The 2019 Open Championship may be putting Portrush on the world stage but more than 60 years ago a diminutive golfer with a huge heart had already done just that.
Fred Daly was born and bred in the County Antrim town but despite living just a couple of par fours from the course where he’d fall in love with the game, his future in it was far from certain.
Today a blue plaque adorns a wall in Causeway Street, celebrating the place where the seaside resort’s most famous sporting son was born.
It was from this terraced property that the youngest of six children would walk to the golf course and supplement the household income by caddying around the Dunluce links where today’s superstars will try to achieve what he did in 1947.
Hooked on the game
While the caddying cash came in handy, his blacksmith father Daniel wanted his son to learn a trade but Fred’s head had been turned by golf’s unsolvable enigma and in 1931 he took a job as a green keeper and part-time professional at Mahee Island Golf Club in County Down.
As the baby of a large family Daly was used to fighting his corner and hard graft soon filled out his frame, turning him from bantamweight to middleweight.
By the time he turned up at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in July 1947 he was already known for his power and accuracy, with legendary American golfer Sam Snead once saying, “he could knock your hat off with a one iron at 220 yards”.
A year before his finest hour, Daly had clinched his first big professional win in holding off South African star Bobby Locke to land the Irish Open at Portmarnock but with the likes of Henry Cotton in the field at Hoylake, few eyes were focused on a stocky wee Irishman.
Sleeping on history
Few that was until Daly took a four-shot lead at the halfway mark.
With the final two rounds to be played on the same day, Portrush’s finest slept fitfully on his lead, not daring to dream of golfing immortality.
A scrappy 78 in the third round put him into a four-way tie with Arthur Lees, Norman Von Nida and most ominously Cotton – the Champion Golfer in 1934 and 1937.
The “gentlemen of the press” were poised to hand England’s finest proponent of the game his third title, but Daly’s greatest asset was a will every bit as strong as the metal forged by his blacksmith father.
A blustery day blew Cotton off course and by the time Daly birdied the last hole only one man could catch him – self-assured American Frank Stranahan.
Stranahan, an amateur at the time, was also the top-ranked powerlifter in his class but raising the 5.4lbs Claret Jug proved beyond him.
Daly was the champion, his legend cemented.
On being presented with the trophy in front of a rapturous crowd, he said: “It is a great honour to take this cup to Ireland with me. It has never been there before and I hope the change of air will help it.”
Three years before clinching the Open crown Daly had become the head professional at Balmoral Golf Club in Belfast.
Despite the opportunities his major win afforded him, he stayed loyal to the club which embraced him as their own for the next three-and-a-half decades of his life.
It’s not every major champion who will regrip a hackers’s irons, give them a lesson and sell them a wedge before checking the shop inventory – but the unassuming Daly was, until the end, a man of the people.
Former Irish News sports writer Denis O’Hara recalled: “He fitted me out with a rare half set of left-handed Fred Daly autographed John Letters irons.
“During that time Fred used to materialise from his shop and join me in a haphazard game on the Balmoral course.
“It was then I discovered he started golf as a left hander when he managed to secure the loan of a few unused left-handed irons.”
In the five years from 1948 to 1952 the four-time Ryder Cup player was only once outside the top four places in the Open – but despite knocking so loudly the door to another major never swung open.
The fact it took six decades for Padraig Harrington to again bring the Claret Jug back to Ireland was proof, were it needed, of just how momentous Daly’s Open win was.
Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy would carve their own little piece of history in the years that followed, but Daly was the trailblazer.
A man born, bred and laid to rest a short walk from the course which sparked his love of golf and where a new generation of stars will this year try to match his crowning achievement.