Damien McGrane is so keen to forget about his 2011 nightmare that he’s starting 2012 as early as humanly possible by teeing it up in this week’s season-opening Africa Open in South Africa. In fact, the 40 year old from Kells will play five tournaments in the next six weeks as he bids to rediscover the putting touch that deserted him last season and almost cost him his card.
Statistics can be misleading but the numbers simply didn’t add up for the former Portmarnock assistant last year with the most significant of them being his dramatic fall from 15th in the putts per green in regulation category to 139th.
He also fell from 17th to 59th for putts per round and averaged almost a stroke more per round than he did in 2010. As a result, he earned “just” €258,939, holding on to his card with only €8,000 to spare as he finished 115th in the Race to Dubai standings (only 118 retained full playing rights).
A gross wage of €260,000 it might not seem so bad, but McGrane will likely pass the €4 million barrier in career earnings this month - not bad for a guy who was a club professional at Wexford Golf Club just 10 years ago.
He’s earned more than half that €4m in the past four years - €782,719 in 2010 and €748,289 in 2008, when he grabbed his maiden win in China. Playing on the European Tour is a high paying gig if you can finish inside the top 60 or 70 money winners each year and McGrane wants to keep it going for another few seasons at the very least.
His problem now is rebuilding his confidence and that’s why he’s starting his season earlier than ever. Needless to say, he’s anxious to get some money on the board as soon as possible.
“I haven’t played before Abu Dhabi before so needless to say, I am trying to get off to a fast start and trying to find some form,” he said before jetting out to East London where a modest field will be boosted by the presence of major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion. Gareth Maybin, another player who struggled to keep his card last year, completes the Irish challenge.
“After last season I feel I need to keep at it and keep working at it,” said McGrane, who missed the cut in seven of his last 11 events in 2011. “After as poor a season as I had last year, I can’t really have a good winter break. To be honest, I just don’t feel I can allow myself that this time around.
“It came out of the blue for me. For 12 months in a row I scored poorly. I didn’t play badly, I just scored badly compared to what I would normally do. And I did it for 12 months in a row, which is extraordinary.”
Never an impressive ball-striker in the Rory McIlroy/Darren Clarke mode, McGrane’s game would be remarkably similar to Padraig Harrington’s before Bob Torrance really got hold on him - average long game, great short game.
The problem last year was that the short game, especially his putting, was poor.
“It was all about the putts failing to drop. If the putts fall into the hole, you can’t go wrong. And if they don’t go into the hole, you can do no right,” he said. “That was the way it was from start to finish last year because I didn’t think I played that poorly. It was just a disappointing year. Hopefully that’s my rough spell done with. Good riddance to it and roll on 2012.”
Mentioning the yips to a golfer is tantamount to a death wish but when asked if he had noticed any particular ‘problem’ with his putting, McGrane immediately understood.
“I honestly don’t feel that I have developed any quirks,” he said. “There is nothing growing on any of my clubs or anything! I just need to get back out and do what I do best and wait for a bit of form and a bit of confidence to come back. If I can get a few results, that’s all it is. I have endured a tough year and I just need to get back and see a few of the good things that the game has to offer.”
Turning 40 is never a happy milestone for a sportsman but McGrane honestly feels that he has plenty of gas left in the tank and plenty more to give.
“Yes, I turned 40 last year but I still feel that I am capable of improving my game.”
Despite that, he’s still wondering exactly what went wrong with his normally razor sharp scoring game. After all, he made as many cuts as he usually does but had just two ninth place finishes to show for his efforts. In each of the previous three seasons, he had at least one Top-3.
“Last year came out of the blue and it was a sucker year for me. The putting? I wasn’t standing over putts thinking, ‘there’s no way this is going in’. Having said that, I had doubts and there is no room for any doubts.
“I was practicising well and on the putting green I was fine and my short game was fine. But out on the golf course it wasn’t the same. There’s a difference between gaining momentum and losing all momentum and unfortunately I was taking the latter route. If I got anything going, I handed it all back. I didn’t get anything go and I was struggling just to tread water.”
Golfers often panic when things go badly for a prolonged period but McGrane sounded like a man who is not too keen on radical change.
“I have nothing set in stone regarding changes and I don’t want to rush and decide that I am changing everything,” he explained. “Last year was one of those years. I am not blaming myself and I am not blaming my equipment. I am just hoping that it was one of those things and that’s why I can starting early this year. Just trying to get some good going and get some confidence going early on.”
Playing too many events is not a worry either. Having played more than 30 events every year since 2005, he’s not concerned about a five-event run that will see him play the Africa Open, Joburg Open and the European Tour’s Desert Swing of Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai.
“No, I am not worried about that because I don’t do anything when I am at home. Some people work hard on their game in their weeks off but I just travel and play. Or else I go home and don’t touch the clubs.
“I am going to play five events now with the South African and Middle East, take some time off and then go at it again. When you have most of March off you are better off getting out early. I feel that during the winters in Ireland you have too much time off.”