McNeill still living the dream

By Brian Keogh

Nearly five years ago Gavin McNeill thought life was a dream.

The 2001 Irish Close champion had turned professional, travelled half way round the world to play on South Africa's Sunshine Tour and earned nearly €7,000 in just his second event in the paid ranks.

Like Padraig Harrington, who had earned £1,865 in just his first professional start in South Africa in 1996, McNeill thought they were giving money away.

Nowadays, McNeill is on the night shift pouring metal for turbo chargers at Honeywell International in his native Waterford and the only cut that matters is the slice of his pay cheque that he pays back the credit card company every month.

For every Padraig Harrington, there are another thousand Gavin McNeills. But the fair-haired Munster lad with the freckled complexion still believes he can make his dream a reality again.

Working three shifts a week at Honeywell, McNeill has paid off a huge chunk of the €20,000 credit card bill he ran up as easily as triple bogey.

They're a great company to work for, he says. The people are lovely and the pay is good. But it's a long way from the adrenaline buzz of professional golf, battling Mark McNulty down the stretch at the Wild Coast Sun Country Club.

McNeill is transported back to the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape province, where the Indian Ocean breeze wafts across the Cynodon-seeded fairways and Paspalum greens.

Only he's standing in the rain outside the Glasson Golf Hotel and Country Club in Athlone, still owes the credit card company a tidy sum and has yet to miss the cut by five shots in the Challenge of Ireland.

Reflecting on his golfing journey, he said: "I won the Close in 2001. Beat Stephen Browne on the 20th in the final at Rosses Point. It seems like a lifetime ago.

"I am 29 now and I turned pro in December 2002. So the first thing I did was go down to South Africa and I finished second in my very first event and I thought, this is pretty easy. That event was the Nashua Masters at Wild Coast Sun Country Club in November 2002.

"I came through a qualifier at Centurion and finished just two shots behind Hennie Otto, who I played with on the last day. In the end I tied for second with Ciaran McMonagle, Roger Wessels and Mark McNulty. I thought, this is great.

"Then I missed the next two cuts in a row by a shot a I got a bit set back. I was playing okay but I struggled with my short game and putting."

Nothing much happened for McNeill on the Sunshine Tour after that. Good times were had but the bills mounted.

After a couple of lean winters, he took his trade the PGA Europro Tour but things didn't improve at all. They got worse.

Between 2003 and 2005 he played 29 events on the third tier tour, made 10 cuts and spent a lot more than the €7,600 he banked in prize money.

He explained: "It was big eye opener when I went to the Europro Tour. It was so expensive to play and I was running up a nice little bill.

"So I decided to take a year off, do some work to pay off the bills and try and throw some money in the bank to be able to play golf again.

"It hasn't killed my desire to play golf at all. In fact, it has probably made me more determined to come back out and make it.

"The fact that I was so much in debt in a very short time and was able to get myself out of it has made me more hungry.

"I have to admit that I miss it. I miss the lads and I miss travelling. I gave it all up at the start of 2006 and halfway through the summer I decided to pay off the bills.

"A job came up and it is a well paid job in the town, pouring metal at Honeywell. Plus I get so much time off. I work three shifts and can go up to the golf club after working nights and I can start at six in the morning.

"I can do three hours practice and play with a few lads with low handicaps . Get up the following morning not feeling too bad and then head back into work that night.

"So I was able to play and sharpen up my game that way, playing once or twice a week."

But what went wrong? What was he difference between finishing tied for second with a hardened professional like McNulty and scratching around on the Europro Tour?

Sheltering from the wind blowing off Lough Ree down at Glasson, he said: "I just wasn't holing 15 or 20 footers - it wasn't the short ones. My short iron play wasn't good enough and I was leaving myself 20 feet for birdie when the average for that would be far lower.

"So I have been working on my putting and wedge play and I feel that I am close to being ready to give it another go.

"The mini tours don't bother me. Look at Gary Murphy, he spent a long time on mini tours learning to play.

"I look at the other Irish lads I grew up playing with and I think, if they can do it, why can't I?

"Colm Moriarty and Michael Hoey have won on the Challenge Tour this year, which is a great performance. And Stephen Browne has done very well too, keeping his card on the Challenge Tour.

"David Higgins is starting to play well again. I look at them and I say to myself, if they can do it, why can't I?

"I didn't go to college after school. I was going to go to college in America and I was 50-50 about it. Graeme McDowell went over and came back a 100 percent improved player whereas other guys came back and didn't improve as much. So I decided not to go through with it."

McNeill went out and carded a two-under par 70 in the first round of the Challenge of Ireland - only good enough for a share of 17th place that evening as a little Frenchman called Michael Lorenzo-Vera hit a course record 63.

He'd beaten Hoey by four shots and Browne by three but a second round 82 brought him down to earth with a bump.

Welcome to the jungle. Now the question remains, will McNeill have the courage to get back out there and roar again.

Considering the effort he has put into his dream so far, that answer has to be a resounding 'Yes'.