Shane Lowry might be the poster boy for Irish amateurs hoping to make their tour dreams come true but they would do well to speak to former Walker Cup star and Challenge Tour winner Colm Moriarty about the harsh realities of tour life.
For the time being at least, the 33-year old Athlone man has decided to step away from the professional game after nine frustrating years unsuccessfully chasing the Holy Grail of a European Tour card.
While five Irishmen will begin their bids for the American Dream at the first stage of the US PGA Tour Qualifying School today - Seamus Power, Stephen Grant, Chris Devlin, Mark Murphy and Fergal Rafferty - Moriarty has taken the heart-rending decision to put his clubs and his suitcases away for the “foreseeable future.”
Ranked 126th on the Challenge Tour this year, a long way from the top-20 who will earn promotion to the main tour next season, the 2003 Walker Cup winner and 2007 Wales Challenge victor decided to withdraw his entry for the first stage of the European Tour Qualifying School a few weeks ago. It would have been his 12th attempt as an amateur or professional
“For whatever reason over the last eight or nine years I haven’t felt I have come close to fulfilling my potential,” Moriarty said of his decision to step away from the professional game for the time being. “It’s a hard thing to do having been at it from a long time but having spoken to a few more experienced players than myself and some tour players I thought it was the best thing to do.
“I have showed glimpses of what I can do in some bigger tournaments but unfortunately I was never able to nail down a decent card or break through and get established, and that has obviously has been quite frustrating.
“I just think I have to step back for a while and reassess. Maybe I will come back stronger. I don’t know. I have no immediate plans, which may be hard to believe.
“I suppose you can get institutionalised out on tour to a certain degree and there is a lot of other stuff going on in the world, good and bad, apart from golf.
“I’ve been travelling a lot so it is just nice to get away from it and freshen things up and see what else is going on in the world apart from thinking and worrying about tournament golf, week in, week out.
“I suppose it is a difficult decision but I have been a pro for eight or nine years and a full time amateur before that so that’s 15 years. I am still just 33 which is young enough in golf terms but I feel I will be stronger and better when I do return.”
Moriarty was a plus five handicapper when he turned professional on the back of a winning Walker Cup appearance alongside Noel Fox at Ganton in 2003.
He quickly established himself on the Challenge Tour, finishing second to the now reinstated amateur Stephen Browne in the Kazakhstan Open in 2005 before winning the Wales Challenge in 2007.
He finished 13th in the Irish Open in 2005 and 19th in 2006 and even qualified for the British Open at St Andrews in 2010, playing alongside eventual champion Louis Oosthuizen for the first two rounds before going on to tie for 37th place with the likes of Lowry, Ross Fisher, Hunter Mahan and Vijay Singh.
“There are no excuses,” Moriarty said. “Golf is a cruel game but it is the fairest game going too. Obviously Shane is a great player. To do what he did, win the Irish Open as an amateur takes serious talent and a little something else, that X factor. You can look at guys on the range and say he looks great and he doesn’t but at the end of the day the results are what matters.
“I just have to step back and get away from it, see where I was going wrong or going right and think about what was holding me back. I just feel this is the right move.”
Moriarty is grateful to the Team Ireland Golf Trust and Glasson’s Tom Reid for the sponsorship help he has received over the years.
But he believes what Ireland’s budding tour stars badly need is a Challenge Tour event in Ireland and the accompanying invitations for Irish players to events on the second tier circuit around Europe.
“I think I was the only Irish player on the Challenge Tour this year,” he said. “It is so important to have a Challenge Tour event in Ireland for the guys coming through. It is massive. If we had had a Challenge Tour event in Ireland this year, the likes of Paul Cutler would have played eight times on the Challenge Tour. And not just Paul but Niall Kearney and Cian Curley and all the other lads.
“Eight events on the Challenge Tour at least gives you a chance to progress. Otherwise you are totally reliant on the Q-School. Even finishing in the top five on the money list on the mini tours such as the Europro Tour, you are really only getting an average card.
“The importance of having a Challenge Tour event in Ireland is huge for the guys trying to break through.”
The Challenge of Ireland ran for five years from 2005 to 2009 thanks to funding from the Irish Sports Council, Failte Ireland, the European Tour and venues such as Killarney, Glasson and Moyvalley.
With the Irish Open struggling to survive and with sponsorship non-existent, the event disappeared with no prospect of a return in the short-term future.
No fewer than 34 Irish players entered the first stage of the European Tour Qualifying School with several others already exempt for Stage Two. How many eventually take their places remains to be seen but if one or two eventually make it, it will have been a bumper year.
Moriarty advises our young players to trust their games but not to turn professional unless they are amongst the top amateurs in Ireland and Britain.
“I don’t think I’d go about things that much differently myself,” he said. “Maybe when I turned pro I could have trusted the game that got me to that level. I maybe tried to improve and change too many things when I turned pro.
“I suppose for the young lads, the thing is that you do have to be pretty good. Very few even break onto the Challenge Tour, the standard is very very good. You’d want to be playing for Britain and Ireland or playing Walker Cup and really be one of the best amateurs in GB&I.”
I mention Walker Cup star Paul Cutler, who has missed out at the first stage of Q-School for the past two seasons.
“There is more to it than just being a decent amateur in Ireland,” Moriary said. “You do need to get the breaks early on and Paul was a very good amateur and a great player but you miss out at the first stage of the Q-School and you are left with nothing.
“My first year I got to the finals of the Q-School and made the cut and got straight on the Challenge Tour. The margins are so small, a shot here and there. It is so hard to get onto the Challenge Tour and that’s what makes it so difficult for the guys coming through.
“I finished in the 30s in the Challenge Tour rankings two or three times and missed out at the School by a couple of shots in 2007. Then in my first year, I lipped out on the final hole with a 40 footer in Kazakhstan Open and finished second to Stephen Browne. If I had won that tournament I would have got my card. That’s why I say the margins are so fine.”
Even those with tour cards are dealing with the tough economic realities of the modern day European Tour and the cancellation of the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama this week means that those in danger of losing their cards have been forced to head to Australia for the ISPS HANDA Perth International at Lake Karrinyup Country Club.
The event is co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour of Australasia but Ballyclare’s Gareth Maybin, ranked 106th of the top 115 who will retain their cards at the end of the season, is the only Irish player making the long trip ‘Down Under.’
The rest of the tour’s big guns will reassemble in Shanghai next week for the inaugural $7m BMW Masters at Lake Malaren, where Rory McIlroy lifted the unofficial Shanghai Masters last year.
He will be joined in the 78-man field by Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Michael Hoey and Portugal Masters winner Lowry.