Malachy Clerkin: Sport is all about fun - like hitting a golf ball on the moon

The rain might have poured at times over the weekend but there were moments to savour

 

The rain lasered in sideways at Nowlan Park on Sunday. The sort of spiteful downpour that comes looking for you, no matter how well you think you’re covered by the lip of the stand. And it was cold too. League cold. February cold. Cold enough to make you think that the folks feeling weepy about having to watch on GAAGo should colour themselves blessed. Make me a hurling spectator, Lord - but not yet.

Hurling is its own heat source, of course. Even though the game Kilkenny and Antrim served up didn’t turn out to be particularly close in the end, it still rocked and rolled for long enough to make you stop noticing the weather. Kilkenny even looked to be trying out new modes of expression for themselves.

They were flicking and tricking, laying off first-time volleys to overlapping runners, drawing defenders this way before handpassing off the stick that way. They looked to be - and this is still Brian Cody’s team, so let’s not overegg it here - but they looked to be hurling for the fun of it.

Fun. Sport as fun. It’s such a forgotten thought. We spend so much time being so determinedly serious about everything these days that it feels like letting the side down almost to even consider the idea.

And yet, look at David Clifford’s reaction to his hat-trick goal on Saturday for Kerry against Galway. He ran back to his position smiling like a loon. Not because he had scored his first senior hat-trick and not because it put the game well out of Galway’s reach. But because making a whole intercounty defence look like they’re gone headlong down a waterslide with one simple drag-back is, at its heart, a lot of fun.

The snooker player Terry Griffiths was asked away back in the ‘80s what he thought explained the popularity of sport. Not just his sport, which was massive at the time, but all sport. His answer was that if you find yourself walking past a snooker table with a couple of balls sitting out, it’s virtually impossible to stop yourself trying to roll one of them into a pocket. Just to see can you do it. Just for the fun of it. That’s what sport amounts to.

Just-for-the-fun-of-it

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ultimate just-for-the-fun-of-it sporting event. It wasn’t a competition and in fact that act itself wasn’t even completed with any great proficiency. But for the sheer kick of trying something, it’s hard to fathom how it will never be beaten. It was, of course, the golf shot on the moon.

I want to wait until the very end of the mission, stand in front of the television camera, whack these golf balls with this makeshift club

Alan Shepard was the first American in space. He was one of only 12 people ever to stand on the surface of the moon. He fought in the Pacific during World War II, became an admiral in both the Navy and Nasa and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. But to golfers, he’ll always be the guy who took two golf balls to the moon and swung a six-iron at them.

Well, kind of a six-iron. It was actually the head of a six-iron attached to a thing called the Contingency Sample Return Container - basically the long tool the astronauts used to collect moondust to bring home with them. He got Jack Harden, the local pro in his club in Houston, to design an attachment and stuck the head of the six iron in the thigh pocket of his space suit, along with two range balls. That was the easy bit.

Alan B Shepard- the man who played golf on the moon in 1971. Photograph: Getty
Alan B Shepard- the man who played golf on the moon in 1971. Photograph: Getty

The hard bit was not getting thrown off the rocket for even thinking of it. Shepard was heading up on Apollo 14, the first space mission after the near-disaster that would later be immortalised in the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13. Americans were starting to get antsy when it came to space travel, unsure if it was really worth all the money that was being spent on it and petrified that one of these missions was going to end in fatalities.

So when Shepard had the idea of hitting a golf shot on the moon, he got a very short and very direct answer from the mission leader Bob Gilruth. “Absolutely no way,” Gilruth said. Imagine the howls of disgust if something went wrong while Shepard was out there attempting to satisfy his inner Bobby Jones. It could shut down the space programme in a single stroke.

Scratch an itch

Shepard wouldn’t let it go, though. He wanted to scratch an itch, to see how far a ball would go in zero gravity. So he made a deal with Gilruth. “If we have screwed up, if we have had equipment failure, anything has gone wrong on the surface where you are embarrassed or we are embarrassed, I will not do it. I will not be so frivolous.

“I want to wait until the very end of the mission, stand in front of the television camera, whack these golf balls with this makeshift club, fold it up, stick it in my pocket, climb up the ladder, close the door and we’re gone.”

Gilruth was reluctant but he gave it his blessing in the end. And so, on February 6th 1971, just before jumping back up to the steps of the lunar module and heading back to earth, Shepard pulled out the two range balls and threw them down on the sandy surface at his feet. He took out his modified six-iron and addressed the first one. Because his suit was so cumbersome, he was only ever going to be able to swing one-handed. But swing he did.

The first was a shank. The ball had nestled a bit and he couldn’t get much of a contact. But he set the second one up on a little hillock - “I figured nobody was going to quote the rules of golf to me from a quarter-million miles away,” he said later - and caught it much better. “It’s gone miles and miles and miles,” he famously said. In reality, it only went about 40 yards. But still.

We can get so bogged down in sport at times. So attached to the right way of doing things, to best practice, to What Good Looks Like. And all of it is important, obviously it is.

But 50 years ago, a guy who frequently did as much po-faced achieving in a day as most of us will do in a lifetime went out and dropped a couple of balls and played golf on the moon. Just for the fun of it.

Now that’s a sportsman.

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