Thornton facing tough test following family loss

Simon Thornton will respect his father’s dying wishes by chasing his European Tour dream in South Africa.

The former Royal County Down assistant, 32, lost his father Steve after short illness on Saturday.

But he has decided to make the long trip south and tee it up in this week’s Africa Open at East London Golf Club and next week’s Joburg Open as a tribute to his dad before flying back for the funeral.

Thornton said: “It was pretty sudden and unexpected. He had a stroke a couple of days after Christmas and a heart attack in the hospital. 

“In hospital, he couldn’t talk at all. All he could do was squeeze your hand.  We think he could hear and understand but he couldn’t do anything except indicate yes or no.

“I asked him whether I should go to South Africa or not and he squeezed my hand to say yes. So I am doing it for that more so than for the sake of the golf.”

Huddersfield native Thornton, who now plays for Ireland, achieved his golfing dream when he grabbed his European Tour card at last December’s Qualifying School in Spain.

But he’s facing an uphill battle to survive on tour as he’s unlikely to get more than 18 starts because of his membership category.

It’s crucial to take advantage of every event but Thornton knows that he it will be tough to concentrate on golf over the next two weeks.

He said: “Everything has been a bit of a muddle and I haven’t been great to be honest. Being on the golf course will be different.

“It is the time in between rounds that I will find hard. When you are on the course you just have to hit the ball, find it and hit it again. 

“To be honest, what I do and how I play in South Africa is irrelevant. I am just doing it because of I think my dad wanted me to go.”

Thornton has made a fairytale journey from assistant professional at Royal County Down to European Tour player in the space of just five years.

He was playing off a seven handicap just 12 years ago but made the Challenge Tour last year and then earned his card on just his second trip to the Qualifying School.

Thornton is one of five Irish players in action at East London and is joined by Michael Hoey and Darren Clarke, who finished just a shot behind winner Retief Goosen in the inaugural Africa Open 12 months ago.

Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney will make his European Tour debut in the €1m event on a sponsor’s invitation as he waits for the Challenge Tour season to begin in April.

Kilkenny’s Gary Murphy completes the Irish quintet of challengers.