The Adventure of a Lifetime, and My Golf Buddy Johnny Browne

Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, November 11, 2013.

Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, November 11, 2013.

I have an article in the February issue of Golf Digest called The Adventure of a Lifetime, about Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland. In it, I mention that, before teeing off on the eleventh hole one day, my playing partner and I climbed into a jungle of of whins and briars to look for a century-old relic that a caddie had told me about in 2011: the remains of a small stone building, which the maintenance crew had uncovered during an aggressive gorse-removal project. We found it, at some risk to our clothing, although it was so overgrown that we couldn’t see much more than one corner:

P1100735-001

The caddie’s theory was that the structure had been the house of the original greenkeeper, but Harry McCaw—a past captain of both Royal County Down and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews—told me this past November that he thought it might once have served as the literal “club house”: the place where early players stored their clubs. When he said this, we were standing in the current R.C.D. clubhouse in front of a glass case that contained, among other mementos, the red coat that was McCaw’s official uniform during his captaincy of the R. & A.

A past R. & A. captain (not McCaw), playing the Old Course. That's the R. & A. clubhouse in the background.

A past R. & A. captain (not McCaw), playing the Old Course. That’s the R. & A. clubhouse in the background.

Captains of the R. & A. begin their term by “driving in” from the first tee of the Old Course. That is, they hit a ceremonial tee shot, accompanied by a cannon, in front of a large crowd of club members, townspeople, and miscellaneous onlookers. I asked McCaw whether driving in had made him nervous, and he said that it had and that he’d had plenty of time to brood about it because new captains are tapped roughly nine months before they take office. I don’t have a photograph of McCaw’s driving-in, but here’s a video of the ceremony in 2012:

The playing partner who accompanied me into the jungle to find that old stone building was Johnny Browne, a Belfast physician and a three-time R.C.D. club champion. Johnny played his first round of golf at Ormeau Golf Club, a muny in Belfast, where his father was a regular. He said that, during and after the Second World War, golf balls were so precious that boys at Ormeau would look for them by lying down in the rough and rolling around. Johnny has two brothers, both of whom also play golf. His younger brother, Tim, is a past R.C.D. champion as well, and Johnny said that, of the three, Tim is the most obsessed. “His wife is a Presbyterian minister,” he said. “She gives the same sermon three times every Sunday, and Tim is such a good husband that he sits through all three—although during the second and third he’s probably mentally reviewing golf holes and golf courses.” When Tim and Johnny attend church together, they pass ball markers back and forth. Johnny has a large collection, and Tim has a huge one. (Their older brother, Connor, “has a more balanced view of the game,” Johnny said.) Here’s Johnny during one of our rounds at R.C.D.:

P1100507

Johnny’s earliest memory is of the 1953 Irish Open, which was held at Belvoir Park Golf Club, in a suburb on Belfast’s south side. (“Belvoir” is pronounced “Beaver.”) “What I remember is Dai Rees getting on his knees to talk to me,” Johnny said. “No wonder I’m a golf nut.” Johnny is a member of Belvoir Park, which was designed by Harry S. Colt, and he once jointly held the course record there (66) with a good local amateur and Peter Alliss. He lives in an apartment overlooking the eighteenth hole. He is the honorary secretary of the club, and he runs the youth group at his church, and he is deeply involved in a non-profit organization called Macmillan Cancer Support, which he began working for when his wife, Linda, was dying of ovarian cancer, two years ago. Here’s Johnny talking about Linda and cancer care in a video he made for Macmillan last year:

7 thoughts on “The Adventure of a Lifetime, and My Golf Buddy Johnny Browne

  1. I have played the game since I was eight years old as an amateur and a pro and after reading your article it just occurs to me, is that the origin of clubhouse, a place where the clubs are housed

  2. Do you know why there seems to be some kind of fierce competetion for who’ll get the ball being hit for the Drive-in ? Could that be theat the one who gets the ball also gets to be the next captain much like the Bride throwing her bouquet at a wedding ?

  3. The competition for the ball is from the caddies of St. Andrews. There is some prize / honor for retrieving the ball. The author of “An American Caddie in St. Andrews” explains it as he caught the ball one year.

  4. great piece on Royal County Down in Golf digest
    fall is a great time to play golf in Ireland-just plan for the elements and dress properly-very enjoyable to play links golf in “Irish Weather”
    better experience, less crowds, less pricey

Leave a Reply