Golfer loses libel case over handicap cheating claim

 

A PENSIONER and amateur golfer has lost a High Court libel action against his golf club over a notice which, he claimed, meant he had effectively cheated about his playing ability.

Thomas Talbot (75) claimed he was defamed in a certificate sent to him by the handicap subcommittee of Hermitage Golf Club, Lucan, in July 2003 which stated his handicap was 13, with the words “general play (handicap building)” at the bottom.

A golfer’s handicap is an allowance of strokes allocated to the player based on ability. Weaker players receive a higher allowance of shots to allow them to compete against better players.

A retired insurance official who represented himself, Mr Talbot claimed the use of those words meant he was cheating at golf. He sued Hermitage Golf Club, its handicap subcommittee chairman at the time Eddie Murphy, and the Golfing Union of Ireland.

Mr Justice Daniel Herbert yesterday rejected the claim of libel and also dismissed Mr Talbot’s claim of conspiracy against him by the club. The claim of conspiracy was based on allegations that Mr Murphy was vindictive and bore ill will towards Mr Talbot.

The judge also awarded costs of the 21-day case, expected to amount to hundreds of thousands of euro , against Mr Talbot, who said afterwards he intended appealing the costs order.

The judge found the words “handicap building” in the notice were defamatory and said any reasonable and well-informed golfer would fairly conclude he was being accused of consciously and deliberately inflating his handicap to give himself an unfair advantage in the game by misrepresenting his true playing ability.

However, because he was also satisfied the words were not published to a third party, which is a requirement for a document to be libellous, the judge dismissed the claim of libel. The certificate of his handicap was addressed to Mr Talbot only and was contained in a sealed envelope left for him in the men’s competition room.

When this information was transferred to a new database on the club’s computer system, it was publication but it was done on an occasion of qualified privilege, the judge also found.

In his action, Mr Talbot had complained that in 2002 and 2003 the handicap subcommittee had reduced his handicap six times. This had not happened to any other member from the time he joined the club in 1962 until 2006.

Mr Talbot had also said no other player had been accused of handicap building during that period.

The judge said correspondence in 2003 demonstrated to him that members of the handicap subcommittee, including Mr Murphy, were seeking to resolve the divisive issue of Mr Talbot’s handicap.

Mr Murphy had no involvement whatsoever in a decision of the Leinster branch of the Golfing Union of Ireland to carry out an audit of the club in 2003 and 2004 which led to the mistaken suspension of Mr Talbot’s handicap for which he later received an apology, the judge said.

He was also satisfied Mr Murphy had not induced three members of the club to write letters of complaint about Mr Talbot’s conduct at an annual general meeting in December 2004 during which there were exchanges about the running of the club.

The club’s executive committee found Mr Talbot was seriously abusive towards Mr Murphy at that meeting and it was not reasonable to contend Mr Murphy’s decision to complain about that was evidence of spite and ill will, the judge said.

He ruled Mr Talbot had not discharged the burden of proof that Mr Murphy and other members of the subcommittee were actuated by motives of spite and ill will towards him or by some other improper motive. The occasion of publication of the material was therefore untainted by malice and remained privileged, he ruled.

Mr Justice Herbert did not accept a suggestion that Mr Talbot “might not be a well man”, as stated in a letter to a club disciplinary committee set up to investigate complaints against him, could have meant he was mentally ill. He did not find those words defamatory, he added.

He further rejected Mr Talbot’s claims he was defamed in a circular to all club members in May 2007 or in a secretary’s report of November 2007, both of which stated Mr Talbot was taking a High Court action against Hermitage. Those documents did not amount to a republication of the alleged libel, the judge said.

LEGAL COSTS NO DECISION YET

Neither Hermitage Golf Club nor the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) has decided whether to pursue amateur golfer Thomas Talbot for costs after the High Court rejected a claim of libel against them.

A spokesman for the Hermitage Golf Club expressed “relief” at the High Court decision.

However, he said costs arising from the 21-day action had not yet been calculated. Nor had the club made a formal decision as to whether it would pursue legal costs against Mr Talbot.

This would be decided on foot of legal advice following an expected appeal by the pensioner and amateur golfer, the spokesman said.

Similarly, a spokesman for the GUI said no formal decision had yet been made as to whether the organisation would pursue its legal costs, which he estimated at between €150,000 and €160,000.

In an official statement posted on its website last night, the organisation said it welcomed the High Court decision.

“The GUI has today welcomed the judgment of the High Court in a case brought against it by Mr Tom Talbot, a former member of Hermitage Golf Club, who alleged that the GUI, Hermitage Golf Club and its former handicap secretary, had wrongfully conspired to cause damage to him,” the statement read.

PAMELA DUNCAN