Golf: Challenge of Palmer's masterpiece

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The Independent Online
DR MICHAEL SMURFIT, the billionaire owner of the Kildare Golf and Country Club in Straffan, made an ambitious pitch to stage the 1993 Ryder Cup here. It was a nice try but The Belfry got the vote. However, Kildare received the consolation prize of hosting the Johnnie Walker PGA Cup, the club professionals' equivalent of the Ryder Cup.

Ten players from Europe play 10 Americans in the classic format of foursomes, fourballs and singles. The competition began in 1973 but it has never been staged in such opulent surroundings. The teams are staying in the 19th century Straffan House which has been converted into a five-star hotel. It lies at the heart of a 330- acre estate and overlooks the River Liffey.

Smurfit, who bought the estate in 1988 (his business empire was founded on making cardboard boxes), has spent pounds 27m on it, a proportion of which went to Arnold Palmer to design a championship course. It opened last year and they are finally getting it right after severe drainage problems. A 50-year membership of the club costs pounds 125,000; some of the suites in the hotel have a tariff of pounds 800 a night. 'It's one of the nicest settings we've ever seen,' Patrick Rielly, the non- playing captain of the United States said. 'The guys don't want to go home.' Even the press tent has a chandelier.

'This is not World War III,' Rielly said. 'It's just a competition and the only prize is a trophy. When it's over the players will go back to selling golf balls and making sure people's shoes are shined. Players like Walter Hagen used to be club pros and this competition is a nice throwback.'

Both Europe and the United States have some old campaigners on duty for this match, which starts this morning and finishes on Sunday. David Jones was a tournament professional from 1976 to 1991 and he qualified for the team by finishing fourth in the Wilson Club Professional Championship. Nick Job, a PGA member for 26 years, led the Open Championship at Royal St George's after the first round in 1981 and eventually finished 14th.

The top seven in the Club Professional Championship automatically qualified for the team and Paul Leonard, the non-playing captain from Ulster, chose two experienced Scotsmen, Russell Weir and John Chillas. Weir, who has made three previous PGA Cup appearances, broke his left leg on the tee during a tournament in the Netherlands 13 months ago. The break was so bad Weir feared he would not play golf again. 'He's coming back into form and I have every confidence in him,' Leonard said. 'He won't have any trouble in going the distance.'

Only two members of the United States team have played in previous PGA Cups, Tom Wargo, who was 50 on Wednesday, and Larry Gilbert who is 49. Both will try to get their cards later this year for the lucrative US Seniors Tour. Wargo, the winner of 10 US PGA club professional tournaments, made an impression in the US PGA Championship at Bellerive, St Louis last month where he was joint 18th.

'The Americans are always strong,' Leonard said, 'but we have what I consider to be a very good team. We'll let them worry about us. It's going to be a tough contest and the location couldn't be better. It's a wonderful golf course.'

The match is being played in Ireland for the first time but the design, from the clubhouse to Palmer's extravagant layout, is very American. Water, whether the Liffey or in the form of lakes, is present at 14 holes. 'To my mind Palmer has created a masterpiece,' Ernie Jones, the club professional at Kildare, said.

In the series, the United States have won on nine occasions, Europe four and the last home victory was at Turnberry in 1984. Two years ago the Americans dominated the match at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, winning 19-7.


EUROPE: Non-playing captain: Paul Leonard (Dunmurry GC, Belfast). John Chillas (Glenbervie GC, Falkirk), aged 41, four previous PGA Cup appearances; Tim Giles (De Hoge Kleij Club, Neth), 36, cup debut; Peter Cowen (Lindrick GC, Sheffield), 41, cup debut; Chris Hall (Bulwell Forest GC, Nottingham), 31, cup debut; John Hoskison (West Surrey GC), 34, one previous appearance; Craig Maltman (Eyemouth, Berwickshire), 39, cup debut; Nick Job (Richmond GC, Surrey), 43, one previous appearance; Brian Rimmer (Oaklands, Midlands), 26, cup debut. David Jones (Knockbracken GC, Ulster), 45, four previous appearances; Russell Weir (Cowal, Dunoon), 41, three previous appearances.

UNITED STATES: Non-playing captain: Patrick Rielly (Annandale GC, Pasadena), honorary president of the US PGA. Bob Borowicz (Bennett Valley GC, California), 34, cup debut; Ron McDougal (Century CC, NY), 29, cup debut; Gene Fieger (Overbrook GC, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), 32, cup debut; Lee Rinker (Muirfield Village GC, Ohio), 31, cup debut; Larry Gilbert (Lexington, Kentucky), 49, five previous appearance; Mike San Filippo (Sky Meadow CC, New Hampshire), 39, cup debut; Mike Schuchart (Holmes Park GC, Nebraska), 31, cup debut; Steven Veriato (Onion Creek CC, Texas), 46, cup debut; Brett Upper (Bent Creek CC, Penn), 33, cup debut; Tom Wargo (Greenview GC, Illinois), 50, one previous appearance.