John Garner: "Kids don't appreciate what's being given to them - but they did in those days"

PGA Master professional John Garner at the Manukorihi Golf Club in Taranaki, New Zealand.Former Ryder Cup player John Garner, the Golfing Union of Ireland’s first National Coach, has been awarded the PGA’s highest accolade of Master Professional in the year when two of his former pupils are vying for the European captaincy.

The 65-year old, a member of the 1971 and 1973 Ryder Cup teams and a winner on both the European Tour and European Senior Tour, joins an elite band of PGA Master Professionals across the world including John Jacobs, David Leadbetter and Pete Cowen, who also worked for the GUI for a short spell.

“I am absolutely thrilled and delighted to get the honour,” said Garner, who has lived in New Zealand since 2004.  “I am very proud to be a PGA professional golfer, wearing many hats along the way on a world tour of golf courses meeting many different people.

“I hope that in some small way I have made a difference to many lives, particularly youngsters, in playing just one shot better.”

Those youngsters included Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, who were members of the Irish national squad when Garner was appointed by the GUI as Ireland’s first national coach in 1983.

It’s a job he remembers fondly - and in great detail.

“It was one of the best jobs I ever had because the lads were great,” Garner said last year when we spoke on the phone following Clarke’s memorable 2011 Open win at Royal St George’s. “They were keen to learn, keen to practice and they had a great attitude, which is different to this modern age.

“I find that the kids don’t appreciate what is being given to them. But they did in those days. People like Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Eoghan O’Connell, they were just so keen to learn.

“I had three bases, one in Malone, second one in Dublin and the third in Ballybunion and then in Mallow. I’d arrive on Friday night and we’d have two days of good days of practice. So I was teaching them from November to March…

“Darren was always a powerful boy and he had more of a natural swing than anybody. Straight away you could see the potential. I won’t kid you and saw I could see he would go on to win the Open Championship but he had more than a chance than some other boys with different types of swings.

“His dad wanted him to play rugby for Ireland but Darren got the bug for golf when he was a teenager. He always had that potential. I remember arriving at Malone and it was under six inches of snow and the boys asked me if they were playing snooker that day.

“But I said ‘No, no. Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ I got six boys on one side and six on the other side of the practice ground, 100 yards apart and they scraped the snow away to give themselves a square metre of grass and they belted the balls down one end where the other guys picked them up and belted them back again. Nobody ever complained.”

Garner was forced to give up the Ireland job when he fell ill with leukaemia in late 1980’s and was succeeded by David Jones, briefly, and then Howard Bennett. But he recalls how delighted his squad was to take advantage of coaching at a time when Ireland was still riven by sectarian violence.

“The boys were brought up in hard times with the bombings in Belfast and the Provisional IRA and the rest. They had friends who were killed, or shot or blown up and they had to live with it. That’s why I believe they appreciated being able to play golf even more. The Malone clubhouse was blown up a couple of times. These things give you perspective and make you appreciate what you’ve got.”

As for Clarke and McGinley, he remembers them fondly and still looks out for their idiosyncrasies when he sees them on TV.

“Darren’s great strength was his determination and his dedication. Lots of people have skill, but don’t carry it through. We’d hit a thousand balls and Darren would be the first to pick up a bucket and pick them up and start belting them again. He always wanted to do a bit extra.”

While both Clarke and McGinley are the leading contenders for the 2014 Ryder Cup candidacy, Garner simply remembers them as young amateurs and, later, fledgling professionals.

“Paul would be a good Ryder Cup captain because he is passionate about the game, just as Darren Clarke is,” Garner said. “He always had a long left thumb. I was always trying to get his left thumb shorter on the grip. I always watched the boys on TV and looking for same idiosyncrasies they had when they were youngster and I don’t think Paul has ever changed his swing very much.

“If he keeps his left thumb a bit shorter, he might even get back on the Ryder Cup team as a player! Paul used to push his left thumb down the grip on the shaft and that can lead to looseness and lead to loss of grip on the backswing and loss of complete control of the clubface.

“So I was always trying to get him to move his left thumb a little higher so his fingers gripped the club. When you push the left thumb down, you grip it in your palm. But you don’t feel the club in your palm, you feel it in your fingers.

“So by pushing the thumb back up, it brings the three fingers - the you little finger, your ring finger and your middle finger - back on the grip so you have got control. So whenever I see Paul McGinley on TV, I look at his left hand and his grip to see that his thumb is short on the grip. The ball of your thumb traps the grip so you have a firmness and you control the clubface.

“Nex time you see Paul, ask him if he has a short left thumb. As a point of interest, Darren has the most beautiful grip and always did. Paul also has good hands but that left thumb, if it starts to get too long down the shaft, that leads to looseness and that was his one little weakness.” 

Now the teaching professional at Manukorihi Golf Club in Taranaki, New Zealand, Garner recalled: “After I was national coach to Ireland and I had recovered from the leukaemia, I worked as coach to Iceland from ‘89 until I joined the Seniors Tour in 1996. Then I went back teaching in 2001-2 and married an Icelandic lady, Svala, in 2004.

“It was too cold a climate to live in for me and I later got a bad case of arthritis in my knees and joints. So one day, I said let’s go somewhere warmer. She suggested New Zealand so we came over and I build a three-bay driving range to carry on teaching and I teach the people exactly the same as I taught Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley all those years ago.”

Garner is one of a number of PGA professionals recognised by the Accreditation for Professional Achievement and Learning (APAL) Council.

Sarah Claridge (Kendleshire Golf Club), David Haines (Brean Golf Club ), Richard Harrison (Roehampton Club), Lee Scarbrow (John O’Gaunt Golf Club) and Mark Tibbles (Mark Tibbles Golf Academy) have been made PGA Fellow Professionals.

The APAL Council also awarded PGA Advanced Professional status to Kevin Caplehorn (Paultons GC), Jamie Cundy (Wast Hills Golf Centre), Jon Jones (LGi Fairways Driving Range), Matthew Masters (Porters Park Golf Club), Nick Solski (Superior Golf), Ian Stafford (Innishannon Golf, Co Cork), Craig Thomas (The Golf Academy). Advanced Diploma recipients were Neil Moore (Rudding Park Golf Academy) and Carla White (Sycamores Golf Centre).