubhead and ball which is the hallmark of a true golfer.”

Although losing by a margin of 4 and 3 to Clarrie Reddan, it would be a rare defeat at national level as she quickly became a near invincible force in Irish golf. Philomena Garvey would play golf at the highest level representing herself, club and country with distinction. Phil’s odyssey into the world of golf saw her compete with some of the greatest lady golfers of her generation, in the greatest events her sport had to offer, on the most spectacular golf courses.

By 1946 the war had ended, Ireland and the United Kingdom were still subjected to food and clothes rationing, but the Irish Ladies’ Championship was back on the golfing calendar. Phil won the first post-war championship, the start of a run of an unprecedented fifteen titles. In the same year Phil got to within a hair’s breath of the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship, it was to be her first of five finals in the event, an achievement equalled by a small elite group but only surpassed by Cecil Leitch. Two years later Phil would make her first of six appearances on the Curtis Cup squad, although selected seven times, a record only surpassed on this side of the Atlantic by Mary McKenna with nine appearances.

While Phil didn’t court controversy she was embroiled in a number of incidents beginning in 1948 when the Royal and Ancient, golf’s ruling body, questioned her amateur status on the basis of being employed by Clery’s, a major department store, selling sporting goods. In February 1949 they ruled in her favour, as she was not actively selling golf clubs and the department store were not promoting her to this end. A ruling against her would likely have questioned the status of many of the leading amateurs.

In 1952 the History of Golf in Britain was published and Enid Wilson, a past multiple Ladies’ Amateur Champion and renowned golf writer for Golf Illustrated and the Daily Telegraph; identified the next generation of champion golfers when she said:

“Of the newcomers, Miss Stephens is the steadiest; Miss Donald, twice winner of the Scottish, the most courageous; and Miss Garvey the most stylish”

Phil’s achievements were all the more incredible for the fact that much of her golf during the year was restricted to weekend play as she worked full time in Clery’s. Unlike many of her fellow competitors it was only the summer months which were unpaid and devoted entirely to golf. Phil was considered to have tender hands and suffered from continuous blistering from too much practice; while the use of gloves helped it proved a constant source of irritation and even pain.

Above all else Phil was mentally tough with supreme powers of concentration and her never say die attitude to golf matches, deficits which would have subdued other players of lesser character were seen as a challenge, there to test her ability and boundaries as a golfer. Phil hated to lose, of that there is no question, doing everything in her power to avoid it especially in Ireland where she relished the fact that she was Ireland’s premier golfer.

During her era, 1946-1970 the main competitive events for high-level women’s golf were the Irish, British and American Championships, the Home Internationals, Curtis Cup, the Vagliano trophy and the Worplesdon mixed foursomes, all match-play format. The expense and time involved in travelling to the US precluded Phil from challenging for their championship except in conjunction with the Curtis Cup team events.

The blue riband event for any lady golfer, on this side of the Atlantic, is the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Golf Championship. Even for the US golfers, their record was not truly complete unless they had added the oldest ladies’ championship to their trophy cabinet. Phil was a five-time finalist and semi-finalist on two occasions, on four other occasions Phil would lose to an eventual finalist; this in a match-play format in an un-seeded competition is a monumental achievement. Phil finally achieved her ambition of winning the Ladies’ Amateur title in Gleneagles on 27 June 1957. A civic reception awaited her on her return home where jubilant well-wishers lined the streets in recognition of her achievement.

In her first appearance at the US Amateur Championship at the East Lake Country Club, the home of the legendary Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones junior, she reached the quarterfinals before being beaten by the eventual winner, the slim, big hitting Beverly Hanson. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the event during which she was introduced to the legendary Bobby Jones who at the time was suffering from a debilitating illness, which at the time was undiagnosed.

You couldn’t always tell from her demeanour in competition, that she liked playing golf. An expressionless, seemingly unfriendly façade, deep in concentration didn’t endear her to spectators. One reporter compared her to Helen Wills, the tennis champion, who was nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face” for her facial expression when playing championship tennis. During matches Phil was quiet, not wasting time on whimsical remarks or idle chatter with her opponent or spectators. All opponents and spectators saw was a calm, unflappable person with an air of invincibility and the more titles she amassed the more daunting the task her opponents faced.

Phil’s championship routine was professional-like and after nine o’clock during events she was nowhere to be seen, retiring to her room early. This behaviour may have been considered somewhat unsociable but in truth it was a bi-product of a nervous disposition while playing championship golf. This nervousness sometimes had unwanted side effects; hardly eating during the events would leave her weak competing in the closing stages of championships.

Phil’s golfing life saw her rub shoulders with some of the great female golfers of her generation and in many cases of all time. These included: Mildred Ella Didrikson (Mrs George Zaharias, aka “Babe”), Patty Berg (the “freckled fireplug”), Glenna Collett Vare, Louise Suggs, Marlene Stewart, Jessie Valentine, Joanne Carner (the “Great Gundy” or “Big Momma”), Barbara McIntire, Barbara Romack and the home grown talent of Clarrie Reddan, Kitty MacCann and Mary McKenna. Phil’s matches against the US players: Babe, Louise Suggs and the Great Gundy, three of the greatest lady golfers ever, show the calibre of her golf. Phil lost to the Babe on the final hole of a thirty-six-hole match-play event at the Sunningdale Ladies course, secured a half against Louise Suggs in the 1948 Curtis Cup and beat JoAnne Carner in the 1960 British Amateur Championship. That she could compete comfortably with women, who between them had won seven Womens’ U.S. Open Professional Championships and are ranked in the top ten female golfers ever, is a testament to her ability as a golfer.

Against Jessie Valentine and Marley Spearman, the triple and double Ladies’ Amateur Champions respectively, she never lost in the eight times they were paired together. Against Frances Stephens another double Ladies’ Amateur champion she lost only twice in the six matches played.

The most controversial incident of her golfing life was to occur in 1958 when Phil reluctantly took a stand on the issue of the Union Jack emblem that adorned the sweaters of the Curtis Cup players. An offer to wear the sweater worn at previous cup matches was rejected by the LGU who decided not to show the tricolour or compromise, without any seemingly justifiable reason. This must have been a personal blow given the fact she was the reigning British Amateur champion and was a representative on the 1952 and 1956 winning teams.

Phil didn’t play in the Curtis Cup that year but still travelled to America to compete in the US Amateur Championship. The fact that the team secured its first draw on US soil together with a bad showing in the US Amateur magnified the frustration felt by Phil at the LGU’s intransigence on the issue. The L.G.U reversed their decision the following year for the Vagliano trophy, when the emblem was changed to incorporate the four countries representing the “British Isles” team. In 1955, Phil won the famous Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes at her first and only attempt; her partner was Philip Scrutton from Sunningdale.

Even Enid Wilson, one of the foremost pre-war lady golfers turned journalist and probably not one of Phil’s greatest allies, had to admit that her record in the Home Internationals was without equal. Out of the fifty-one singles matches she played for Ireland she would only lose ten, four of which were in her first two years representing Ireland. It must be borne in mind that Phil would, as Irish champion, invariably play the top English, Scottish or Welsh player in these matches.

In the early fifties, Fred Corcoran was promoting the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour and its starlets and decided to bring an elite group of players on tour to England as part of the Weathervane International Series, an offshoot of a very successful national tour being played across America. Corcoran was considered one of the early pioneers of ladies professional golf in America, an Irish-American promoter who was inducted to the Golf Hall of Fame, where his short biography finishes with the line: “the man was golf”. In 1951 Phil had been chosen, as part of a six-person team to represent the best in Europe to face the best America had to offer, all the U.S. players were pioneers of professional golf in America and included a Who’s Who of women’s golf.

What transpired was a complete whitewash of the European side and while defeat was probably not unexpected the margin was. Amateur golfers were, as it turned out, no match for women who made a living at it or at least the stellar talent that Corcoran had brought together. What was unexpected was the fight that Phil put up against the darling of this group, the “Babe”, as she took her to the last green of a thirty-six hole final only to lose by an incredible stroke of bad luck on the final green. The “Babe” was a triple Olympian in the field of athletics and was voted as the greatest sportswoman of the twentieth century for her accomplishments in the fields of golf and athletics.

After the match Corcoran asked Phil to consider becoming a professional on the US circuit, when it was proving lucrative for players such as Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg. Phil decided not to pursue the offer but by late 1963 she could no longer resist the temptation of turning professional.

Despite all Phil’s golfing achievements she lamented not playing her best golf during the Curtis Cup matches even though she was on two winning sides, in 1952 and 1956. Phil will have bittersweet memories of the half secured against Louise Suggs, the victory over Dorothy Kirby and a crushing defeat by “Wiffi” Smith.

Although furthermost from her thoughts, Phil took on the mantle of pioneer, joining the professional ranks in 1964, becoming the First Lady of professional golf in Ireland. John Letters, the renowned club manufacturer signed a contract with her to manufacture and distribute clubs endorsed by her. Phil began writing articles on golf instruction for the Evening Herald, another first for ladies golf in Ireland. There was no ladies tour at the time and if times were hard for her male counterparts they were presumably even tougher for Phil who was not attached to a golf club and was operating freelance while still working for Clerys promoting their sports equipment.

The life of a female professional golfer presented near insurmountable obstacles from both a competitive and coaching perspective, eventually leaving no real alternative but to leave Ireland or request a re-instatement of her amateur status. At Phil’s request her amateur status was reinstated in 1968 and she started playing competitively again. The period of self-imposed exile no doubt reduced her tally of titles and the lack of a competitive outlet diminished her desire to compete at the same level as an amateur upon her return. The country was just not ready to embrace the idea of a lady professional golfer but it forced the establishments to consider how to approach the prospect of women professionals. In some small way it may have cleared a path to future aspirants of the professional game.

Phil announced her retirement in 1970 after winning her fifteenth Irish Championship in Royal Portrush, during which she would beat her heir apparent, Mary McKenna. Phil bowed out where it had all started, at the very top of the pile and undisputed Queen of the Irish fairways. Amassing a record, with few parallels in women’s sport in Ireland, it acts as testament to the fact that she was truly Ireland’s greatest lady golfer. Philomena Garvey passed away on 5 May 2009.