Hey Jude — A man called O'Reilly and golf's bigger picture

Jude O'Reilly and Henrik Stenson during the first round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 2012

The Lake Isle of Innisfree is one of W. B. Yeats’  most lyrically beautiful poems and anyone who reads it will almost certainly be struck by an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility, not to mention a desire to escape to that island on Lough Gill, less than 10 miles from Rosses Point.

It was in that Sligo village, the spiritual home of the West of Ireland Amateur Championship, that Jude O’Reilly was born 46 years ago. And while his career as a caddie began on the local links and took him all over the world from Japan to the United States and beyond, he has never lost that natural west of Ireland charm.

Some people emanate a serenity that is wholly reassuring and it’s little wonder that O’Reilly was a hugely successful bagman for a whole menagarie of players from Christy O’Connor Jnr and Darren Clarke to Masahiro "Massy" Kuramoto, Shigeki Maruyama and more recently, though only part-time, the Swede Henrik Stenson.

In truth, O’Reilly’s core caddying years were spent in the land of the rising sun with Kuramoto and then with Maruyama, who rose to fame when he captured the Greater Milwaukee Open at Brown Deer Park Golf Club in 2001.

Maruyama had made a little history with O’Reilly in US soil the previous year, carding a firs round 58 at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Maryland while qualifying for the 2000 U.S. Open, possibly the crowning moment of a caddying career that began at Rosses Point when he was nine, toting ht bag for the likes of Oliver Gough, Val Smyth or Bernard Gibbons in the West and rubbing shoulders with the likes of the young, Paul McGinley when he was competing in Youths Internationals back in the 1980s.

He caddied for his mother, Greta Soden, a talented player, who sadly to pass away suddenly at the age of 64, increasing Jude’s lifelong interest in health and well being. 

His holistic approach to golf is an integral part of his journey from commerce student at UCD to tour caddie to his current role as what could loosely be described as a performance coach to some of Ireland’s most talented young golfers, including internationals Kevin Le Blanc and Gavin Moynihan.

Having started with O’Connor Jnr, who he had met at the annual leukaemia fundraiser held in Rosses Point, O’Reilly went on to work briefly with the rookie Darren Clarke before eventually progressing to Massy Kuramoto, with whom he remained for eight years before going not to caddie for the Smiling Assassin, Maruyama.

When they split up in 2002, it caused a media furore that made Padraig Harrington’s subsequent decision to let Dave McNeilly go look like small beer. But such was the media impact of Maruyama’s US breakthrough, it was a huge surprise to the Japanese golf world and the player himself, that O’Reilly decided to head home again with his Japanese wife and child

Jude O'Reilly working with Henrik Stenson at Disney

Jude O'Reilly working with Henrik Stenson at Disney

“It is not something you can do too easily,” he explains. “He had won in US, shot 58 in US Open qualifying, it was a big deal.”

While Woods US Open win in 2000 will go down as one of the great performances, O;Reilly’s feat in helping Maruyama shoot a virtually blind, 13 under par 58 at Woodmount Country Club on  5 June 2000 is one of the legendary performances. 

The amiable Japanese reduced the 6,539-yard par-71 Maryland stretch to six pars, 11 birdies and an eagle two with halves of 29 and a birdie, birdie, birdie finish.

A feather in his cap, surely, I ask O’Reilly, who smiles. 

“He might take the feather out and say it should have been 57,” he says. "He has blamed me since, in a joking manner. He says, he had known that the putt from 20 feet at the last had been for a 57, he would have holed it. But he ended up still making birdie. 

“Walking off the tee, he said, ‘How many birdies have I made. I said, don’t worry, lets make another one here.’ 

“It was a par five and he was nicely on in two but his 20 foot putt  came up on the low side. I get the blame but it was pretty special. After he hit the drive, you knew the 59 was on.”

Of course, it was all down to preparation, which is something O’Reilly stresses with he young players he takes under his wing. Or at least, the players look at his vast experience and decided to listen to his advice before making it their own decisions and incorporate his advice into their own routines and lifestyles.

“On one tee there was a delay on a par three over water with two groups in front of us,” he says of the 58. "We just had nice momentum going after and eagle on nine and suddenly, bang, we have to stop. 

“But the day before I had insisted he get on the cart with me and go and play four tee shots. The par threes were mostly over water but while I knew the distance, with the elevation changes, I wanted him to see how they were going to play. 

“Then there was a par for that was a severe dogleg left. He had to hit it onc and turn it, but he still didn’t turn it enough. But it was important that he see that shot.”

Asking O’Reilly to describe his role is one thing but getting him to come up with a neat label is another. 

“Performance coach could describe because I am trying to improve performance,” he admits. “Life coach doesn’t go into golf, though I will look at character and characteristics. People have different strengths and character from their parents and it is a case of finding what they have got and building on those and seeing if there are others that can be brought on. 

With Shigeki Maruyama

“A person’s perspective can be pretty big — looks at Jordan Spieth, seeing his sister’s autism and setting up a charity to raise funds. It makes playing golf a little easier. 

“Take Rory McIlroy. Where was he the week before he won his first major? He was in Haiti after the disaster.  Did that affect his perspective? It can’t not affect it. 

“We lose perspective quite easily. I was speaking to one of the caddies a couple of years ago and we were talking about a couple of business slowing down and he said, ‘Oh yeah, there is a recession thing happening, isn’t there’.”

O’Reilly has spent the last few years working with many of Europe’s top young amateurs and his Irish clients have started to excel.

Now it appears that his magic is working wonders for Junior Open champion LeBlanc and Walker Cup star Moynihan, who both play out of The Island.

“I have a small number of players now and I want to get inside them and know what makes them tick and make them work,” explains the man that Maruyama called ‘Judo’. “I had a great relationship with Shigeki. I knew when he needed a drink of water and had the cap off the bottle and was passing it. 

“That was one of the hardest parts of leaving somebody who was at that level and capable of winning every year in the US. He promised to buy me a house in LA when he retired but I love where I am at now and to be able to bring some of what I know to people who are interested in young people is hugely rewarding.

“Most people don’t understand what an emotional rollercoaster it can be out there and how tough it an be to make it on tour. 

“I wrote a blog entitled - Are all the PGA Tour players losers? After all, how many will win in St Andrews in the Open, or the US PGA? Just one, right. 

“So it all comes down to how you define winning or success. You have got to get joy and fun a the top of the list. What you describe as fun may be part of the pressure for those who are going to be successful, that has got to give them some joy. They may not see it all the time or any of the time for some. But they have to get a thrill about being in the mix and they have got to enjoy that and realise that is part of what it is about. For those who don’t get that, it can be a very tough life.”

Putting habits in place that will help players cope, not just when it comes to course management and strategy, but elements such as hydration, nutrition and even sleep, are massively important.

This attention to detail is a trait he almost certainly picked up in Japan, where 120 million people work together in harmony because they have to. 

“When Richard Branson went to Japan to do business first and produced his 5-year plan, the company he was dealing with presented him with a 200 year business plan. That set him back a little bit and he put his five-year plan away. They don’t try and do things in a rush. They build things up over time. Quality is very important to them.”

It’s the same with O;Reilly, whose bosses were masters of the game from Kuramoto to women’s star and Hall of Fame golfer Ayako Okamoto. 

It was watching Kuramoto win his tour card at the US Q-School and seeing how the Aussie Michael Allen sweated to make the grade that got him interested in performance and psychology.

“He was comfortably getting his card, then shit shot 39 or 40 on the front side in the last round, putting himself under huge pressure. So it was watching that and watching people and how they react and deal with themselves on the course promoted some interest in this.”

When he stepped out of retirement to stand in occasionally for Fanny sunset on Henrik Stenson’s bag from 2008, O[‘Reily was required to work more closer with teams of people, including the physio.

Consultancy work followed with the Sligo man visting companies lie Deloitte in Dublin in “bringing Augusta to the boardroom”  when it comes to business decision making.

In Johor with Henrik

“I’ve seen where executives will look at all the figures of business but they don’t look at all the figures of themselves. Sometimes they don’t even want to.”

Health is wealth in more ways that one and for a sportsman, good habits will make a massive difference to performance.

He will use a variety of devices to see how a person is living, working and sleeping, calculating the amount of stress they might suffer during the day. 

“Sleep hygiene is a massive topic,” he says to this writer, whose long hours of exposure to the light of a computer monitor cannot beg good. 

“I try to gently introduce this things to young golfers so they can put good habits in place and they are better able to deal with things, if and when they go out on tour.”

Years working on the Japan Golf Tour exposed O;Reilly to more top players than might not have otherwise been the case had he remained in Europe.

The big names - Seve, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, all came to Japan to play every year and were paired with his employers. 

In a world of interpreters, they enjoyed the ease of a casual chat with an English speaker on these jaunts and as a result, O’reilly has a store of knowledge that is invaluable.

“I had a chat with Mac O’Grady about the top players once and what makes them different and we agreed there is an extra element they have — a  je ne c'est quoi.

“There has to be be drive and will and determination. But there is some tiny little bit in with these guys that make them more special.

“Sometimes can see and you can tell that people have a slightly different feel about them. Seve had a huge presence, Norman… It was something special when Seve came into the room.”

No doubt O’Reilly can sense something special in LeBlanc and Moynihan, whose results are outstanding.

Jude O'Reilly

“I want to work with these kids and bring one or more onto the tour,” he says. “I want to get them set up so it is not so much of a shock, when they do get there, as it can be for some. Getting them prepared for what will hopefully be a long career is important so that they have enough to ride through an emotional roller coaster as well. 

“It is tough times out there even for top player.  You hear stories of them breaking down and being in bits and losing tempers and breaking lockers. That’s one side, but what it can do to a person inside is another. It is full of ups and downs. 

“People talk about the mental side of the game but a lot come down to the heart, the gut, in every sense of the word. The gut and gut bacteria is something thats’s going to be spoken about over the next couple of years. The Japanese diet, especially the old traditional Japanese diet, was very good on that.”

Ireland is no longer a sporting backwater but a big player in a host of sports. 

“Gone are the days of saying, ‘ah sure we put up a great fight, we gave it a good go.’ The Irish team don’t accept that now. they want more than that. Expectations are another thing. 

“The likes of Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, they have opened the door and others can now walk through just as Shigeki opened the door for others and we now have Matsuyama and Ishikawa coming thought though, though I am surpassed Japan doesn’t have more. 

“Back in the 1990s if a Japanese player was to say he was talking to a psychologist, the question what, what’s wrong? It was not seen as things you spoke about doing and I don’t know if it has fully changed there yet.”

Over enthusiastic parents can often have a negative effect on talented children, which makes O’Reilly an ideal person to transmit ideas. 

With his experience, youngster tend to listen, make something their own and grow with it.

“I don’t touch the swing, that’s between them and their coach. I do do some putting coaching, because a lot of coaches don’t address that — it was their downfall and they don’t want to go there. 

“I will talk about course management but the next step is self-management. Paul McGinley talked about player management at the Ryder Cup and it’s not too dissimilar in terms of what i am looking at doing - looking at the best way to manage a player and to help them manage themselves, increase awareness of what is happening. 

“The check with themselves on where their attitude is, what their perspective is and each of those topics is massive on their own. 

“Ask a  young golfer if focus and concentration are important and they will say ‘Yes, of course.’ And yet they practice distraction half the day, where it is their mobile phone or something else.  

“There’s the importance of sleep, sleep hygiene, which is often ignored. or there’s the time spent on social media, the artificial light coming in that affects things. Then you have the position they will be in reading that or doing that. You have got focus on a small object that creates tension on the eyes and back and that goes into the whole system. Anything that affects your nervous system is relevant. That affects your motor control and that affects how you feel, how you think and how you operate.”

The delicate parent-child relationship is a tricky area in elite sport and O’Reilly has seen some horror stories.

“With some elite golfers, there is a risk of too much friction between parent and child - the parent is doing too much and it can be scary what some of the parents are trying to do,” he says. “A lot of players who learn in that way - intensively with parents - they will find it hard to last over a long period of time. There will be some sort of implosion or explosion in their life in general more so than on the golf course. 

“The key is to start putting things in place so you don’t have an Andre Agassi experience where you a young golfer is playing golf for reasons other than their own enjoyment of it and what they are going to get out of it. 

“Tennis is famous for a few of this incidences and in golf we have had Sean O’Hair who would have been put under huge pressure. It is great that those people can come through that but many other don’t and they don’t even get to the starting line because of that. and we never even hear those stories. I am  trying to help in that situation and make sure than does’t happen and make sure it is fun.

“We are trying to create a situation for the player to develop and I only want to give a nudge in the right direction. If I have too much to do, it is not going to work. It has to come from there.”

Small gains add up to big leaps in the end.

“It’s about finding a player’s ideal performance state so they can repeatedly get to that and then improve on that,” he says. 

Almost two hours have passed since we sat down to chat and yet the time has flown by — stress free. 

As Yeats might say, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made….”

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Golfing Magazine