Starlets get backing

By Brian Keogh

Ireland's golfing starlets won't be left to make it on their own any more.

Once the hit the paid ranks, dozens of young hopefuls are left without the support structure they need to follow in the footsteps of Padraig Harrington or Darren Clarke.

But a new initiative by the Golfing Union of Ireland will see our top talents getting state-of-the-art support in their rookie years.

It's all part of improvements being made to the Irish Sports Council's Team Ireland Golf Trust, which has handed out nearly €2 million in grants since 2000.

The ILGU, the Irish Region of the PGA, Failte Ireland and private backers all have a say in who gets cash every year.

But the GUI has set a standard that must be achieved by the young guns if they are to get a recommendation for a grant and access to an elite Sports Science programme.

With dozens of young players falling by the wayside, GUI General Secretary Seamus Smith believes that making youngsters think twice before turning pro will be good for everyone in the long term.

Smith said: "It is very hard for them not to give themselves the opportunity to try the tour.

"A great many of them would have no chance but it is hard to convince them of that so they learn that themselves the hard way, possibly.

"If a player doesn't reach the criteria we have set, they might not get a grant or they might fail to get enough sponsorship and they might decide to give amateur golf one more year to do better."

Rory McIlroy won't need any help from the Irish Golf Trust after clinching his tour card in record time.

But young amateurs who want to follow in his footsteps will have to put scores on the doors if they are to be recommended by the GUI for a grant.

The Irish Sports Council is looking for a better results and by concentrating their resources on the top prospects, they hope to find successors to the Harringtons, Clarkes and McGinleys of today.

Smith said: "At the moment, there is nothing stopping any young lad turning professional and applying for a grant if he holds a card to play on any tour in the world.

"But the Trust would like to tighten up the criteria because they only have so much money in the kitty and they are spreading it very thin.

"They want to make sure that those coming through the ranks have a genuine chance of getting there and the criteria will allow a player to make his mind up whether he should wait another year and get a higher ranking in amateur golf before he decides to join the pro ranks.

"What were are saying is that unless you reach a certain standard, as Padraig Harrington would say, you don't have chance of making it out there.

"We are trying to make sure that they are of a standard that has a serious chance of making it through and then they will come in for granting."

Players will be ranked on a two year basis according to their results in national championships and designated overseas events.

Smith explained: "From the GUI point of view we will look at our Order Merit points table - points achieved on the international and home circuit and do an accumulation of those over a two-year period.

"If they reach a certain level in the table, that would be the criteria used by the Golf Trust to consider giving them a grant.

"Unless they reach that points level, they wouldn't be considered for a grant."

The tour can be a lonely place for rookies and the GUI is prepared to help provide support during the transition period, when they need it most.

Players will have access to coaching facilities, physiotherapy, fitness, nutrition and even a judo expert

Smith said: "The GUI is helping to give these guys the best possible chance they can for the first few years of the transition period.

"We are working towards a full-high performance programme so that when the move out of amateur golf, they are not left to their own devices.

"That there is a structure there that will be financed by the Irish Sports Council to help them on their way."

(Rory the new Seve says Bannon)

Rory McIlroy can be better than Sergio Garcia and Seve Ballesteros.

That's the view Michael Bannon, who has coached Holywood ace since he was just four years old.

Now the club pro at Bangor, Bannon once reached the final of the Irish Close, losing heavily to Ronan Rafferty at Royal County Down in 1980.

And Bannon believes that McIlroy's ability to play any shot in the book makes his as promising as talent as the two Spanish aces.

Bannon said: "By the time he was eight or nine he had the ability to play a whole array of shots. He showed a great feel for the game as a kid and you cannot teach that."

"I began working with him in earnest around that time and much of the work on developing and grooving his swing was done in the early years. Even as a kid, when he played in under-age events in America, he stood out. "

"He is in the same mould as Seve and Sergio Garcia. He really has it all. He's got a great feel for moving the ball about. He can hit it any way he wishes, but above all he's incredibly confident.

"I watched him in The Open at Carnoustie in July. It was a big step-up and he passed with flying colours and prior to the Dunhill Links Championship a few weeks ago he assured me he would secure his tour card before the end of the season."

"Rory has got great flair and perhaps his biggest asset is his balance throughout the swing. All his positions and power moves are excellent.

"We've developed a great relationship and dynamic down the years. It's a two way thing. I always ask him how he feels about any moves we consider making, but really it's down to fine tuning at this stage when we meet."

McIlroy will be back in action after a month off in next week's Omega Hong Kong Open.

(Higgins boost)
David Higgins is the third straightest hitter in European golf.

The Waterville man, who is out of action with hepatitis and hopeful of a medical exemption next term, hit an incredible 71.7 percent of the fairways this year.

Higgins finished third in the final driving accuracy stats behind Aussie Peter O'Malley and Swede Henrik Nystrom but didn't earn enough to retain his card.

Open champion Padraig Harrington was the top scrambler, getting up and down for par 63.6 percent of the time when he missed a green.