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The Gambler: Des Smyth on how he carved out a career in cut-throat pro game

At first, he was an unlikely Pro. Six seasons it took him to win on the European Tour, scrapping out a living until that breakthrough moment in 1979. From there, his career took off. Des Smyth relives an astonishing golfing life.

Image: PA Archive/PA Images

DES SMYTH, IN shirt and tie, is seated before an interview panel to discuss his career prospects. On the table: an accountant’s job.

Smyth, 19, feels the sun beat through a window. His neck twitches from the sweat.

He looks out at a perfect sky, notes swallows sweeping past. The boy from Bettystown has a head for numbers and the Maths scores to prove it. But his mind is drifting on this fine day.

Three men in suits quiz credentials. An uncle, he tells them, recommended this route. He, too, is an accountant. The candidate is almost convinced by his own answer. Only now he sees a future unfolding – daily grind, night study – and realises this road is not for him.

A thought to himself: ‘I’m in the wrong place.’

Birds of summer pass, their presence the persuasion. His mind fixes: a golfing dream is worth chasing. All he needs is the means.

The year is 1974 and £6,500 equates to half the price of a typical house. Des Smyth, young and keen, has no thoughts for bricks and mortar. Instead, he seeks an overdraft to fund his favoured punt: playing golf for money. With his father as guarantor, a deal is struck. The bank agree to back him provided all earnings go through his account.

“They took a chance on me,” Smyth allows. “Every cheque I made, I put in the bank. They were seeing money coming in whenever I made it.”

Not a punter by nature, Smyth relished games of calculated risk: “I gambled a lot, too, on the golf course. I wasn’t really a gambler. I wasn’t putting anything on horses or dogs or football. It was purely on golf. I backed myself to make a living. I took bets from whoever wanted to have a game. That’s how I financed myself.”

Wherever he gets a chance to run the tables, Smyth feels that familiar buzz. Christmas is approaching when we meet at County Louth Golf Club. Every year, in the lead up, the members play for turkeys. Although the prize is immaterial for this man of considerable means, prospecting releases age-old instincts. Suddenly the juices flow.

“It is the excitement of being able to do it,” he says. “The turkey meant nothing to me. It’s just the fun in it. I was always a competitor.”

This enduring quality is the hallmark of an enviable career. More than tournaments won – eight in Europe – and career earnings – more than €2.5m on the European Tour – the most remarkable aspect of his golfing story is its sheer longevity. Over five decades, he has played professionally, surviving and then thriving in a world where the standard is merciless.

“I’m not inclined to dwell on negativity,” he reflects. “It doesn’t come into my head easily. I had lots of disappointments. The game does that to you all the time. It’s an attitude, you see. That’s probably why I survived so long.”

Golf was there from the beginning. Des Smyth, son of a butcher, started at the club in Bettystown. Just like his three brothers and the local kids. They learned on Saturdays, as young as six or seven, playing through the summers when their seaside village hummed with holidaymakers.

“The golf club was the centre of the action,” Smyth explains. “I had dinner with a guy last night, Gerry Cummiskey, who was the best man at my wedding. He used to come to Bettystown on his summer holidays. They’re the connections that lasted. That’s the good thing about sport. You make friends. And you keep them forever.”

Young boys keen on sport draw in each other. And talent tends to make you popular.

“I was a sporty guy,” says Smyth. “I was very keen on the Gaelic [football] because I played for the Christian Brothers in Drogheda. I played centre of the field. For my age, I was tall and fast and a good ball catcher.”

Sporting passions collided during teenage years: “I was getting keener and keener on the golf as I was getting better at the game. I got down to scratch at 15 or 16. I eventually gave up the Gaelic at 17. I remember the coach wasn’t a bit pleased. He read me the riot act. I more or less said: ‘I’m not going to listen to that crap.’ I could see a future in golf.”

Years later, that mentor acknowledged the folly of his ways and apologised. By then, Smyth was a budding Pro but not without his difficulties. He set sail in 1974, even among peers a fanciful one, and spent years scraping by. One night, over a beer in Clogherhead, he turned to Paddy McGuirk and spoke of his ambition.

He replays the clip: “‘Paddy, I’m going to make that Ryder Cup one day.’ He looked at me: ‘Des, you’re dreaming. It’ll never happen.’ Some people would be disappointed with that reaction. I wanted to prove them wrong.”

McGuirk, winner of the 1973 Irish Open, had a point. Smyth still lacked a win after five seasons on the European Tour. Various times he veered close to his overdraft limit: “I was called in once or twice. ‘Can you explain what’s going on?’ Usual stuff. No different than today with mortgages. It didn’t bother me.”

Smyth simply ploughed on: “It gave me a sense of personal responsibility. I’ve often said to players, who have come to me for advice: ‘Can you shoot 69 every day? Because that’s the number. 71 won’t do it. I also say: ‘Can you make a living doing this without any help? Can you pay your bills and pay for your car?’ They kind of look at you as if they expect someone else to do it. If you can’t do that yourself, you’re wasting your time.”

golf-2014-ryder-cup-european-vice-captains-announcement-the-government-buildings Europe's Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley (centre) with Des Smyth (left) and Sam Torrance in 2014. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Players of his era found ways to supplement slim tournament returns. No practice round proceeded without a wager. His peers were men of steel, Christy O’Connor Senior hardest of all, and they raised a stake wherever they played.

“It kept me sharp up here,” Smyth insists, pointing to his head. “I always think my gambling helped my game.”

Such winnings counted as significant for any Pro plying his trade through the 1970s. Smyth recalls a regular Monday game from those formative years: “They used to have an outing with people who worked in RTÉ and people from the entertainment industry. The Joe Dolans and people like that. Pat O’Donovan from RTÉ organised it. I’d go to Pat and say: ‘There’s a list. Anyone who wants a bet with me, I’ll take anything up to 50 pounds. No more.’ I used to go out and shoot 68. I probably only paid two guys. There might have been 35 guys on that list. I won all the rest.”

Smyth could hustle but there was more to his gaming than rolling dice: “The point I’m making: I was never afraid to back myself. I stress, I wouldn’t put it on a horse because I had no influence over it.”

Not all players shared his outlook: “I remember saying it to Mark James, who became a Ryder Cup captain.

He said: ‘Des, I’d never have a bet. I couldn’t stand losing. And then to pay somebody?’ I think I was of the Irish persuasion. The Irish love a bet. I think it’s in our DNA. I always gambled on the golf course. If someone said to me: ‘Will we go out for a game?’ ‘Nah, couldn’t be bothered.’ But if they said: ‘There’s five hundred, do you fancy playing nine holes?’ ‘Jesus, yeah, I’d love that!’ It would just spark my interest. ‘Come on, let’s get the shoes on.’ Even now, and I’m pretty well off, I don’t mind admitting it.”

1979 provided the first glimpse that Smyth could be a real player in the game. The Sun Alliance European Match Play Championship pitted him against Zimbabwe’s Nick Price, future world number one, in the final. At Fulford in York, they played 18 all square.

“Par five, the last,” Smyth recounts. “Both of us down the fairway. Both of us on the green. He was on twenty five feet. I was just inside him. He missed and I holed. And I won, one up.”

The winning cheque came to £6,660, although the financial pressure was unrelenting: “In my day, even the likes of Brian Barnes, Sam Torrance, Neil Coles, Christy Senior, they weren’t rich. They won any amount of tournaments.”

Smyth cautions: “You shouldn’t be thinking money anyway, other than covering your overhead. That was my driving force. When I started, I knew I had to make money to pay my bills and that’s the only thing that drove me. I wanted to stay in the game. I loved the game. Whether I made a little or a lot, it didn’t matter once I could survive.”

His breakout win prompted Ryder Cup selection. The following season, he won twice. Then he made the Ryder Cup again, gaining his second cap at Walton Heath in 1981, a notion once thought laughable.

“Things change if you’ve got the desire and you’ve got the fight and you’ve got the ability,” Smyth maintains. “I’m not easily put off. If you’re easily put off, professional sport is not for you.”

Those days followed a strict pattern. From the family home, he would drive to Baltray, beginning practice at 10am. Two hours on the range, working on wedge play and medium irons, was followed by 45 minutes on the putting green. A short break for a light lunch and Smyth returned to the course, ready for the full 18.

“You’re your own boss,” he stresses. “I normally had a game of golf at half two, 18 holes, always a bet. I played a lot of golf with Bobby Browne, my local Pro. Declan Branigan, who was a very good Amateur. I used to go to Portmarnock and have matches with friends there: Peter Townsend, Leonard Owens, Roddy Carr.”

Mention of Carr brings another element to mind. Although golfers make firm friends, they rise and fall alone. Empathy never claimed a victory.

“I came in one day and I was complaining about the way I played,” Smyth begins. “Roddy had a tough time playing and gave it up. He used to take it very bad when he had a bad day. It would take him hours before he could talk. I didn’t know this at the time. He passed over a two shilling piece. I said: ‘What’s that, Roddy?’ ‘Des, ring someone who fucken cares, will you?’ And he was my friend. There’s only one guy going to take care of you and that’s yourself.”

Those moments, distilled, inform his outlook: “I always say to young guys when I’m giving them advice: ‘Focus on yourself because he doesn’t give a fuck about you.’ The thing about professional sport, and particularly golf, you figure it out fairly quick.”

des-smyth-digital Smyth lines up a putt at the K Club. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Faint hearts wither in this world. Des Smyth presents as an unfailingly polite gentleman and can still deliver a pointed message without raising his voice or departing from an even tone.

“The guys out there will eat you because that’s the way they’re being bred,” he claims. “It’s tougher now because, back in the day, it was Welsh, Scottish, Irish, English. You had the odd German, Langer. The odd French.”

Discussions with young players expose the sharpest side of Smyth: “I often see players who are very dependent either on caddies or coaches. You kind of feel they’re shirking their role and responsibility in this. There’s no such thing as perfection.”

Growing animated, he gesticulates with his right hand, pointing to heart, then to head: “You’ve got to have it in here, and in here, and the determination to get the job done. If it’s a nice way of doing it, all well and good, but you still have to get the job done.”

He cites former playing partners for emphasis.

“I played lots of golf with Seve Ballesteros,” he relates. “Certainly, the best European player for fighting and winning. Maybe not the best player. A bad shot never fazed him. When I went to South Africa, I watched Gary Player up close. When he set his eyes on you, you’d shiver.”

The 1980s witnessed the best of Smyth. Of his eight Tour titles, five were won in that decade. At St Andrews in 1988, he played alongside Eamonn Darcy and Ronan Rafferty when Ireland captured the Dunhill Cup. Their final win on the Old Course ranks seminal in the history of Irish golf.

“When I look back, that was my most memorable moment,” he remarks. “My abiding memory was Dermot Gilleece crying his eyes out on the 18th green when we won. I thought this must be important if Dermot’s crying.”

Gilleece, then golf correspondent of The Irish Times and still the preeminent writer in Ireland, reacted instinctively. His tears reflected the scale of that achievement: Ireland had beaten the world’s best at a time when players from this isle were rarely Major players.

Smyth emerged the only figure undefeated during that run. Along the way, Ireland beat some luminaries: the US, England and Australia. As fog descended during their semi final against the English, play was controversially suspended.

“The most exciting event I’ve ever played in,” Smyth reveals.

In bullish mood, he declared himself game to face the toughest draw: “I said to Eamonn: ‘Give me Nick Faldo.’ Faldo was number one in the world at the time. He said: ‘Why would you want him?’ I said: ‘I’m playing really good and if I can get him to that 17th tee all square, I think I can probably do it because the pressure switches then. He should be winning.’ It was extraordinary the way it happened because I almost predicted it the night before.”

Three under for his round, Smyth took a one shot lead down 18. From the fairway, the Irishman played through a shrouded scene. Faldo deliberated. He surveyed a clouded green and determined that the flag could not be seen.

“People say he shouldn’t have done that,” Smyth details. “It never affected me. I felt he made the right decision for his team. He was making that decision for his other two players as well. We finished the next morning.”

Faldo failed to birdie on his return and went down by one. Smyth went on to beat Rodger Davis in the final.

“As big as it is, it’s not quite as big as winning The Open championship,” he qualifies, which brings the conversation round to recent feats.

Harrington, McIlroy, Lowry: he saw them all break through. First encounters quickly come to mind.

shane-lowry-celebrates-with-the-claret-jug Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug last summer. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It started with Padraig Harrington,” he states. “I met him in South Africa when he had just turned Pro. I went up to shake his hand and wish him well. I could see the look in this guy’s eyes. He gave me the Gary Player look. I remember saying to my caddy: ‘There’s something about that guy.’ Then you saw the hours he was putting in. The last man to leave the range. It was no surprise to me when he started doing well.”

One look at McIlroy in action at Baltray convinced him about the Holywood talent: “He was playing in the East of Ireland. He was only 16, I think. I went down the back nine. He hit his first shot out of bounds on 18. He hit his second one down the fairway. He wasn’t doing well. I went down to look at the shot and it was about 245 yards to the flag and the pin was middle right. There was no way of getting close to the hole unless you hit a high fade and, at that distance, to do that was very difficult.”

His eyes sparkle: “As he walked in, he was looking at the shot. As he got close, he took the bag off his back and pulled out a long iron. He hit the perfect shot: 250 yards with a fade, 10 feet left of the flag. I could stand there for a week and never pull that shot off and he did it without even thinking. And I went: ‘Wow.’ Reminded me of the difference when you watch snooker players and you see an O’Sullivan or, in our day, Alex Higgins. They’re instinctive. You watch the other guys, you fall asleep before they hit. He [McIlroy] drove us all nuts because we knew what he had. He doesn’t play safe. He’s instinctively aggressive. You can’t take that away or you’re taking him away.”

On that same stage, this time hosting the 2009 Irish Open, another star emerged. But Smyth was unfamiliar with a boy called Lowry: “I didn’t know much about Shane. The practice round for the Irish Open, my son Shane went down to watch. I said: ‘How did the day go?’ He said: ‘I was out walking around with Rory McIlroy.’ ‘How did he play?’ ‘Great. Dad, Shane Lowry is every bit as good as him.’ ‘Is he and he’s only an Amateur?’ I should have been smart enough to have a bet.”

Lowry went mainstream after his victory that week. He, too, has since joined an exclusive club of Major Champions.

“I think the best is yet to come with Shane,” Smyth continues. “He’s maturing very nicely. Winning The Open the way he did it was just outstanding. One of the best things that has ever happened in Irish golf.”

Officially a pensioner, Smyth turns 67 in February. His tournament days are almost done, though he remains a prominent figure. He works as an ambassador for Dubai Duty Free, title sponsor of the Irish Open. Less well known is his role with Team Ireland Golf. Since 2017, the game’s model professional has served as a mentor for those players trying to make golf pay.

It’s tough out there but he sees hope for those coming through: “If you can play on the Challenge Tour and get in the top 15, you’re ready to go out on Tour. I’d love if Cormac Sharvin comes out this year and wins. It will give a boost to all the guys behind him.”

Sharvin, a Pro since 2016, graduated to the European Tour following a stellar season on the second tier circuit. Paul Dunne and Gavin Moynihan also played the main tour in 2019. Beyond the big names, good things are happening.

“Play for something bigger than yourself,” Smyth counsels. “I think that’s important. You can see that with Shane now. He was very hard on himself.”

Fatherhood can help in this regard: “To drive the negativity out of my head, I’d look at these great players and say: ‘They’re trying to take my kids’ dinner. I’m not going to fucken let them.’ You have to defend your plot.”

February 1981, he married Vicki Reddan. Their first child, Karen, arrived later that year. The following season, Smyth tied fourth at the British Open, by far his best finish in a Major. That championship, at Royal Troon, offered him a chance to clinch the Claret Jug.

“I was four under, about three behind,” he relays. “I was in the mix. I had birdied 11, hammered it down the middle of 12. I said to my caddy: ‘I’m going to go for everything from here. I might not get this chance again.’ It was a bad decision. Had I been smart enough to keep putting it into the green, I might have holed a putt. I went for everything. I short sided myself twice and made two bogeys. Four under won the tournament.”

Then the sunny side returns: “I finished two back. But, you know, what the hell? There’s an instinct in people. When Ian Woosnam got a sniff, he was like a mad dog trying to hit second shots into the hole. That’s how good he was. I didn’t have the talent he had but I had a similar instinct. If I got close, I wanted to win. I wasn’t looking for a way out.”

But golf abides with thee.

“My mother stopped playing golf at 87,” a son discloses. “She’s still alive at 97. Up until a few years ago, she used to say: ‘I’d love to play three holes, Des.’ I think it’s the best game in the world because it goes on forever.

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