By Ciaran O’Donnell
It all came together perfectly in the end. But as Ted McLaughlin recalls, the decision by Letterkenny Golf Club to host the Irish Women’s Open back in September, 1999 involved a huge volume of preparatory work and no small amount of planning.
Ted was Letterkenny Golf Club President on the final year of the last millennium. Together with his committee, the buy-in from the wider membership, support from the local business community and vital funding from the then Minister for Sport, Tourism and Recreation, James McDaid, the club nestled along the banks of Lough Swilly put on a showpiece to savour.
“The new clubhouse was opened in 1998 and at that time the president’s term was two years,” says the former club officer.
Minister McDaid had performed the official opening of the new clubhouse the previous year.
“Jimmy McDaid was a cabinet minister and was very good to us,” Ted adds.
It was in the latter part of 1998 when Ted was approached by Minister McDaid and the pair discussed the possibility of Letterkenny hosting the Irish round of the Ladies European Tour. The Fianna Fáil Minister was a member of Letterkenny Golf Club himself and was keen to secure the event for his home town.
“He obviously had the shout on where the Irish Women’s Open was going to be held and I told him I was only one voice, but that I would bring it to the committee.”
Ted took the idea to the committee. After a series of lengthy meetings, they agreed to go for it.
“The biggest stumbling blocks they faced were the cost involved and the impact it would have on the members because the preparatory period was going to be lengthy. It was a six-month project, really,” he comments.
Initially, not everyone within the club was happy that it was taking on such an event.
“The members were golfers and this was all happening during the golfing season. So, they weren’t going to be able to play as normal because of the work and machinery on the course.”
For the last two weeks in August, the course was closed down completely as the final touches were added. Minister McDaid’s commitment of £100,000 from the government for the tournament was massive.
“In the main, people were for it. The big thing was we felt we needed something to raise the profile of the club. We’re an inland course and are competing with all of the links courses around the place. The other issue was if we were capable as a group of people of running the show. In the end, the consensus was we’d go with it.”
And, so began a time of meticulous planning to the nth degree. Every aspect of the event had a team assigned to it – the greens, logistics, catering, the press, hospitality/meet and greet, transport, Board Fáilte and the European Ladies Tour all had to be managed individually. It was a military-style operation – it had to be that way to ensure things ran hitch-free.
“Each team leader was a member of the committee and that was their responsibility. There were regular meetings of the team leaders and that was the secret to the event’s success. If it had been down to the full committee to manage everything it just wouldn’t have worked. But the approach we adopted worked brilliantly,” he says.
“We needed a large fleet of cars. We had up to 40 courtesy cars and all of those were sponsored by the local garages. Mick Garry was in charge of the cars.”
The event was part of the European Ladies Tour. According to Ted, their representatives “could have been quite demanding at times” in relation to the standard of everything.
In recent years, major drainage works have been carried out at the Letterkenny course. But 21 years ago, it was heavily dependent on good weather. With the weather the one thing out of the organisers’ control, the only option was to sit tight and hope for the best.
“But it tidied up alright and for the four days of the open the sun shone,” he adds.
The course had to be upgraded to meet the standards drawn up by the European Ladies Tour. This necessitated the borrowing of machinery and leasing equipment. Golf clubs were extremely generous when it came to lending whatever was needed to the Letterkenny club. On top of that, an expert on greens, who had trained and worked in Augusta, was drafted in.
“He was here for about four months – he called all the shots. He went by the name of Green Adair. The famous firefighter from America who flew all over the word was called Red Adair, so Green Adair was what they christened this individual,” Ted says with a laugh.
Tees and greens were upgraded, while the configurations of the fairways were also changed. The result was a much better course and a perfect match with the new-look clubhouse.
Ted is full of praise for the members who went above and beyond for the cause in the run-up to the opening day on September 2nd. It’s also worth noting that the local members housed most of the competitors for the duration of their stay in the Cathedral Town.
“The input of the members was massive – the ladies and the gents,” he stresses.
“There’s no doubt that the open boosted the profile of the club. At the end of the day when the thing was all over, there was nothing but compliments from the Tour, Bord Failte and from the other clubs around the place as to how the thing was managed.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without Jimmy McDaid. I remember himself and myself out on the course at about half past seven on the final day. We were standing on the 14th tee looking up the fifth fairway and it was a picture the way the fairways were changed. I have that picture in my mind still,” he adds.
As things transpired, there was a dramatic end to the 1999 Irish Women’s Open which wasn’t without controversy. Former world number one, Laura Davies, had been far from complementary about the Letterkenny course after one of the earlier rounds. Not surprisingly, her remarks didn’t go down too well with the sponsors, Bord Failte or the Ladies European Tour. The Coventry native found herself in a play-off after the last round on Sunday with Sandrine Mendiburu. Davies hit into a ditch on the second extra hole to hand the title to the French professional who held par. Of the 15 Ladies European Tour events in 1999, Davies won three and was runner-up in two, thus topping the order of merit.
A native of Gleneely, Ted decided to park up the golf bag for good in 2018, having played for 35 years.
“I don’t play anymore. Two of the lads I played with, Hugh McFadden and Liam Crerand, have passed on, while Joe McNulty and myself packed it up. I only played golf to enjoy it. I wasn’t competitive. But I enjoyed it, big time.”
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