Pressure creates diamonds and two of Ireland’s golfing gems are trying to keep some sparkle in their games on the Emerald Pro Tour.
Former amateur stars Tim Rice and Justin Kehoe aren’t playing for millionaire prize funds in some exotic corner of Brazil. Instead they’re battling the Irish winter and fighting for every cent as they tee it up with their fellow pros and a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs on a fledgling Friday circuit.
As they wait for the third tier EuroPro Tour to tee off in May, Rice and Kehoe reckon the Emerald Pro Tour will help them get ready to come out with all guns blazing as the continue their bid for tour glory this year.
And with the economic downturn costing even Tiger Woods his Buick sponsorship, they feel better off keeping the rust away on home ground rather than blowing their hard earned cash on a winter mini tour in Florida or Arizona.
A former South of Ireland and World Universities champion, Kehoe said: “There’s money at stake every week and an overall prize for the Order of Merit which is a great incentive. But it also keeps your mind focussed on trying to keep a score.”
Rice and Kehoe both turned professional five years ago but are still waiting for their big break. They certainly have the talent.
Offaly native Kehoe, 28, outscored US Open champion Angel Cabrera by two shots when they played together on the Challenge Tour in Argentina in 2007 and went on to qualify for the Open at Carnoustie later that season. He has a degree in Commerce and French from UCD.
Limerick man Rice, 31, has a degree in Business Administration from the University of Toledo. He won twice on the EuroPro Tour in 2004 and he knows that unlike some of the lesser known tennis players on the ATP circuit, he can realistically hope to take on one of the best golfers in the world and come out a winner.
He said: “Justin beat Cabrera a few years ago and there’s no other sport in which this happens. If you are ranked 300th in the world at tennis you will never beat a top seeded player Nadal or Roger Federer. “Tiger can hit it longer than you but when he hits a putt, you think ‘surely I can do that, it’s only a putting stroke.'
“In golf you could beat a top-10 player on any given day. So golf is stupid or special in that way. It’s not like tennis or snooker, you could possibly get one week where you could beat the best player in the world and get some money and some status. Golf’s like a drug and one week can make a huge difference.”
The world is not short of people who tell Kehoe and Rice - two highly articulate and intelligent college graduates - that they should try going back to the real world and find a job. But how do they feel?
Rice explained: "It’s not in your mentality to doubt and if doubts creep in you just eliminate them. That’s the way you are. But it’s very easy to talk about it and say ‘yeah I am going to do it. I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually make it. I’ll give myself time’. That’s all very easy to say. We’ve all heard it before loads of times. Everyone says it. It’s much easier to talk. You’ve just got to produce the results and then you can say ‘yeah, I was good enough’.
"How many guys have you spoken to at our level who’ve gone ‘yeah, yeah, I’m working on my game, I’m getting better and improving. I’m getting better. I can see it there in front of me. All I need is the break. You’ve heard it all before. It’s the same."
Kehoe takes up the story, adding: "It sounds so simple. If you can shoot two under par every time you play, you are going to do very well. It’s easy to talk about it, as Tim says, but you have to do it. To shoot two under par on a golf course with four par fives and, I’m sure, plenty of short par fours, eliminate mistakes and keep stupid stuff off the card, it shouldn’t be that hard, it really shouldn’t. You’ve just got to keep believing it. I did anyway. Though I mightn’t have shown much form over the past couple of years, or whatever, I still believe it’s not that difficult. It shouldn’t be that difficult."
So where do they see themselves in two years time? What’s physically possible this year? To play their way onto the Challenge Tour? To earn their tour cards?
"My only goal is to get good at golf," Rice explained. "I know if I am good, I’ll go somewhere. But I haven’t been good. So the goal is to go out today and be good. Then go out the next day and do the same at the same level. For me personally, that’s where I am. I’ve given up trying to predict where I might be. I look at the schedule for the year. I know if I’m good I’ll get the Challenge tour. It’s very simple."
And the Q-School?
"I suppose so. But if you are playing the mini-Tours throughout the year and you haven’t finished in the top-10 you really probably are not ready..... There’s a lot of guys who do get through the whole school but really their games, if they haven’t shown some form on the mini-tour, it’s unlikely they are going to keep their card on the main tour."
As Rice and Kehoe wait for their big week to come along they are using the Emerald Pro Tour to stay as sharp as possible.
The pro-am circuit is the brainchild of Leixlip’s Ciaran Tighe, 28, who charges professionals as little as €25 to play courses such as Carton House, Luttrellstown Castle, Moyvalley and Castleknock. The more amateurs the pro brings with him, the cheaper it gets.
Tighe said: “I was working at Carton House and set up an alliance there on Mondays. I was shocked at the calibre of players who were travelling from as far away as Belfast and Cork to play - guys like Damien Mooney.
“They were saying there was no competitive golf in the winter and travelled to get a taste of the competition. So two years ago, I decided to bring it to a different level by making a proper Irish tour.”
The tour runs until April with the top three pros each week taking home between 50 and 25 percent of the prize pool and earning points towards an overall Order of Merit prize of around €1,000.
Amateurs with a handicap of 18 or lower are welcome to play for vouchers and test their games against some of the best young professionals in the country.
This week’s outing at Carton House was postponed due to the weather but South County’s Barrie Trainor, the 2008 Irish Assistant Professional Strokeplay Champion, picked up a welcome €157 when he shot 69 to win at Luttrellstown last week.
He should have shared top prize with Rice but the Limerickman disqualified himself when he discovered the next day that he had shot his 69 with 15 clubs in the bag. One man's loss is another man's gain and it meant a €100 windfall for Kehoe.
Anyone interested in joining the tour can visit EmeraldProTour.com. The next outing is at Castleknock on February 13.