Eddie Harper, the Northern Ireland golf coach who mentored a young Rory McIlroy and Tom McKibbin, receives BEM from Queen

If grown men accosting you in the street and telling you you’re a legend keeps happening, the odds are they can’t all be mad. It’s never happened to me, despite being a serial author with a (modest) public profile. But it’s a fairly regular occurrence for my dad, Eddie Harper – a long-retired civil servant and limelight-avoiding grafter, for decades, in the engine room of youth golf in Northern Ireland.

Juvenile golf coach Eddie Harper with his protege Rory McIlroy
Juvenile golf coach Eddie Harper with his protege Rory McIlroy

If grown men accosting you in the street and telling you you’re a legend keeps happening, the odds are they can’t all be mad. It’s never happened to me, despite being a serial author with a (modest) public profile. But it’s a fairly regular occurrence for my dad, Eddie Harper – a long-retired civil servant and limelight-avoiding grafter, for decades, in the engine room of youth golf in Northern Ireland.

Although the investiture was delayed until Monday this week [Sept 28], Eddie was awarded a BEM for this in the October 2020 honours. It came as a genuine surprise.

Eddie’s sporting activities began at Limavady Grammar School in the 50s.

Eddie with Tom McKibbin after he’d won the Ulster Under 14 Championship

Getting self-aggrandising information out of him isn’t easy, but according to one peer, he was ‘brilliant’ – at athletics, football, rugby and cricket.

Unbeaten at the sprint in six years, he once single-handedly won the school’s sports day for his House, across numerous events. He played for Limavady United FC from 1960–64, in its cup-winning squad of 1964.

Playing for Limavady Cricket Club in the same period, he took 11 wickets on one occasion. He is still regarded as a sporting legend himself among a certain demographic in Limavady.

But a much more profound contribution would be made in facilitating the sporting opportunities of others.

Eddie Harper with his son, acclaimed author Colin Harper, and his BEM

Eddie was Holywood Golf Club’s juvenile convenor for 36 years – 1983–2019, with a couple of short gaps to be club captain – taking the role on, as he recalls, ‘when nobody else seemed interested’.

The juvenile membership grew from 30 to 200 members. He also chaired the North Down Juvenile League for many of those years.

“I can’t begin to imagine how many hours Eddie has put into the role,” said Maurice Jay, U105 personality and former juvenile at Holywood Golf Club, “not to mention the thousands of miles driving kids around the country to competitions and tournaments.

“There are many people today who are still playing golf because of his encouragement and tutelage. His dedication to the club is legendary.”

Back in 2013, a book called Rory’s Club appeared, focused on the rise of Rory McIlroy, another former juvenile at Holywood.

The authors had interviewed many people at the club, but somehow no one had said, ‘You must talk to Eddie…’

As a writer of history books and biographies, I know well the importance of locking down information before it slips away.

My dad had not exactly been written out of history, but he had not been written into it. I was disappointed.

One line in the book to say that he had bent the rules to give Rory a platform at seven years old, well below the normal age of acceptance as a member at Holywood, and was proud of his achievements would have been enough.

So, what could I do about it? There are perhaps few problems in life where ‘Contact Maurice Jay’ might be a solution, but I did so.

Knowing Maurice as a man of action, I suggested that the club might consider putting Eddie forward for an honour based on his unremunerated contribution to juvenile golf.

Maurice set some wheels in motion, but with club management changes at that time, the idea fell into the long grass.

I felt I’d done the right thing, nudged at a door, but that it wasn’t my place to nudge further or harder.

Besides, I thought, maybe it’s enough to do what you can in life to spread positive energy around and be content that you did what you could?

However, six years later, as Eddie was retiring as juvenile convenor for the last time, having been previously persuaded back by popular demand, others were plotting independently: feeling that if anyone in Irish golf deserved a medal, it was Eddie Harper.

A group of club members made proper-channel representations, and an endorsement letter from his most sensational protégé Rory McIlroy surely helped.

Thus, in October 2020, I was as stunned as anyone to read in the papers that Eddie had been recognised for his long-haul commitment.

He had, of course, been phoned by the Cabinet Office months before, initially believing it was prank call. Eventually convinced of its bona fides, he then kept the secret.

While Rory McIlroy’s singular success might have shone a light on the man he fondly regards as ‘fourth-gear Eddie’, for his famously conservative driving of squads to matches, it’s no one-off.

Tom McKibbin is the latest young golfing sensation to come from Holywood, joining the international professional circuit this year.

“I was so delighted to hear the news that Eddie had been awarded the BEM,” said Tom.

“Eddie was one of the first members I met when I joined Holywood Golf Club when I was nine years old and started playing the junior competitions.

“He was at every competition, on the tee box early and making sure everyone got to play.

“He has always encouraged and supported me. He always knows the events I’m playing now as a professional and contacts me during and after every tournament to see how I’m getting on.

“He also keeps everyone back at the club up to date on my progress!

“When I started playing on the Holywood junior teams I realised just how committed Eddie was to the juniors at the club.

“He organised and even drove us to practice rounds and was always there for every match – both home and away.

“During one particular match, my playing partner’s dad told me that Eddie had been junior convenor when he was a kid!

“His dedication to junior golf is and always has been astounding.”

Famously known as a firm-but-fair operator, a shirt-and-tie, short-back-and-sides man from a more conservative time, Eddie’s 60s didn’t swing – they stood to attention. But he can bowl the odd googly.

Finding myself down a dead end in the 2000s, I took voluntary redundancy from a public sector job, but even aged 42, didn’t relish trying to explain this to my dad.

I needn’t have worried. ‘Good idea,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you write some books?’ Reader, I did. I doubt he’s read a single one, but he did what he did for hundreds of others: he encouraged.

For all the toadies, cronies and timeservers who still receive honours, Eddie Harper is one of those who make good things happen for years with no expectation of reward. Isn’t it great when that’s appreciated?

Eddie recalls the ‘Rory effect’

“Rory was a ground-breaker. I interviewed him for membership around 1997. He was only seven but Michael Bannon, the club professional, had spotted something in him and was keen to get him involved in competitive golf immediately. The age for juvenile membership was 10. Some people had concerns about whether a seven-year-old would be safe on the course, but Michael convinced me to change the rules – and he was right. The club rules now allow anyone to join at seven, though nobody has made such an impact at that age since Rory.

“Once Rory began playing with other juniors his talent was immediately apparent. I started him on a handicap of 18 – most juveniles would start at 54. It rapidly reduced to single figures and he represented the club at adult level when he was around 13. The ‘Rory effect’ led to a number of youngsters joining the club and two in particular stand out – Tom McKibbin and Keaton Morrison. They both joined around the same time, aged nine, and had obvious talent – going on to represent Ireland at Under 14, 16 and 18 levels. Keaton has since opted for a non-golfing career and I wish him all the best – I’ll be keeping in touch. Tom embarked on a pro golfing career last year and has played in a number of European Challenge Tour events, making the cut several times. He’s currently seeking his card for the US Challenge Tour, and I’m very hopeful that he’ll get it and go on to greater things. Six or seven other former juveniles at Holywood are now club professionals at a local level. I’m delighted for all of them.

“The club has had a number of very good junior girls too. Jessica Carty, whose family own the Maypole Bar in Holywood, played for Ireland and obtained a golf scholarship to Denver University. Olivia McCrystal also played for Ireland at junior level and this year obtained a golf scholarship to Ohio University. The success of all these individuals was down to the club’s policy of encouraging juvenile players and providing the competitions for them.

“People often ask me for the secrets of getting a good junior scene happening at a club, but it’s very simple – it’s all down to commitment and discipline.”

“If I was running a practice match ahead of selections for competitions, I would turn up and I would expect the junior players interested in the competition to turn up, whatever the weather. If you didn’t turn up, you weren’t in the team. There was no place for bias – it was all down to scores, measurable things. If there were transport issues, you would do your best to find a solution. But very quickly, everyone understands the ‘level playing field’ approach and gives their best. You just provide an environment where fair play and commitment are respected – and where young golfers are respected.”

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