by Nathan Warner
Every two years since 2002, a team of Northern Ireland golfers faces off against a team of American golfers for 11 days of intense competition in the “From Mournes to Minnesota: Cider Cup Challenge.” This year, the Sept. 4–15 tour saw the Irish beat the “Yanks” for the first time since 2004.
The competition alternates between golf courses in Minnesota and in Ireland, with the next one hosted by the Irish in 2014 at the Spa Golf Course in Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland. This year, the competition was held at nine courses including Elk River, Monticello and three in Grand Rapids. Three of the 17 golfers (who come from all over the country) are from Elk River — Ron Dargis, Terry McLean and Art Hennington.
Brian Collins is the captain of the Irish team while close friend Donald Smith (formerly of Monticello) is the “non-playing American captain.” Their friendship began through the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland (CPNI), which worked to reconcile Irish 10- and 11-year-olds from different religious backgrounds by bringing them to Minnesota during the summer. Boards in Belfast and the Twin Cities jointly ran the program. Collins was a committee member (and past director) of CPNI in Northern Ireland while Smith was on the board of directors in Minnesota.
Tom Coburn, a former Irish professional “football” player (soccer in the United States), has been with the Spa team since the beginning. He says the incredibly competitive spirit of the golfers keeps the games going. “But really,” he adds, “it’s the relationships everyone’s made over the years that form the backbone of the Cider Cup challenge.”
The tournaments are 11-day events that are carefully planned for two years from the ground up by the hosting team. “We get down to planning what restaurant we’re going to eat at after we play,” Collins says.
“We’ve learned they’ll only drink American beer while they’re here and eat only American hamburgers,” Elk River golfer Terry McLean laughs, “and they absolutely refuse to touch Guinness beer.”
McLean was a charter member of the American team when the competition launched in 2002. His involvement began when he met Collins and Smith while visiting Gull Lake near Brainerd more than a decade ago and discovered a mutual fondness for golf. They hit the links often with Smith’s American friends when Collins visited Minnesota for CPNI, which led to the 2002 tour to both the north and south of Ireland.
McLean was not involved in CPNI, but was a retired teacher, allowing him to hit it off well with Collins who was a former headmaster (principal) in Ballynahinch. “Our respect, friendship and competition just grew from there,” McLean reflects, “and we decided to alternate every two years with courses in Minnesota and Ireland.”
“Visiting teams live for 11 days in their hosts’ homes,” Smith explains, “which is entirely unique and builds true friendships by making it so personal.” Although Smith is captain of the American team, he doesn’t play golf. “I’m termed ‘the non-playing American captain’,” he laughs, “but only a few of our players can match my record of hitting a golf ball over the Mississippi River at Monticello.”
With all that time on the course, they cover a lot of ground. “We only talk about drinking and women,” Coburn joked, adding that they actually spend most of the time talking about sports. “We all have our favorite teams and can get pretty animated about it, especially since Ireland has launched some amazing talent onto the international golfing scene lately with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, for example.”
The Minnesota and Irish teams play for money, but only in American dollars here and British pound notes in Northern Ireland. “The wager’s only worth about $1.50,” Coburn says, “but whoever wins it, has won the championship, so it’s really worth more than the world.”
Over the years, a large number of Americans have been eager to participate in the program. “But we can only field about 14 Irish players on our end,” Coburn says, “so we have to keep the games at that size.” This year, they faced 16 American players, one-third from outside Minnesota.
The championship matches, played over three days, concluded Sept. 12 in Grand Rapids, making 2012 an extra special year for the Irish because they reclaimed the Cider Cup trophy for their homeland by besting the “Yanks.” The Cider Cup is modeled on the Ryder Cup and the teams compete for a crystal trophy that stays with the winning team until it can be won back.
“To say it was fulfilling would be an understatement,” Collins laughed, “because it’s the first time we’ve won since 2004, so there’s sure to be a lot of huffing and puffing at our table during the awards banquet.” The banquet this year was held at the Monticello Country Club Friday, Sept. 14, on the eve of the Spa team’s return to Northern Ireland.
“The ‘Spa golfers,’ as we call our Irish opposition, replaced three of their poorer players with better ones this year,” McLean smiled, “so they finally won by a couple of points.” He adds that everyone really enjoyed the atmosphere and friendly staff of the Elk River Golf Course with Head Professional Chris Singer and Terry James.
Collins and Coburn feel their experiences with Americans have only reinforced their appreciation of the United States. “Lots of people in Europe don’t like Americans for some reason,” Collins said, “but we Irish like America. Americans are the same as everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bad American.”
“Nor have I,” Coburn reflected.
Children’s Program of Northern Ireland at the root of golf tours
The epic origin of this small golfing challenge between good friends on both sides of the Atlantic had its roots in Northern Ireland. Don Smith was representing the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland when he visited Brian Collins’ school in Ballynahinch in 1989, where Collins had become a committee member of CPNI in 1980. “His school was sending kids to Minnesota as a part of our program,” Smith recalls, “and our friendship grew from that.”
“It was through this wonderful program that we forged relationships with people in Minnesota,” Collins said, “so CPNI is ultimately the source for the ‘From Mournes to Minnesota Cider Cup Challenge.’”
The Children’s Program of Northern Ireland was launched to help promote reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland as violence erupted in 1972, killing 467 people. The organization formed on the groundwork laid by a modest letter written by an Irish mother named Sarah Hughes. In the letter, Hughes related how her father took in American soldiers during World War II and inquired if an American family would be willing to look after her 9-year-old son, David, during the summer holidays. She mailed the letter to newspapers all over the United States.
“The letter was even sent to The New York Times,” Collins says, “but only the Fargo Forum newspaper published it.” Minnesotans responded and David was hosted by a farm family near Twin Valley in 1973. The next year, the Hibbing, Minn. Rotary Club sponsored 160 children to spend the summer with families in Minnesota. In 1975, the program moved to the Twin Cities and has remained there ever since, hosting over 6,500 Irish children. The program has built many permanent relationships between the adults and kids, with many Elk River, Monticello and Princeton families hosting.
“After the Irish Republican Army called a cessation of hostilities and the violence largely subsided, the numbers of parents seeking use of the program dwindled,” Collins explains, “and it’s transformed into more of a student-exchange program, working to break down the barriers that still exist.”
Coburn nods: “There’s progress to be made yet, as most schools in Ireland are still segregated, meaning strictly Catholic or Protestant, but the number of ‘integrated’ or mixed schools has risen from 6 percent to 8 percent over the last couple years, and that is real progress.” Collins added that the political roots of the violence are an even larger challenge that will take much more time to reconcile.
Still, he thinks programs like CPNI are very effective and invaluable to the world. “I definitely think there is a need for programs like this in other trouble spots of the world,” Collins said.