By Brian Keogh
When they tell you not to give up the day job it’s time to get worried.
But not even a ticket to rub shoulders with Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els on the European Tour in 2003 will stop Damien McGrane from selling golf balls in the pro’s shop at Wexford Golf Club.
In the space of ten years, McGrane has gone from the position of a humble assistant professional to Irish Assistants Champion, four-time Irish Order of Merit winner and now a fully-fledged tour player.
It’s been a long, hard road but McGrane won’t be writing any letters of resignation to his Wexford employers just yet.
This modest Meath mean has always been something of a home bird – combining work his golf shop business with play on the local scene and some serious tour golf on either the Challenge Tour or the Irish events on the main tour.
And he’s not about to stop now.
Last month McGrane clinched his tour card by the slimmest of margins – a single shot – but he’s already hit any notions of high European living on the head.
“I’ve had no interest in playing full time golf and Wexford understand that,” he said this week. “I don’t really enjoy playing every week but it’s different now that the money is so much bigger and obviously I’ll play every opportunity I’ll get.
“But when I’m not way I’ll be here looking after my job, here with my family. That’s the way I want to have it.”
Born in Kells in Meath 31 years ago, McGrane started playing golf – in 1986 and became Irish Boys champion two years later.
In 1991 he won his first Irish cap and then became and assistant to Joey Purcell at Portmarnock before turning professional in 1992.
Since then his rise has been meteoric.
He won the Irish Assistants championship in 1994 and 1995 and began to dominate the pro-am scene winning the Irish Order of Merit four times between 1996 and 2000.
After narrowly missing out on European Tour Card in 2000, he played just 12 events but made nine cuts on the Challenge Tour in 2001.
A final round 76 cost him his first win at Formby Hall but things were looking up.
Having qualified for the Volvo PGA championship at Wentworth that year on his domestic ranking he proved he could live with the best when he finished as the leading PGA club professional and stood next to winner Andrew Oldcorn and runner up Nick Faldo at the presentation.
This season he finished 25th on the Challenge Tour Order of Merit and carried his from on to the final tour school where he picked
up one of 35 cards on offer – but only just.
“With nine holes to go I had three shots to spare,” he explained. “But I had a double on 14 and bogeys on 11 and 17 - the par threes.
“It wasn’t particularly nice to use up all those shots but I got in anyway. I was playing well and I knew that if I didn’t do anything silly I could coast my way in easy enough. I suppose I was lucky.”
Now McGrane is facing the toughest battle of all – the search for sponsorship and the scramble for enough euro to continue his dream into 2004 and beyond.
“I won’t get into all the tournaments – I’ll play in about 28 - but I know what I need to earn €170,000 at a rough guess.
“But before I go anywhere I need a main sponsor. When I have that sorted out I can go away and play golf – and worry about making cuts and winning enough money to stay in the top 115 and keep my card.
“I want an Irish sponsor because that is the way my roots are and the way I want to keep it.”
As for fancy equipment deals with big name manufacturers, nothing is likely to happen for some time
“I don’t want to change my equipment next year for the sake of relatively small money,” he said.
“It’s more important that I win enough money to keep my card rather than using clubs I don’t want to use for the sake of a few pounds.”
Financially, McGrane can make a very comfortable living for his young family with a couple of good years on the European Tour.
“The main tour is great from the money point of view. I’ve been dreaming of this since 1995 – seven years. I’ve played well over the last few years and the Challenge Tour has helped me to get more match fit than guys that just come straight through to the main tour.
“Basically I’ve done a two-year apprenticeship and I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’ll give my all and I think I can compete.”
But putting will be key for this small but powerful Kells man.
New technology has evened the field and made it easier for the modestly talented to hit a high percentage of fairways and greens.
McGrane explained: “Every player needs to putt well. The technology available these days allows all the players to get to the green fairly easily. It’s putting that allows you to shoot the low numbers and thankfully mine has been pretty good up to now.”
But won’t intimidation be a factor if he has to tee it up with Monty?
“If I go out trying to make the cut it takes away from my game. It’s the same if I’m playing with Colm Montgomerie. It makes no difference to me who is playing alongside me unless I let it affect my game.
“I’m going out to play my own game and at the end of year, see what it all adds up to. Sure I want to keep my card but I want to build on it every year.”
His wife Geraldine and daughter Emma, 6, and three and a half year old Ethon could see the sights of Europe.
“All the players bring their family at some time. The tour has everything laid on - crèches and tutors and anything you want really.
“Players play for so many weeks now that it’s more family orientated. If it wasn’t the players would play a lot less. They have to have facilities and their families are looked after.”
With a little but of luck, Wexford assistant professionals Glenn Robinson and Liam Bowler may be left to their own devices in the shop next year.