All grown up — Kearney prepared for the next step
Niall Kearney, pictured with his parents in Turkey following his win in the Titleist PGA Playoffs last year. 

Niall Kearney, pictured with his parents in Turkey following his win in the Titleist PGA Playoffs last year. 

"Niall, howaye." 


"Fajar. Hi." 

"Play well."

That's the scene awaiting Raheny's Niall Kearney on the 10th tee at Royale Jakarta Golf Club in the early hours today when he tees it up with Japan's Konosuke Nakazato and Indonesia's Fajar Winuryanto in the first round of the Asian Tour's CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters Presented by Enjoy Jakarta Golf.

The Dubliner could be in Madrid, where the Challenge Tour resumed on Wednesday. Instead, he's 17 hours east of the Spanish capital hoping to get his Asian Tour season off to a positive start. Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn are the headliners. Kearney is the tall lad on the undercard, hoping to land a knockout blow somewhere along the line.

After a few false starts in the far east, Kearney won his Asian Tour card last December, finishing tied for 27th at the Q-School. Twelve months earlier he had his card in the palm of his hand but finished, as tour players sometimes joke, in an ambulance. It's part of the journey.

It feels as though an eternity has passed since Kearney teed it up in the Walker Cup at Merion in 2009 and won two of his four matches against a USA side that featured the likes of PGA Tour winners Brian Harman, Peter Uihlein and Rickie Fowler.

Fast forward more than five years and the 27-year old Dubliner is only now coming to grips with what it means to be a professional golfer. While some take to the professional game like ducks to water, winning their cards in double quick time like the Fowlers and Rory McIlroys of the world, others mature at a different pace and so it has proved for the pride of Royal Dublin.

Now a far more confident and eloquent golfer than the lanky 21-year who brilliantly won his Challenge Tour card at the first attempt at the end of 2009, Kearney begins the 2015 season with a wealth of opportunities ahead of him.

Not only is he the reigning Irish Professional champion following his victory at Adare Manor Golf Club last year, his win in the Titleist PGA Play-offs in Turkey at the end of last season secure his place in this year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth as well as the continent’s best Challenge Tour events.

Niall Kearney during the 2009 Walker Cup

Niall Kearney during the 2009 Walker Cup

Add to that the fact that the man from Raheny clinched his Asian Tour card at January’s Q-School and it’s clear he won’t lack for playing opportunities. And while it won’t be easy to combine appearances on the Challenge Tour and the Asian Tour with forays onto the PGA Irish Region circuit as well as the main European Tour, Kearney believes he’s got the mental strength now to cope with the challenge.

He’s certainly more wary than ever of discouraging anyone from chasing their tour dreams, no matter how ambitious they might seem to those observing from afar.

“It’s not wise to say anything,” he says on the temptation to criticise someone’s dreams of glory on the pro tour. “If someone has the dream to go and give the pro ranks a shot, then he or she has every right to do it. You never want to tread on someone’s dream but at the same time it’s good to let people know that there is a a lot of difficulty involved — apart from the standard of golf, which is super high. 

“It’s everything associated with the lifestyle of being a pro golfer. There’s the travel and living in hotels and out of a suitcase. Getting last minute calls for tournaments. The cost. It’s tough and you have to be ready for a lonely lifestyle to a certain extent, especially young guys heading out. 

“I was 21-22 years of age when I found myself heading off to Colombia for my first events on the Challenge Tour. Colombia is a scary part of the world. But I enjoyed it and I learned from it.”

Kearney’s biggest achievement was realising quickly what he had to do to bring his game up to scratch and the input of club maker Derek Murray and PGA coach John Kelly have been key.

“My golf a few years ago was at amateur level and nowhere near the level it had to be at to compete on the Challenge Tour,” he says. “Guys don’t realise that and it has taken a lot of work and a lot of practice with various pros in the background to get to a level where I can compete. I am only getting there now and it is 2015 — my sixth year as a pro. 

“What has improved? It’s probably a combination everything — driving, iron play, the mental game, putting, strategy — I am just more consistent. One of the toughest things I find about professional golf is shooting a good score four days in a row. That’s difficult. I have always been able to put two rounds together or three rounds together. But I’d slip up somewhere along the way and that would throw you down the leaderboard big time.”

A quick look at Kearney’s results shows how much he has improved since he came back from a series of injuries that hampered his early progress.

If someone has the dream to go and give the pro ranks a shot, then he or she has every right to do it. You never want to tread on someone’s dream but at the same time it’s good to let people know that there is a a lot of difficulty involved — apart from the standard of golf, which is super high.
— Niall Kearney, professional golfer

Having missed 13 of 23 cuts in his first full season as a professional in 2010, he’s missed just nine of 27 since then and topped the Order of Merit on the Irish Region’s circuit in his weeks off, winning last year’s Irish PGA in style at Adare Manor Golf Club. 

“I think I have just been much more consistent the last 18 months or so and that’s been hugely beneficial,” he says. “The Challenge Tour is a wonderful tour for learning your trade and you only have to look at the number of Challenge Tour players who have had success on the European Tour recently to see that it’s a good training ground.

“Gary Stal won in Abu Dhabi and he was on the Challenge Tour recently, as was Thomas Pieters. The stats show that guys who get promoted from the Challenge Tour go on to do very well on the main stage so that possibly shows that there’s not that much a difference between the Challenge Tour and the main tour. I don’t know because I haven’t experienced the main tour enough, but as far as I can see, guys tend to do well on the European Tour straight away.” 

With the Irish Professional Championship trophy in 2014

With the Irish Professional Championship trophy in 2014

While the 2009 USA Ryder Cup team that beat GB&I 16½-9½ featured some names who are now familiar to every golf fan with a Sky Sports subscription — Uihlein was the 2013 Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year in Europe while Harman and Fowler have won on the PGA Tour — only Tommy Fleetwood has won on the main European Tour from the GB&I side.

His amateur career marked him out as a special talent.

As a 16-year old he was selected by Butch Harmon to attend a week of tuition at the Harmon School of Golf in Texas and he went on to win international caps at every level for Ireland as well as captaining the GB & I Boys Team at the Jacque Leglise Trophy in 2006. 

He won the Nassau Invitational win in 2007 and the South of Ireland title at Lahinch in 2008 before staking his claiming to a Walker Cup spot in 2009 by winning the Brabazon Trophy.

He won two points out of four in what was a heavy Waker Cup defeat at Merion, turned professional and made the cut at the European Tour Q-School, earning a Challenge Tour card for 2010.

Since then it’s been a tough battle for survival that’s brought a total of three visits to the final stage of Q-School but no card.

The Challenge Tour has proved to be a tough training ground for the Dubliner but he insists he’s slowly learning his trade having finished inside the Top 100 in the Rankings in 2014 despite playing just 11 events.

Winning the Irish PGA meant his name was on the trophy alongside those of tour legends Christy O’Connor, Harry Bradshaw, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Des Smyth, to name just five.

“It was only when I got the trophy and started looking at the names that I realised what a fantastic event it was to win,” he says with a chuckle.

Living up to those names will take something special but Kearney is happy to do things his way and wait for the results to come.

Niall Kearney with the Brabazon Trophy

“I am good in my own company, which is a huge asset for the lifestyle, so I am lucky in that sense,” he says of life on the road. “The Challenge Tour is strange in that everyone tends to get on with their business and do their own thing and that suits me.”

Graduating from the Challenge Tour is the next goal and thanks to the extra starts he will get for winning the Titleist PGA Play-offs, Kearney hopes to get 15 or 16 starts this year.

He’ll also represent GB&I in the PGA Cup match against the USA — a Ryder Cup style encounter — scheduled for CordeValle Golf Club in California from September 18-20.

And he’s certainly grateful he’s been able to fill out his schedule by making appearances on the Irish circuit in recent seasons.

“The Region has been great,” he says. “By Challenge Tour status has been okay but I have had plenty of time off during the year and the PGA Region was somewhere I could go and play and stay sharp and meet guys wouldn’t have met before — professionals and amateurs — and build those kids of relationships. It has been positive from lots of different angles and I have really enjoyed being a member of the region. 

“I wouldn’t say the PGA training is on the radar for the me in the short term but I wouldn’t rule it out for the future. Obviously I am trying to make a career playing at the moment and working with a PGA Pro like John Kelly full-time for the last few years, I feel my game has gone from strength to strength.

“I have been very consistent the Challenge Tour for the last two years. Okay, it’s been slow progress but it’s progress all the same. 

“The goal now is to produce wins because consistency doesn’t get rewarded on the Challenge Tour. Of my last 18 events I’ve made 16 cuts but finishing 25th or 35th or 45th is worth nothing to you in the Order of Merit. You need to be winning or picking up cheques for €25,000 to be progressing because the standard is super tough and there are new guys coming on every year and they’re better than the guys who are already there.

“It is tough but I enjoy it, even though it is very expensive to play. Just making cuts and finishing 30th and 40th, you are just about covering yourself. It’s a tough atmosphere to be involved in but it is a great learning experience as well. 

“Playing a lot on the Challenge Tour tends to make you more experienced. You learn things week in, week out. It is not so much that you become a much better player, you just become so much smarter about your game. Your strategy changes. 

“Early on in my career it was all about making the cut. Now it is all about how I can compete to win the tournament. A lot of it is just down to good strategy, good short game. Everything else just falls into place.”

A Team Ireland grant has helped Kearney live his dream and a fundraiser at Royal Dublin also made a big difference.

“Anything I win goes back into the pot,” he says.

And with that he was off to practice and continue his relentless quest to be as good as he can be.