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The Carr Chronicle

Joe Carr And Ireland’s First Family Of Golf

By John Hopkins   •   May 2, 2020

This story was first published on July 16, 2019.

Jack Nicklaus lowered himself gingerly into the seat. Cushions went this way and that as he made himself comfortable. For a moment he looked quizzical. Then he asked: “What do you want to know?”

“All about Joe Carr” came the answer.

A wide smile creased Nicklaus’s face, the face that had stared down 1,000 putts. “Joe Carr,” said Nicklaus. “Great man. Loved him. He was everybody’s friend.”

Jack Nicklaus at the 1959 Walker Cup Photo: Courtesy USGA Museum

Even his opponents loved Joe Carr. They used to thank him when he had beaten them, 5 and 4, 6 and 5, and sometimes by a dog’s licence, 7 and 6. Carr was fair, gentlemanly and good fun.

“Joe and I met in the Walker Cup at Muirfield in 1959 and again in the Eisenhower Trophy at Merion, I think, in 1960, then again in the 1961 Walker Cup,” Nicklaus continued. He politely declined to recall that the US won that match, 11-1, and in the singles he beat Carr by 6 and 4.

“We played a few practice rounds together before the US Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1961. He lost in the semi-final to Dudley Wysong, I believe, otherwise we would have met in the final.

“At the 1962 Open (at Royal Troon) I was the US Open champion and I was paired at the end of the field with a marker. Joe was shocked and went to the R&A and said to them: “This is no way to treat the US Open champion.

Jack Nicklaus and Joe Carr during Nicklaus’ visit to Dublin for Sutton Golf Club’s centenary in 1990.

“Joe used to claim he won money from me playing poker, which was probably true. But at golf he was always my financier. In the end he offered to pay me in cashmere sweaters but I said Barbara had gotten enough Pringle sweaters.

“He was a bit rough at the edges as a golfer,” Nicklaus continued. “Rough-hewn, if you see what I mean. It didn’t look pretty playing. His precision was good. He had a very good short game and he was a good driver. Big hands. Very big hands. Wonderful short game. Raw-boned guy who hit the ball miles. He had a very controlled fade. He was long.”

“As long as you Jack?”

Nicklaus paused. “Probably not quite,” he said, winking.

1961 British Walker Cup Team (From left) Michael F. Bonallack, David W. Frame, Gordon Huddy, Ronald D.B.M. Shade, Joseph B. Carr, Captain Charles D. Lawrie, Martin J. Christmas, James Walker, Michael S. R. Lunt, Brian H. G. Chapman, David A. Blair. Photo: Courtesy USGA Museum
Joe Carr, Doug Sanders and Roberto DeVicenzo at the 1965 Open Championship.

That was Joe Carr, the Irish amateur golfer of popular memory, the man who was born on 18 February 1922 and died in Dublin in the late afternoon of 3 June 2004, while wearing an R&A shirt, an hour or so before that organisation’s 250th anniversary dinner in St Andrews. If his name does not ring a bell, then it should, particularly now, July 2019, because 59 years ago this summer he won the Amateur for the third time when it was held at Royal Portrush, venue of this week’s Open Championship.

At this point, it is worth repeating part of an essay by Pat Ward-Thomas about Royal Portrush and Carr’s victory because its elegance reminds us what a sublime writer Ward-Thomas was and its relevance to this year’s Open.

“Of all the lovely places in the world where golf is played, there are few to compare with Portrush when the blessing of summer time is upon it,” Ward-Thomas wrote. “Not only is the course a great examination of a golfer’s skill but it is a place of enchanting beauty. One is aware of a sense of greatness from the first moment it comes into view, around a curve in the majestic coast road of Antrim. Suddenly, there it lies, a magnificent spread of rippling links, green and folding, primrose, bluebell and dogrose within its grasses, tumbling down to vast towering dunes and a shining sea beyond. Far away on either hand great headlands, Benbane and Inishowen. Rise from the waters and, not far offshore, the long sprawl of the Skerries lie like low ships awaiting the tide. Such was the setting on golden day in Maytime when Joe Carr, perhaps the most famous, and certainly not the least beloved, citizen in all Ireland, reached the peak of a remarkable career.

“His golf was magnificent in its power and accuracy,” Ward-Thomas continued “and by lunchtime the match, to all intents, was won and lost. Carr was six up then. … He stood on the tee of the superb ninth hole 10 up and 10 to play in the final of the oldest amateur championship in the world, on a great links, and all in the beauty of a young summer day. I remember thinking that life could hold little more for a golfer than this. No power, short of a bolt from blue skies, could prevent Carr from becoming champion for the third time, a performance without parallel in the last half-century. If the fact was not obvious before, it was then, on that day at Portrush, that Carr is the finest amateur golfer of his generation in the British Isles.”

In those days Joe Carr’s name and achievements resounded throughout Irish golf and for aficionados they still do. Those who recall Joe Carr remember with a warm smile the tall, slim Irishman who spoke as fast as some people drive and hit the ball as far as some people’s daily commute. His wasn’t a classical swing. “He set up for a draw, hits a fade and smashes the f****** thing a country mile,” Australian professional Norman von Nida observed.

Carr at the 1953 Walker Cup held at Kittansett Club, Marion, Mass. Photo: Courtesy USGA Archives

Joseph Benedict Carr was unquestionably one of the best golfers ever to come out of Ireland, amateur or professional. He was involved in 11 successive Walker Cups, nine as a player, one as a playing captain and one as captain. He won at least 40 championships, including the Amateur on three occasions. In addition to that, in the 11 years from 1950, he was beaten three times in a semi-final, twice in the last eight and once in the last 16. In 1967, aged 45, he qualified for both the US Open and the Open Championship, a feat not duplicated by an amateur until Brandon Wu did it in 2019.

Carr’s gift was not to be able to play golf well, though he undoubtedly did that. His gift was to work so hard that such diligence had to be rewarded. “He dug his victories out of the dirt,” John Carr, his third son, said. “I remember in the morning before we went to school we’d wake up and see this snake of white balls laid out by Andy Doherty, his caddie, behind the second green at Sutton (the Dublin golf club adjoining the family’s home). You’d hear Dad getting up, coughing, climbing over the stile, hitting the balls and then going for a run while Andy set up another 100 balls. I remember seeing Andy pouring a kettle of boiling water when the ground was frozen so he could put the tees in.

“In 1957 Dad went to St Andrews to scope out the Old Course for the 1958 Amateur and he figured out all he needed to win there was a driver, an 8-iron and a wedge. He came back and that winter he hit 50,000 drives, 50,000 8-irons and 50,000 wedges. My mum documented everything. He won the 1958 Amateur.

Carr at the 1967 Open Championships at Hoylake. Photo: Ted West, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“He was a good schoolboy sprinter, a very good snooker and bridge player but golf was his conduit to perfection, and application was why he succeeded. I do believe his gift was one of application rather than golf.”

In time, Joe Carr became the first non-American citizen to be presented with the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship by the USGA, the first Irishman to be offered membership of Augusta National Golf Club (having earlier become the first Irishman to compete in the Masters), the first Irishman to captain the R&A, and the first Irish golfer, man or woman, to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame based in St Augustine, Fla.

More to the point, and less well known perhaps, is the fact that he, a man who was adopted at 10 days old by his mother’s sister and her husband, who were the steward and stewardess of Portmarnock Golf Club and who remained secretive about his adoption for years, fathered a veritable tribe of noisy, character-filled children – five boys and a girl varying in age from son Jody, the oldest, who was born in 1949, to son Marty, the youngest, who was born in 1963.

Think of the famous successful families in golf: the Morrises of the 19th century, Old Tom and Young Tom, winners of eight of the 10 Opens from 1861 to 1872; the Parks, Willie Sr. and Jr., who won the Open on six occasions, Willie Sr. in 1860, 1863, 1866 and 1875 and Willie Jr. in 1887 and 1889; the Allisses, Percy and Peter, who became the first father and son to play in the Ryder Cup. Their involvement in the Open is exceptional for its longevity. Percy first competed in the 1921 Open and the Alliss connection continues with Peter, his son, commentating for the BBC at Royal Portrush this year, 98 years later.

The Swiss might have the family Robinson; the Irish have the family Carr, the first family of golf in that country. They’re everywhere and though their triumphs don’t light up golf’s record books as did those of the Morrises and the Parks, in terms of fecundity and progeny theirs is a remarkable family.

1971 GB&I Walker Cup team at St. Andrews in Scotland. Back Row: David M. Marsh, Charles W. Green, Hugh B. Stuart, Michael F. Bonallack (Captain), Rodney Foster and George MacGregor. Front Row: Warren Humphreys, Geoffery C. Marks, John S. Macdonald, and Roderick J. Carr. Photo: Courtesy USGA Museum

Strikingly missing from this list is the one family member who might be considered to be an unsung heroine of the brood. Sibeal Brannigan, nee Carr, is the third-born of the six Carrs, a vivacious Irishwoman who not only never felt the need to bend the knee to her famous father but couldn’t stand golf. “I hit one shot and ran,” she said, neglecting to say that her father, on seeing his daughter hit the ball a considerable distance, exclaimed: “We have a future international here.”

“I’d say I was about 10 when that happened,” Sibeal continued. “I would still have a very good swing but I don’t play golf. It bored the hell out of me. I’d sit at the table and they’d all talk about golf and I’d fire stuff around the place. I’d try and divert them a little but they wouldn’t be diverted so I’d get up and go. I’d tell them: ‘Shirrup. You’re wrecking my head. Why are you always talking about golf?’ Dad had a soft spot for me because I was able for him. I wouldn’t take any crap. If he was doing or saying something I didn’t agree with I’d tell him. I’d say, ‘You’re being unfair or don’t do that, leave him alone. His reaction was ‘bitch.’ He would do what I said. I wasn’t afraid of him because he knew I wouldn’t take any crap from him.”

Marty: “None of the boys would dare do that. He’d come home from work early in the summer holidays and we’d hear the car driving in under the car port and we’d be whoosh, down the stairs, over the stile, on to the green and he’d be walking up saying: ‘Well done boys.’ ”

Roddy: “All we ever heard was, ‘What’s your programme boys?’ Achievement-orientated was his idea of success and success equalled a good upbringing.”

John: “He was charismatic and people liked to be around him. He was a catalyst for shy people like Michael Bonallack. He could get them to come out of themselves and not be so shy.

“His party piece was singing Danny Boy. He did so on the Gay Byrne show on Irish TV. He had a good voice.”

Marty: “He was very conscious of not doing the wrong thing. He was very correct. He always made sure you did the right thing.”

Sibeal: “We were brought up with manners. The boys would stand up if a woman came into the room. I would call people Mr. or Mrs. I wouldn’t call them by their first names.

“Dad didn’t have on me what he had on the boys,” Sibeal continued. “He was very hard on the boys. He wanted them to succeed. He was especially harsh on Roddy because of the golf. He wanted Roddy to be the best. We had a billiard room that overlooked the second green and I’d hear him muttering to any man who came in: ‘Look, look at what Roddy’s doing. Tell him what he’s doing wrong there.’ And I’d say ‘Dad, stop. Stop telling him what he is doing wrong. He’s doing fine. Leave him alone.’ ”

Roddy: “He taught me not to use a wedge if I got into water because the sole would bounce off the water. He told me to spend one month in a bunker and then I’d know pretty much everything there was to know about getting out of sand. He showed me all the shots to play around the green, all the bunker shots, the methodology of these shots. He told me a lot. But he couldn’t understand that I couldn’t do some of the things he did. He just couldn’t understand it. He had the hands. His claws were massive weapons.”

Having the surname Carr in Ireland was a blessing – but only for some. Roddy recalls returning to the Dublin airport with his two children aged 10 and 12. “One was born in Spain, one in Barbados and they lived in America. They didn’t know who Joe Carr was. I remember landing at the airport and the fellow at passport control said: ‘Oh Roddy. Where have you been?’ Same with the fellow picking up the luggage. ‘Hi Roddy. How are you doing. I knew your dad.’

“That was their first inkling and finally they end up playing golf and Jamie, my son, was expected to be good but he couldn’t hit it, so that was the end of that. He went to hockey and is trying to become the first Carr to play hockey for Ireland in next year’s Olympics.”

Ask Marty if he ever feels the Carr surname to be a burden and he replies: “Every time I stand on the first tee. I got the name but not the game.”

And Sibeal? “I hated it. If there was any of this ‘you’re Joe Carr’s daughter,’ I’d run a mile. It used to freak me out. I couldn’t stand it.”

For years the Carrs lived in a house they called Suncroft overlooking the second green of Sutton Golf Club. It had a billiard room, a car port and there were floodlights on the roof so that Joe could practice at night. The Carrs were generous to a fault, encouraging visitors to stay. The daily order of milk was 25 bottles and by one estimate the weekly food bill was £400.

“Mary, the lady who looked after us for a number of years when we were kids, went into the dining room one day and was putting away some of the crystal,” Marty recalled. “There were four people sitting at the table going like: ‘We’ve been here for 15 minutes. We need menus.’ They thought they were at Sutton Golf Club.”

It was a house full of rambunctious children, the boys ganging up on their sister. In that, they made a mistake. She could more than hold her own. “I’d beat them with pokers,” Sibeal said. “I used to say to Gerry, ‘You’re adopted. Your name is Waters (Joe Carr’s birth name).’ You’re not really a Carr, I’d say when they were young and annoying me. I plagued John with that. My mum would say to me, ‘You’re never to say that. It would really upset your dad.’

“I broke a glass over John’s head one day. Then I’d have to belt up the stairs, into the loo, lock the door, out of the window, across the golf course. I was a sprinter so I was lucky. As the years went on the catch on the loo door got looser and I was always terrified that the door would give.

“I’d be one of 20 people in the house with nothing in common with the others,” Sibeal continued. “It was actually not very nice. My room was the only one with a double bed in it so if people were staying I would be pushed out of it. I didn’t find it easy with people coming and going and random visitors around our kitchen table every day. I used to think I was nuts because I would cry and feel these emotions. I used to think there was something wrong with me. It was only with years I realised actually I was fine the way I am. Of course I am normal. I was just a girl.”

At this, Roddy looked fondly across at his sister and, with the genuine concern of an older brother, said: “It must have been a totally different experience for you. We only realised later how awful it was. There was no sympathy for you, no recognition that you might not like it.”

Today when Marty and Roddy meet the air is soon full of stories and jokes and gossip. When they play golf they scarcely stop talking long enough to hit a ball. Both carry their bags and play no-frills golf at a cracking pace. Later Sibeal joined her two brothers and a warmth descended on the table and laughter crackled in the air like kindling on a roaring fire.

They are a tight family unit, knitted together as closely as an Aran sweater. Four of the remaining five siblings live within 20 miles of one another in the Dublin area; Jody lives in Cork. With justification they are proud of their heritage, their children, their parents, their family name. Would Joe and Dor (Dorothy) see their children and grandchildren now, they too would be proud.

“Suncroft was a wonderland for us boys” Jody said. “My mum managed JB and six kids and all the comings and goings, travel, visitors, blow-ins from all over the neighbourhood and golf world, high and low alike with style and compassion. She was a major factor in his career and in all our lives.”

Sibeal: “Dad was a very caring man. His father was an Army man. His upbringing was probably a bit sergeant major-like.”

Marty: “He didn’t do hugging.”

Roddy: “You only shook his hand called him sir. He didn’t start hugging until he was 70 when I said to him, ‘Now then Pop, you have to learn how to hug.’

“He said, ‘What? I can’t do that.’

“I said, ‘Yes you can.’ ”

At this, Roddy stood up, put his arms around his father and hugged him, hard. “ ‘There,’ ” he said. “ ‘That is what a hug is, Pop.’ In the end he hugged everybody until he got it.

“I also told him you don’t have to tell me you love me because I know but you do have to tell the boys (Gerry and Marty) that you love them because they have to hear it from you before you snuff it.

“He said: ‘What? I can’t do that.’

“I said, ‘Say it Pop. Tell them you love them,’ and eventually he did. It was amazing.”

… he managed to overcome his innate reserve, the reserve that had prevented him from hugging his children, telling them he loved them. “I have to tell them now,” he said one night just before he died. “I never knew the love (I’d received.) I can’t go now.”

Sigmund Freud once observed, “A man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.” It is instructive to hear Sibeal on the subject of fathers and daughters.

“Dad was from a different generation,” Sibeal said. “He was a very narcissistic man but then most people of that time were. He was a man of his times. He didn’t really do grandchildren though he would give each of them £50 when he saw them. I achieved what I achieved as a woman, which means I was barefoot, pregnant and got married. A woman’s place is in the kitchen. He was quite happy with that. That’s true.

“With me it was very difficult. If I had been a particularly ugly child I was screwed because he liked sensible, (girls) to dress well. He never told me that. I would have dressed the way I wanted to dress anyway.

“He sought me more than I sought him. I got so tied up with four children under the age of 6 and I was trying to cope with my own life and I went through a phase when I kept my distance from him. I think he probably needed me.

“Once when he was very sick (in Limerick) I remember standing in a room and thinking: ‘I either keep my distance from him and I’ll be fine or I go in and I love him and I am going to be heartbroken when he dies. I would have been about 48 and he would have been in his late 70s. I decided I would love him and I totally and utterly loved him. I remember saying to him ‘I love you Dad.’ And as I’d leave the hospital he would say: ‘I love you too sweetheart.’

“And I would say to him: ‘Dad, I really love you. Keep looking in my eyes Dad,’ and I could see him thinking, ‘Just go away, will you.’ Then he looked me in the eyes and said ‘I really love you too sweetheart.’ That was when it began, the love affair with him which was lovely. I feel very blessed.”

When Joe was taken ill in Limerick, the family mounted a vigil on their father, taking it in turns to sit with him in his room. A heart specialist, a friend, travelled from Dublin to give him strength. “Joe,” he said, “you’re dormie 5 down. You’ve won before from this position. This match is winnable. But you have to get strong and get back to Dublin.”

Sibeal helped her father in his fight back by using visualisation. “I said to him: ‘Are you afraid, Dad?’ And he said he was.

“ ‘What are you afraid of? Of dying?’

“ ‘Yes. I have done things in my life that I wish I hadn’t done, things I feel bad about.’

“ ‘Dad. We all have those. If you want to go, then go. But if you want to get back to home (in Dublin), sit on your chair, look out at sea and be with all of us for a little more time, you can do that. But you have to fight.’ ”

Taking his hand, she said quietly and firmly: “I want you to close your eyes and see the car going from Limerick. Going through the toll bridge. I want you to see yourself opening your front door and I want you to see yourself going down the spiral staircase. Your chair is there and the beautiful coloured rug. You can have your friends over. You can be there for as long as you like. We’re all with you. We’re all loving you.”

Carr did as his daughter asked – and did indeed get back to Dublin. Later he said: “My God, Sibeal, it worked. I was there. I have never experienced anything like that before.”

Sibeal: “I think he thought I was doing a bit of voodoo on him.”

Some nights, after work, Sibeal would go and sit with him in the hospital in Dublin. “He was so frail. I used to be filing his nails and he’d say, ‘Well, you didn’t do that properly.’ I used to get lavender oil and massage his feet and hands and he’d always say to me: ‘I never knew you sweetheart. I never knew you.’ And I said: ‘I know Dad. I know.’ I’d finish working at 10 o’clock at night and would walk into the hospital room just to see him asleep and I would say to the hospital nurse: ‘Would you mind him? He is very vulnerable.’

“I am grateful he and I had that understanding (in the last few years.) I don’t think he would have been ready for it in his life and I certainly was overwhelmed in my life. I didn’t have space for it. It was different times. Today, fathers love their children and are very tactile and very present but he was a man of his times.’

Roddy: “It was beautiful to see him besotted by Sibeal at the end.”

Carr was 82 when he died. Near the end of his life, he managed to overcome his innate reserve, the reserve that had prevented him from hugging his children, telling them he loved them. “I have to tell them now,” he said one night just before he died. “I never knew the love (I’d received.) I can’t go now.”

He got hold of a pen and wrote a love letter to each of his children. “Gerry was considered never to have achieved and Marty didn’t count because he didn’t play golf,” Roddy said. “Sibeal was female so she was different and had her kids. Gerry was in the middle and was supposed to be a kind of a player but never made it. JB wrote to him saying: ‘You’re a great character. I love you for what you are.’ Imagine Gerry waiting until he was 55 to hear that from his old man.

“It was the power of the family surrounding Pop with love for those few days that cracked his barrier of reserve. That was probably the luckiest thing that happened to him.”

Sibeal: “And to us because he left us with the gift of being loved.”

When the end came, in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, Marty and Sibeal were with him. “It was the first time Marty or me had seen anyone die,” Sibeal recalled. “His hands started to go blue and then his breathing got very laboured and we kept saying to him: ‘Go Dad, go. Go with love. Go in peace. We love you. Just go.’ And off he went. It was really beautiful.”

Joe Carr at his home overlooking Howth Bay in Dublin.

There is no need for a new epilogue for this famous Irishman. Ward-Thomas wrote one in his book Masters of Golf, published in the early 1960s, and it is referred to in Dermot Gilleece’s authoritative biography of Carr, Breaking 80: The Life and Times of Joe Carr.

“Human beings cannot be perfect all the time though many in the public eye are often unreasonably expected to be so. It is hard therefore to criticise a famous player for having exactly the same faults as other people, without their opportunity of concealment. It is difficult to retain a sense of proportion when adulation, in the modern, absurdly exaggerated forms, is heaped upon one; it is no small achievement to be normal, balanced, modest and kind in private, when multitudes worship in public. It is exceedingly rare therefore, to find a man whose qualities as an individual have never been impaired by his fame as a golfer. Such a man is Joe Carr.”

Carr, Sanders and DeVicenzo (Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images); Carr at home in Dublin (Photo: Andrew Redington, Allsport/Getty Images)