By Brian Keogh
You’ve heard it a million times. “Who’s turning pro? Who? Yer man? Sure, he’ll starve. No chance.”
Even Pádraig Harrington had to hear those words as he took his first, tentative steps in the big, bad world of professional golf.
Luckily for Harrington, he had a fantastic support base in his family and fellow club members at Stackstown. But he also had to do a lot on his own and no amount of financial support can help you win your European Tour card at the first attempt or lift your first tour title after just 12 weeks on the road.
Still, we all need help sometimes and the second Paddy Harrington Memorial Golf Classic held at Stackstown early in July will provide two of the Dublin club’s fledgling professionals with some vital financial support this year.
Just part a plan by the world No 10 to put something back into the game, the Classic was dreamt up by Harrington and his brother Tadhg.
Last year’s inaugural golf day was run to help former West of Ireland champion Michael McDermott. Harrington’s sponsors put up the prizes, the man himself did the prize-giving. And as fate would have it, McDermott won his first professional tournament on the Europro Tour on the eve of this year's second edition. Talk about timing.
"In the first year we raised €20,000 for Michael and this second year we raised €27,000 with €7,000 going to Mark Campbell, who has just turned pro and the other €20,000 to Michael,” explains Tadhg as he watches his little brother - Ireland’s first human toaster and remote control - win his fourth Irish Professional Championship at The European Club.
"Michael spent it last year going to America to play on the Gateway Tour and spent five months out there. It was obviously invaluable experience because the first time he got into contention when he came back, he won.
"You would have to think that the experience he got out there stood him in good stead and that’s the idea that Padraig had. Next year, we’ll ask the GUI to nominate one person. An amateur who has played for Ireland, who has done his service, and now is turning professional. There was a situation many years ago where the GUI were in one corner, the ILGU in another and the PGA in another corner. What we are trying to do is get everyone rowing in the same direction."
But the Harrington masterplan doesn't stop there.
"Padraig is very keen to set up driving ranges and academies around the country and we are in negotiations with the county councils over that," adds Tadhg, who has left the bookmaking business to dedicate himself to the project fulltime.
"We are in negotiation with Dublin South and Fingal County Councils to acquire land in parks. They would be our landlord, we would build state of the art ranges and practice facilities and teach young schoolkids in the local area for nothing, we’d provide tuition.
"Myself and Padraig and Colm, the three brothers, will build the range completely ourselves and equip it. We hope to have five or six over the next 10 of 12 years. We’ll start with one, see how that goes, and take it from there.
“There is a need in Ireland for facilities like these. This is all intertwined. We have the Paddy Harrington Scholarship at NUI Maynooth University, we have the Paddy Harrington Memorial Golf Classic at Stackstown and what he’s trying to do now is get into the provision of state of the art facilities to introduce the game to young people who might not otherwise have had a chance to play it.
“By giving tuition to young kids, hopefully we’ll find another Rory McIlroy along the way. Basically, instead of paying lip service to Irish golf, Padraig is putting his money where his mouth is. You’re looking at a spend of somewhere between €7m and €10m on a range and Padraig is quite prepared to put his money where his mouth is for Irish golf.”
Having caddied for his brother in countless amateur events - their last outing was at the 1995 European Tour School - Tadhg Harrington has seen great amateurs up close. He’s seen many ‘stars’ fall flat on their faces and some of the unheralded players come good.
No-one can say for sure what makes a successful touring professional and those that dismissed McDermott as a big-hitting machine with little else going for him, were proved wrong when he won on the Europro Tour.
"We proved a point with Michael McDermott,” Tadhg says with pride. “People said that giving Michael 20 grand was madness, he'll never make it. But nobody knows until they are given a chance. And Michael, on the very first occasion he had a chance to win, he won. Case proved.
“My argument to anybody who asks why we are raising this money for fellas who have no chance of making it is this - how do you know they have no chance?
“How many good amateurs have you seen that looked like superstars? Gordon Sherry - now working in a driving range. He was the great white hope when Padraig was young. Damien McGrane. What about Damien? Would anyone have foreseen him doing so well. He took the the game like a duck to water. Could you have envisaged him doing so well? He has far outweighed the expectations anyone had of him. Fantastic achievement - one of the unsung heroes of Irish golf.”
So what about Pádraig then. Did Tadhg see it coming? Seriously. Honestly. Was he surprised his brother did so well?
“Emmmm. Not really, no. When I say he got off to a lucky start - he won after 12 weeks on tour - that makes life a lot easier. David Higgins didn't enjoy it after the first year but he says he is enjoying it now because he is a bit older and a bit wiser.
“Guys who didn't get their card the first time around are under pressure. Padraig never had that problem. He won after 12 weeks. But even though he won, he has kicked on an awful lot. Did he surprise me? No. He has always been a determined little guy. You have to admire him. The guy kicked on, he worked very, very hard at it. But he is very privileged in that he had great support, a great family around him.
“Then Caroline came along and no golfer could ask for a better wife. He has a great team around him now from his manager Adrian Mitchell and Bob Torrance and Liam Hennessy his fitness coach and all the other guys he has helping him.”
The GUI helped Harrington too, of course, but it was his late father Paddy who was always there in the background. Not pushing, just helping. Those who knew him say that that was his way.
“Dad was a man who liked to be in the background,” says Tadhg, just days after his father’s second anniversary. “He helped Padraig with his practice, collected the practice balls and drove him around. But from the point of view of interfering, no. He would very much have approved of the memorial day in his name. He was very interested in youths golf. He’s have loved the idea of the golf scholarships in his name at Maynooth.”
A native of the Beara Peninsula, which extends fifty miles out into the Atlantic aîd forms the dividing line between Cork and Kerry, Paddy Harrington was born in the townland of Bawrs on the north side of the peninsula not far from the Kerry border.
According to an obituary penned by Bernie O’Sullivan: “He was one of a family of fifteen, ten boys and five girls, all athletic, sport loving and good humoured. Being an exact contemporary of his, I admired his athleticism and football ability from an early age. Having attended Rochestown College secondary school, he joined the Garda Siochana and was based in Dublin all his life.
“As a footballer he had a long and distinguished career. He played minor for Cork in ’51, junior in ’52 and played for the Cork Senior team from ’52 to ’62. He built a reputation as a lion-hearted half-back in a Cork team that won a National League in ’56 and contested All-Ireland finals in ’56 and ’57. He was chosen for Munster Railway-cup teams from ’58 to ’62 and played for Ireland v Combined Universities in ’57.
“Paddy enjoyed football and the harder the contest the better he liked it. I recall one game in particular, a rather physical league match against Kildare in ’56. Paddy revelled in the tough going, and as a reward for his man-of-match performance, the mother of one of the Kildare players gave him a wallop of her umbrella as he left the field. He didn’t retaliate, but turned to me with a big broad smile and said ‘Did you see that.’”
McDermott and Campbell are part of the generation that has been inspired by Harrington’s feats in Europe and around the world. And who is to say they won’t hit the big time.
After suffering some slights from a veteran professional early in his career, Harrington says he will never make the same mistake and judge anyone too harshly.
“David Feherty was a four handicapper when he turned pro,” he says. “Eamonn Darcy was a 19-handicapper. Different people take to the professional life. If they become comfortable and they like it, it’s a great life.
“If you are young free and single with no mortgage, playing professional golf is great. It’s got a lot more to do with your application rather than anything else.
“You look at Michael McDermott, he spent three months out in Arizona last winter playing tournament golf. The money he got here last year he spent playing three months out there.
“He played tournament golf and made seven out of his first eight cuts. That’s why he winning. You’ve got to get out there and learn. Go to Asia. Play, play, play. Some weeks they’ll be hating the game but the more they play like that the better they’ll understand it and get to grips with it.
“As for Mark, it will all come down to how much he enjoys being out there and feeling ‘this is great, competing week in, week out.’ I think the gap between an amateur and a pro is not as big as people make it out to be. There’s so many good amateurs who are well capable of being pros but don’t get close, while many average amateurs have become very good professionals. It’s all down to your self-confidence when you are out there in the big bad world.”
With Paddy Harrington looking down from above, they have nothing to fear.