Damien McGrane might not have won the KLM Open on Sunday but his professional trajectory continues to be an example to Ireland’s budding tour stars — the poster boy for those who bite the bullet and take the PGA pro’s route to the top.
Few are like Rory McIlroy or Graeme McDowell, players so talented they could earn their European Tour cards on invitations alone, making enough money in their first few starts (or winning in the case of McDowell) to earn their places in big circus.
Fewer still have McGrane’s ability to believe implicitly in their ability, set out a realistic plan and execute it as well as the Meath man has since he turned professional 21 years ago as another member of what he self-deprecatingly calls the Mars bar selling brigade.
At a time of year when youngsters are taking their first steps on the road to a new career, through university or the workplace, it’s worth remembering that not all tour stars began as plus five handicap wonderkids, signed up by agents while still in the amateur ranks. For every Jordan Spieth or McIlroy out there, there’s an Ian Poulter or Eamonn Darcy folding Pringle sweaters. McGrane is another member of that brotherhood who triumphed through sweat and tears.
There isn’t much glamour attached to the life of the PGA professional, but it was through that route that McGrane and English-born tour winner Simon Thornton eventually earned the chance to make a decent living and went on to achieve the dream of earning their tour spurs
McGrane’s career is especially interesting in that he was no boy wonder, getting his first handicap of 10 in 1986, when he was already 15 years old. Within two years he was the No 1 player in Headfort’s winning Provincial Towns Cup team and by 1988 he was crowned Irish Boys champion Birr, where he finished three strokes ahead of a promising youngster from Stackstown by the name of Pádraig Harrington.
Still there was no question of getting star-struck, even when he took Mark Gannon to the 20th in the quarterfinals of the Irish Close at Baltray in 1990. The real star that year was a big lad from Dungannon with streaks in his hair and a game to match - Darren Clarke - who went on to beat young Harrington 3 and 2 in the final.
While Clarke went on to turn professional the next year, joining Chubby Chandler, and Harrington became a three-time Walker Cup player and an accountant before eventually turning professional five years later, McGrane did things his way.
He was never going to be a flash ball-striker in the Clarke mold or even a Harrington so in 1991, having won a Irish international cap against Scotland at Youths level and captured the Kilkenny Scratch Cup and the Connacht Youths title, he became an assistant to Joey Purcell at Portmarnock.
There was to be no European Tour Qualifying School adventure for McGrane for another five years. His mission was to learn his trade, build up his confidence and see how good he could become.
“Know thyself”, the Greeks tells us. McGrane is the living embodiment of that code. He knows exactly what he’s capable of at all times, tries to be nobody else but himself and lives out his career as the ultimate pragmatist without necessarily giving up on the dreams that other more talented players might have abandoned long ago.
“I’ve known Damien a long time and I would always have put him down as a really strong competitor,” Harrington says. “He is probably the best role model out there for any pro going on tour. He is somebody that everyone can learn from.
“There are very few people who understand themselves as well as he does and have a better approach to what they do.”
One wonders if McIlroy gleaned anything from playing with McGrane in his first professional tournament at the Forest of Arden as a 16 year old in 2005 when he overdrove the Meath man by 40 yards but shot rounds of 82 and 81 to McGrane’s 72-77. McGrane went on to make €24,000 that week.
“He didn’t have his best day but he showed his class out there,” McGrane said at the time. “Golf is a funny game and tomorrow will be another day for Rory.”
Peerless as a grinder and a competitor, he established himself on tour through the PGA route, turning professional under Purcell in 1992, winning the Irish Assistants Championship in 1993 and 1994 before moving first to home and Headfort and eventually to Wexford, where he remained as club professional for eight years, combining forays onto the EuroPro and Challenge Tours with his PGA Irish Region career before finally breaking into the big time.
His story is not exactly a conservative one — he took his own chances and put his own livelihood at risk. But it is a story of perseverance and discipline.
As Joey Purcell recalls: “The fellows on the tour would have given their right arm to have the short game Damien had, even at age 17 and 18. Once you have that and you bring a half decent long game to it, it’s amazing what you can do.
“He was basically trying to get his qualifications as a club professional and work from there. He simply set his goals. I think he repeated his leaving, decided he wanted to become a club professional and qualified as that. Then he realised, as his game got better, that he might make it.
“Like everyone else, and I was no different, he had ambitions but times have changed and Damien deserves enormous credit for making it.”
McIlroy might be a major winner but one wonders what he might achieve if he had McGrane’s mental toughness.
“I always saw him as a dogged guy who never gives in,” Harrington says. “But he is far more than that. Way, way, past that.
“He fully understands what he is doing and he is a very experienced pro who fully recognises how to get the best performance out of himself. And this is where the credit lies, he would be ahead of 99 out of 100 pros in that department. You would struggle to find 100 pros who are as comfortable as he is.”
Career winnings of €4.6m do little justice to McGrane, the patron saint not just of Irish PGA pros, but those who root for the little guy in a big, bad world.
Rory’s wheelbarrow race
Rory McIlroy’s PGA Tour season might have been a nightmare almost from start to finish but there is much for the talented Holywood start to glean from the last two months of his competitive year.
Failing to win in the US or even qualify for the finale of the FedEx Cup series, this week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta, is an unmitigated disaster for the 24-year old and his big-money sponsors Nike.
But with seven events still to play when he returns from his four-week break in the Kolon Korea Open next month, there is still time to undo some of the damage.
Sorting out his off-course problems regarding management will be near the top of the agenda and while one suspects he has most of his new plans in place - pending the untangling of contractual ties with his previous management company - it may be next year before we see the unveiling of the new McIlroy empire.
The latter part of the season has been labelled the Wheelbarrow Race following Ernie Els off the cuff remark about taking advantage of what are essentially business opportunities for the big guns near the end of the year.
And while we would be surprised if McIlroy did not make several million dollars in appearances fees - his one-day exhibition with Tiger Woods at Mission Hills is an obvious case in point — he can use his last seven appearances of the year to sharpen his game for 2014.
Healy keeps his cash
Another 10 Irishmen will head to the European Tour Qualifying School in England and Germany this week but one Mayo man has decided to hang on to his hard-earned cash.
Claremorris’ Stephen Healy had planned to tee it up at Wychwood Park in Crewe alongside fellow amateurs Matt McAlpin and Dermot McElroy or professionals Paul Cutler, Alan Dunbar, David Jones, Ruaidhiri McGee and Colm Moriarty.
Instead Healy, who birdied the last three holes to win the 36-hole Galway Senior Scratch Cup from Eugene Smith last Saturday, has decided to save his cash for some serious winter practice and competition before reassessing his goals for 2014.
The 24- year old graduated from the Univeristy of Jacksonville in 2011, remained in the US for another year to work in finance before returning came home start of 2012. He was at a low ebb with his game at the time but reached the finals of the West of Ireland and South of Ireland Championships and decided to remain in Ireland for the 2013 season. It hasn’t quite worked out as he would have liked but as he continues to improve he is prepared to bide his time and lead the Q-School for another year.
As for Moriarty, and Fleesensee bound Niall Kearney, Cian McNamara and Simon Ward, all have won the South of Ireland championship at Lahinch, where Healy lost to Pat Murray in last year’s decider.
South East Alliance
You know winter is approaching when the correspondence from the golfing Alliances starts rolling into your inbox.
If you’re a keen golfer in the southeast you need to get in touch with Tim Murphy of the South East Alliance to get you name down for this winter’s 50th season, which features a nine-event schedule so far.
The action begins at Dungarvan Golf Club on October 13 and all professionals or amateurs with a handicap of five or less are welcome to join.
Most of the members hail from Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny but Tim informs us that they are open to players from the four corners of Ireland, “particularly up and coming young players.”
For more information contact secretary Milo Kavanagh on 086 278 7914 or the captain, TW Murphy on 086 352 1070.
South East Alliance fixtures: Oct 13 Dungarvan; Oct 27 Castlecomer; November 10 Waterford; November 24 Rosslare; December 15 New Ross; December 28 Bunclody; January 12 Kilkenny; January 26 Tramore; March 2 West Waterford.
Cups and Shields
Royal Tara was the scene of Padraig Harrington’s first great triumph - the 1988 Leinster Boys’ Championship.
But this week’s AIG sponsored All Ireland Cups and Shields Finals promises to be one of the highlights in the history of one of Ireland’s mot highly regarded parkland clubs.
From the Barton Shield and the Senior Cup to the Pierce Pierce Purcell Shield, the Junior Cup and the Jimmy Bruen Shield , it’s a four-day golfing festival that moves more than 500 golfers from 18 clubs - a huge boost to local business in Co Meath.
Cork and Co Sligo will be going for the Senior Cup and Barton Shield double but there will also be huge excitement amongst the members of the other 16 - Laytown & Bettystown, Rosapenna, Slieve Russell, Athlone, Castlecomer, Rosslare, Rossmore, Kilogram, Spanish Point, Tanager, Westport, Ballybunion, Clandeboye, Claremorris, Corrstown and Carton House.