Michael Hoey was battling for his livelihood at the European Tour’s Qualifying School this week but the five-time winner has backed Paul McGinley’s call for financial backing to help players make the transition from the amateur to the professional game.
McGinley spoke in the Sunday Independent about the “black hole” that everyone in Irish amateur and professional golf has been talking about for the past five years — the huge numbers of Irish players failing to make the leap into the pro game and the lack of support for them once they fly the amateur nest.
While Ireland continues to produce good amateur players, the lack of strength in depth in terms of numbers on tour is masked by the success of the stars like Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell and stalwarts such as McGinley, Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington.
Take PGA Tour players McIlroy, Lowry and Seamus Power out of the equation and bar a successful day for Gary Hurley at Q-School today [neither made it], Paul Dunne will be the only Irish player under 30 with a European Tour card.
“There is a lot of talk about our system — and the GUI does a fabulous job — but there is a big, black hole in the Irish system when they turn pro,” McGinley said last week.
In 1996, three Frenchmen had full European Tour cards compared to 11 Irishmen. This year, 10 French players finished in the Top 110 in the Race to Dubai compared to just five from the island of Ireland.
Hoey believes the Federation based system, whereby one body looks after professional and amateur golf, is far superior to the Irish model, where the GUI and ILGU look after amateur golf only and stop taking care of players once they turn professional.
“My view is that there are so many good young French players, so many good young Spanish players and they are really overtaking us,” Hoey said at PGA Catalunya this week.
“The tip of the iceberg in Irish golf is looks impressive but there is no depth underneath, no substance, compared to the other nations.
“We have Shane, Harrington, Rory and GMac. But look how many second tier French guys there are on the Race to Dubai - Alex Levy, Greg Bourdy, Romain Wattel, Victor Dubuisson, Romain Langasque and all the guys coming through.
“It’s the federation systems that are proving to be a better system. If me or Gary Hurley don’t get cards this week, Paul Dunne is the only guy playing European Tour next year apart from say, Harrington. The others are all in the US.
“To have one guy compared to seven or eight for France is crazy. Are you telling me the talent wasn’t always better from Ireland than from France?
“The French Federation has coaches that have worked with the amateurs and the pros for years and the amateurs will listen to them more because they have been out on tour a lot more.
“It’s about not feeling you are cut off. And it is not just technical information. It’s being able to play with the Harringtons and Shane Lowrys and all the top guys more often.
“Those young French guys get to play with Raphael Jacquelin all the time and the Spanish guys do the same with their experienced players. It’s mixed.
“With the Irish system, you are more isolated from the top players. So if they get to play with top pros and they are all together, everyone will get better We are lagging behind big time.”
Hoey points to having backroom help from players who work with the top tour players such as Shane Lowry’s strength and conditioning coach Robbie Cannon or Harrington’s chiropractor, Shane Lawlor, as key.
“A guy like Robbie Cannon has written me some great programmes and Shane Lawlor an elite sports chiropractor that should be talking to the GUI and the amateur players regularly because he works with Pádraig and Shane too
“So much is mental as well as physical. So how you train and live your life is key.
“Ireland will always produce the superstars like Rory but we might only have one or two guys on tour next year and talent wise, we should have 10.”
McGinley came away the Rio Olympics believing it’s now key that Ireland quickly bridges the gap between the amateur game and the elite ranks.
Speaking last week, McGinley said: “One of things I highlighted post Olympics was that Sport Ireland — not the GUI because it is not their responsibility— but Sport Ireland needs to embrace those guys who turn pro and provide them with an organisational figure head.
“What happens is they lose that security blanket of being involved with the Irish team and everything being paid for and organised for them. Then they go into the big bad world of professional golf and it is different.
“We need to get funding for it to help those 30 or 40 guys who are there on the mini tours or coming on and off tours. They just need a person or a body to oversee things and help them through life and prepare them for professional golf. It is not me. I am too busy. But I have a couple of people in mind that will be good at it.
“From an Irish perspective, we need a go-to person to help the young guys who just turn professional — a wise old head that can talk you through, not just the challenges of being a professional golfer but the challenges of life as a professional athlete. That’s the kind of role that I see needs to be filled.”
People like the PGA’s Coach Education and Development Manager for Ireland, Jussi Pitkanen, and former tour player Damien McGrane have a huge interest in helping.
Pitkanen wrote a Masters thesis on the subject and spoke to people like David Nucifora from the IRFU about the reasons other nations are stealing a march on on.
Pitkanen points out how Nucifora argued that Irish rugby players might be a little bit too old coming out of the Academy system into full time professional rugby and how young tour players like Sweden’s Marcus Kinhult and Italian Renato Paratore “have been working towards a career as a pro since their mid to late teens and been going to tour school since they were 17.”
Pitkanen added: “The phrase that was used, and which I found interesting, was that ‘tradition can be a handbrake’.”
McGinley added: “We have a mine of information from guys who have been through all the processes and we need to harvest that information and put it in a constructive, cohesive body and import the information to the guys coming through.
“We need funding for it. We are doing great but we could do with the funding to help Sport Ireland fund a body to help these guys and girls too.”