Irish golf has never produced so many players willing to chase the ultimate dream of a place on the game’s major tours. Whether they can afford to follow their dreams is another matter altogether.
September heralds the start of the three-stage European Tour Qualifying School campaign but while 39 Irishmen went to the starting line last year, just 31 have stumped up the €1,650 entry fee so far this season.
Had it not been for the Northern Ireland Open Challenge, brilliantly staged at Galgorm Castle last week, it’s likely the even fewer would be bothering to join more than 980 hopefuls from all over the world in the long battle for just 25 golden tickets, which will be handed out at PGA Catalunya Resort in northeast Spain at the end of the six-round Final Stage on November 15.
That’s because hosting a Challenge Tour event affords players from that country reciprocal invitations to Challenge Tour events held in other countries, thus smoothing the path for those who are trying to get their foot on the bottom rung on the tour ladder.
Plans are afoot to make the Northern Ireland Open Challenge a dual ranking event for both the European Tour and the Challenge Tour, which is great news for golf on both sides of the border where the Irish Open is the only show in town following the demise of the Challenge of Ireland, the European Open, the Irish Seniors Open and the Ladies Irish Open to name but three events.
Still, it was troubling to hear Derry’s Michael McGeady, one of the early front runners at the Ballymena venue last week, declare that he will not be going to the Q-School for the ninth time this year because he simply can’t afford it.
McGeady, who won on the Challenge Tour in 2008, is now 35 and faced with a major decision about his future having ended up tied for 34th in Ballymena, where he earned just €1,207 for his week’s work.
He isn’t the only one facing a similar predicament.
While this year’s Irish entry features players such as Waterford Castle’s Kevin Phelan, who will turn professional after next weekend’s Walker Cup and newly minted professional Simon Ward, who said farewell by winning the South of Ireland title for the second time in July, several amateur will also make the trip to one of the eight Stage One venues over the next few weeks.
They include Dermot McElroy, a brilliant ninth at Galgorm Castle, Mourne’s Reeve Whitson, Headfort’s Brian Casey and Claremorris’ Stephen Healy to name just four.
They will be joined by the full spectrum of Irish pros from PGA Region regulars, such as Mark Staunton and Cian McNamara, to satellite tour players like Tim Rice, David Rawluk and Mark Murphy. Then there’s former European Tour regular Gary Murphy, who announced his retirement from tour golf at the end of 2011 but now appears to be making a comeback.
Also back for the 12th time — he skipped Q-School last year and took a nine-month sabbatical to reignite is flagging interest and enthusiasm for the game after nine years of ups and downs — is Glasson’s Colm Moriarty, a 2003 Walker Cup player.
While Noel Fox, his Walker Cup team mate that year, is another of those opting to stay away, Moriarty is back for more at the age of 34.
And when asked why so many take the plunge year after year with little, if nothing, to show for the efforts, he makes a sobering point: “If it is all you know, it is difficult, especially if you have nothing else lined up…. I guess everyone is chasing the dream.”
For those who play well enough to join the exempt player at the Final Stage in Catalonia in November, the exercise will leave them with little change out of €6,000.
And if they miss the four-round cut there they will, as Moriarty admits, “have little to show for it.”
No-one wants to smash the dreams of the adventurous, as the Golfing Union of Ireland’s National Coach, former Irish PGA champion, Neil Manchip, points out.
“The general advice would be, if you want to go for it, then go for it. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from turning pro and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to turn pro either because I know how difficult it is,” says the Scot, who will be looking for the likes of McElroy, Casey and Whitson, or former Walker Cup players Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler.
“You want guys to make their own decisions and do things for the best reasons and give it their best effort. Some guys stay at it for a long time, some guys give it a couple of years and decide to give it up. You just never know.
“You could be talking about acting, somebody who wants to be a Hollywood star. You have got to do what you want to do and nobody should say what you should or shouldn’t do. If you have some ability and the capacity to learn, those people usually do pretty well. There is no formula. Just get it around the course in as few shots as you can.”
We wish them the best of Irish luck.
Lessons at Sawgrass
Playing the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is a dream come true for most amateur golfers but Mallow’s James Sugrue and Hermitage’s Rowan Lester got so much more from their experience at the venue that hosts The Players Championship every May.
While results didn’t quite go their way with Sugrue carding a seven over 79 to finish 13 shots behind winner Austen Truslow on 12 over (73-74-79-) and Lester slipping to a closing 85 to share 70th on 237 (78-74-85), this was about so much more than golf.
With the Stadium Course set up at 7,215 yards, matching the set-up used for the final round of the 2013 Players Championship, the experience will stand to two of Ireland’s Boys prospects.
But they also got the chance to receive media training with Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington giving them tips on how to behave in public, in interviews and on social media.
Not only that, college coaches from 30 US universities were at TPC Sawgrass to watch and recruit the future stars of college golf — a golden opportunity for the Irish pair to follow in the footsteps of players such as Graeme McDowell, or Kevin Phelan and Gavin Moynihan, who will play in the Walker Cup on Long Island in New York next weekend.
Winning the Munster Mid-Amateur Championship for over 35s is a great achievement. Beating Limerick secretary manager and former Irish Close champion Pat Murray around a course he knows like the back of his hand must make it twice as sweet
Take a bow then Mark Collins, a former Munster Interprovincial who is currently the head greenkeeper at the Jack Nicklaus designed Killeen Castle in County Meath.
Leading after an opening 71, Collins went into Sunday’s final round a shot behind Tipperary native Murray, who had won the title three times since 2009. But he came up trumps, closing with a 70 to win by a stroke from the Limerick player on one under par with Dungarvan’s Alan Thomas taking third place.
With players in their 30s now struggling to make an impact and break into the Irish team - Irish Amateur Open winner Robbie Cannon is a perfect example - Mid-Amateur competitions are becoming more popular.
Greystones’ Alan Condren, who was 13th at Limerick on Sunday, won the Leinster Mid-Amateur from his brother Kevin at Grange just last month.
The events are played at weekends, which gives the working man a chance to show he can still play a bit. But what persuaded the Ulster Branch to stage the Ulster Mid-Amateur next Sunday and Monday is a mystery.
With most of players who might be interested in playing forced to head back to their day job on Monday morning, it’s little wonder that they have opted not to have a cut. With a field of just 44 teeing up for the first 36 holes on Sunday, they may suspect that few will be back the following morning.
The great Bobby Browne continues to rule the roost at Laytown and Bettystown, where he has been head professional since he pulled up at the County Meath club in a Morris Oxford in 1967.
Despite suffering health problems for several years, Bobby continues to give lessons to all the budding young players the sporting east coast links produces.
Des Smyth and Declan Branigan preceded the Browne era but one wonder if Irish golf would have had the pleasure of seeing the Wickham sisters, Carol and Phil, become such stalwarts without the help of the great man.
“I remember going down to the club with Phil when I was eight or nine and Bobby gave us lessons on Saturday morning on the 18th fairway,” Carol recalls.
The sisters continue to play superbly. On Sunday, Phil (now O’Gorman) was a member of the Laytown and Bettystown team that beat Dun Laoghaire in the final of the East Leinster Senior Foursomes.
Carol, meanwhile, is competing for Ireland in the European Senior Ladies Team Championships at Bled in Slovenia alongside Suzanne Corcoran (Portumna), Pat Doran (Donabate), Gertie McMullen (The Island), Sheena McElroy (Grange) and Laura Webb (The Berkshire).