If ever a man can be said to have done it his way, that man is John McGuirk, founder of McGuirks Golf, the leading retailers of golf equipment and accessories in the country.
Starting from humble beginnings as son of the Baltray club professional Michael McGuirk, John became a household name all over Ireland due to his business acumen, his winning way with customers, and a vision far beyond that of his contemporaries.
He could, by the way, play the game to a high standard. He also attended to the normal club pro duties of teaching and looking after the members of the two clubs he served with distinction, Kilkenny and Howth. But when the name John McGuirk comes up for discussion, it is and will be forever associated with the chain of retail golf stores that make up the thriving McGuirks Golf business.
In 2019, the firm is a nationwide enterprise, with Michael McGuirk, son of John, heading the family firm. John took a step back some years ago and now spends most of his time at his villa in Vale do Lobo on the Algarve. He is very content there and still loves his golf.
“I’m a member in Vale do Lobo and a member in San Lorenzo, with an official handicap of 10.5 from the Portuguese Golf Federation. And I’m very happy with that,” said John.
By coincidence, when I spoke to him on the August Bank Holiday Monday, just 50 years had passed since John won the then biggest prize money of his career on the same holiday weekend in 1969.
The occasion was an auspicious one: the first of many Links Golf Society Pro–Am’s, featuring top Tour players and home professionals of the time. Entertainer Ronnie Carroll headlined the event which was played at Woodbrook GC. John carded 71 to win by a shot from England’s Bill Large and Cyril Pennington in a round featuring some impressive iron play, as was noted by the reporters at Woodbrook.
Ryder Cup players including our own Christy O’Connor Senior, Bernard Hunt, Peter Alliss, and Neil Coles played as well as the top Irish regular contenders such as Jimmy Martin, Eddie Polland, Hugh Jackson, and Harry Bradshaw. First prize won by McGuirk was a handsome Ir£300. Considering that the average industrial wage at the time was IR£15 a week, this was a considerable boost to John’s income.
“I can tell you I wasn’t on 15 quid a week at Howth at the time, so three hundred pounds was a nice cheque,” he noted with a smile.
John’s previous biggest prize money was Ir£150 which he received for finishing runner-up to Christy O’Connor Senior, then Ireland’s top golfer, in the 1968 Carrolls No.1 tournament played at Bundoran. Senior had extra incentive to chase that title, as he had been the pro at Bundoran from 1951-58. It was a homecoming he wanted to mark with victory, but it did not come easy.
Bundoran at the time measured 6,261 yards, with a par of 69 (35/34). The Donegal course was lashed by gale force winds and intermittent rain over the two days of the tournament. The format was 36 holes each day, making it extra difficult.
Senior had set the course record which stood at one–over par 70 eleven years previously. On day one, he shot two rounds of 70, which was an achievement in the conditions.
At the halfway stage, O’Connor led by five shots from nearest challengers Jimmy Kinsella (75, 70) and John McGuirk, (72,73) both on 145. Paddy McGuirk, then 19 and John’s younger brother, shot 75 in round one, and rallied to set a new course record 69 in the afternoon.
Next day, Paddy fell away and Jimmy Kinsella and John fought hard to haul O’Connor Senior back to the pack. Ultimately Kinsella could not sustain the challenge, and McGuirk got to the clubhouse as the leader on 292, finishing with 74, 73. Senior struggled home with 72, 79, but knew on the final hole that he could afford a bogey five and beat McGuirk by a shot, which he duly did.
“I can remember Bundoran and that 72nd hole. I hit two beautiful shots – a great drive and a great second into about ten feet. The putt looked to be left edge, and that’s where I hit it, but she never took the borrow, and that was it. Christy beat me by a shot,” said John.
The O’Connor clan seemed to have the Indian sign on John who reached the final of the Carrolls Irish Match Play Championship at Galway Golf Club in 1977. Home ground for Junior, and his legion of fans wanted to see only one winner.
Standing in his way was John McGuirk, a rank outsider at the start of the championship, who had kayoed brother Paddy in the semi-final, winning at the 19th.
One report of that all-McGuirk semi-final noted that “John, who won the hearts of the big gallery with his friendly and talkative manner – sometimes he even sang or whistled – was one down playing the 18th before he holed a 15-yard putt from off the green for a winning birdie to force a playoff.”
John and Paddy duly headed up the 19th, but Paddy was in trouble with his second shot. “I still remember what happened at the 19th hole,” said John.
“It’s a long-ish par four along the road and he hit a shot, missed the green on the right, and he had no shot coming back over the bunker.
“And I hit it a little bit further than him and I said to myself ‘make sure of the left half of the green.’ And I hit it to the left half and I had two putts. He couldn’t get up and down. I knew he couldn’t. That was a good achievement.”
Christy Junior eliminated a young man named David Feherty, later to play in the Ryder Cup and enjoy fame in the USA as a television golf pundit, by 5&4 in the other semi-final.
Urged on by the fervor of the home galleries, Junior was not to be denied and though John tried his best, he lost by 3&2. The champion earned a handsome Ir£1,000 winner’s prize, while John took home a not-too-shabby Ir£600 as runner-up. Despite being defeated by Christy Senior and Junior in big national championships, John earned the respect of the O’Connors.
Michael McGuirk recalls meeting Junior in Portugal some years before Christy sadly passed away. On being told Michael was John’s son, Junior told him: “You know, your father was the finest striker of an iron in the country at one time. I had that conversation with my uncle Christy, and he agreed with me on that.”
Praise indeed. But how did the John McGuirk’s story evolve and how did he manage to single-handedly change the face of golf retailing in Ireland?
Early days and growing up in Baltray
It all began in Baltray, County Louth, with the arrival in 1938 of PGA professional Michael McGuirk as the new club pro. Michael and his wife Agnes were to have six children, three boys – Michael, John, and Paddy – and three girls – Dora, Daphne and Carmel. They had a house in the village of Baltray where golf was everything to the small local community.
Michael Senior stayed on as pro at County Louth until 1974. Michael Junior remained amateur and went on to become a Leinster interprovincial and Senior Cup winner with County Louth. He also served on the committee for many years.
Paddy, the youngest of the trio, enjoyed notable success in top tournaments, highlighted by his win in the first Carrolls Irish Match Play Championship in Galway in 1969, and his Carrolls International victory at Woodbrook in 1973.
In 1979, Paddy took over as County Louth professional from Danny O’Brien, who had succeeded Michael McGuirk when the latter retired in 1974. Paddy has been at the club ever since then. The McGuirk golfing success was born out of a childhood spent almost entirely in the environs of the Baltray golf course.
“All we did from the time we were six or seven was go down and hit shots or be on the putting green. You’d be there from eight o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night in the summer. All the kids, you know, the Gannons, the Reddans and so on, were all down on the putting green. That was your life. But there was nothing else in Baltray. We loved it,” said John.
At the age of 15 he made his move to turn professional as an assistant to his father Michael. At 18 and PGA-qualified, John became the youngest club pro in the country when he was employed by Kilkenny Golf Club. His official start date was August 20, 1962.
“It was a very happy club in Kilkenny. They’re special people in Kilkenny. I’m a Kilkenny fan and I still have clients to this day from the club. They were up a month ago in the shop buying stuff for their corporate day. All the way up to the Howth branch. I’m very happy about that long connection with Kilkenny.”
A new era begins at Howth Golf Club
January 1965. John McGuirk bade farewell to Kilkenny on December 1, 1964, and moved up to Dublin as professional at Howth. The pro shop at the time was nothing like the quality of facility it was to become in later years but John steadily set about building his business and tending to his club duties as well as playing in Pro Am’s, PGA championships, and the British Open on a couple of occasions.
The question is often asked: “what is the secret to John McGuirk’s success?”
There was clearly an innate sense for business, an appetite for hard work, a vision that looked beyond the limits of the usual pro shop, and a talent for customer relations that they can’t teach in books. Oh – and straight talking. John McGuirk’s “yes” or “no” leaves no room for confusion or obfuscation.
Well do I remember going up to his shop at Howth GC to buy my first set of “proper irons” in 1979. I came out with a set of Christy O’Connor irons, well pleased with the price, and a little “luck penny” in the form of a sleeve of golf balls. You always felt you’d get a good deal from McGuirk, and that was his goal.
“The way I looked at it there was no competition at all. Now, I’m all for the club professional, but at the time, none of the pros seemed to be interested so much in the business of selling in a big way. And I went off and did my own thing.
“The way I was, I wouldn’t let anyone go without a good deal and being happy with it. A reasonable person would always be happy. I’d maybe throw in something like tees, golf balls or a glove.
“If they haggled too much, then I’d take a different way with it. I’d tell them, ‘no, not for sale’,” he said.
I can’t imagine any sales gurus advising their clients to tell potential customers to take a hike, but when someone rubbed him up the wrong way, there was no messing with McGuirk. Two stories illustrate that aspect of his character. The first one, a guy comes in looking for a particular brand of irons.
“They cost €300 euro,” said John. “I offered them to him for €275. He said “no’, I’ll give you €240. I said ‘no, we’ll leave it there.’
“So he comes back the following week and I told him €300. He said ‘no’. “And he came back the following week and I said “€350” and I got it. That is the Gospel truth. That’s one I remember,” said John.
The other story concerns a company selling a certain brand of clubs.
“At one time I was selling so cheap they didn’t want to supply me, some of the manufacturers.
“Some of them would say to other pros ‘we won’t supply the man on the Hill’ and anyone who did that, I would source my own clubs from England. One crowd did it with me for a couple of months. They were giving out because I was selling them so cheap. So I got 20, or 30 or 40 sets of their clubs in from England, direct to myself.
“I’ll never forget it. I advertised in the Irish Independent and the Irish Times, front page, cost me a bit of money. What happened was, there was a tournament in Portmarnock – I can’t remember which one – and for the week I advertised the sets at exactly what they cost me, just to annoy the manufacturer.
“At the end I did so much business they came up to Howth to me to talk. ‘We want peace,’ they said. “
“I said, ‘there’ll be no peace. I’ll do my own thing.’ They said they’d pay for my ads and ‘we’ll supply you from tomorrow.’ Just think, they wanted to pay for my ads as well. I wouldn’t let somebody like that get one over me.
“If you played ball with me, that was fine, but if you wanted to go the other way, you’d met your match.”
Growing the business – from club shop to Howth Village
After over 15 years, John McGuirk was drawing customers from around the country to his shop in Howth GC. Demand kept rising. That posed a question: what to do? Opportunity knocked when a premises came up for sale on Harbour Road, Howth, in 1993.
“I was selling a lot of clubs. I remember selling between 70 and 100 sets of clubs in a weekend. People were coming to me from all over Ireland.
“Selling that amount of clubs, the pro shop in Howth wasn’t big enough. I don’t know how many sets I was selling during week but it was around a hundred at the weekends. And then the right place came up for sale and I bought it and started from there,” said John.
Sounds simple, but this was stepping outside the normal boundaries where business is limited to the size of the professional’s shop at his club. Had he any fears about the success of expansion?
“I never had any fears about business at all. I knew how to handle the biz. I was a good operator with customers. I never let them go out of the shop unhappy. I wouldn’t let somebody that I thought was half-interested out of the shop without them buying something and being happy with it.
“I was a good people man. And I was on the floor all day long. And I used to work Christmas Day from 8am to 1pm getting the shop ready for the sale the next morning on St Stephen’s Day.
“Every Christmas I’d be up there working and I’d be open. There’d be a few clients coming in, not many, but there would be a few stragglers coming in,” he said.
The new era – expanding in Dublin and countrywide
John’s son, Michael, had followed the McGuirk tradition by becoming an assistant and earning his PGA qualifications.
“I qualified as a PGA Pro probably over 30 years ago,” said Michael. “Like most PGA pros, your dream is to play for a living, but I quickly learned that my game wouldn’t put food on the table so I concentrated on retail.
“It was a natural progression and made considerably easier as my dad had already established the most well known golf business in Ireland.
“Having the PGA qualification gave me the option to take a pro job or teach, but I had been working in the shop since I was 18 and this was something I enjoyed more.”
Michael’s involvement in the business coincided with the golf boom in Ireland. Throughout the Nineties and into the 2000s, new courses were built, new clubs formed, and the game became hugely popular and accessible. Business at McGuirks increased exponentially, and the opening of major shopping centres, particularly in Dublin such as Blanchardstown, Dundrum and Airside Swords opened new opportunities for expansion through the last 25 years.
The PGA connection is maintained in McGuirks by employing a core group of 15 professionals, rising to around 20 in the busy Spring and Summer months.
All very impressive, but John, by his own admission, is a traditionalist.
“I didn’t do any of the expansion. Michael did them all, and he’s doing a great job. It’s all computers and technology now, and that’s just not my scene. We had a wonderful year last year. I’m happy that the business is thriving,” he said.
Happily, John is also thriving and enjoying life. He parted company with Howth towards the end of 2017, and in December that year was granted Honorary Membership of the PGA in Ireland.
Much as he still enjoys his own round of golf, John’s biggest enjoyment comes from seeing his grandchildren – Evan (15), Ali (13) and Rhys (8) – get involved in sport.
“Evan is a member of Portmarnock. That’s probably the most important thing in my life so far, apart from my wife and family, but Evan being a member of Portmarnock means the world to me. It’s THE club.
“Evan plays off nine and he can go lower. Ali is in Malahide and she’s a Gaelic footballer as well. In another few years, hopefully Rhys will be looking at Portmarnock as well. They’re a good sporty family and that’s the icing on the cake for me.”