Gareth’s amazing journey
 Ballyliffin's PGA professional, Gareth McCausland

Ballyliffin's PGA professional, Gareth McCausland

It’s a long way from Belfast’s Shankill Road to the breathtaking beauty of the Inishowen peninsula but for Ballyliffin’s head professional Gareth McCausland, the journey has been as much about people as geography.

If the club achieves its goal and the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open arrives at Ballyliffin over the next couple of years, McCausland will be at front of house doing what he loves most — meeting people and getting to know their stories.

Whether it is Darren Clarke practicing in the weeks prior to winning The Open at Sandwich, Rory McIlroy quietly shooting for his sponsors, just days after winning the US Open or simply the latest visitors from places as diverse as Sweden and the US, he’s there to make them welcome.

He’s also got a deeply human story of his own that speaks volumes, not just about a loyal servant and a life-threatening battle with cancer, but  also about the greatness of Ballyliffin as a club and the PGA as an organisation.

McCausland grew up on the Shankhill Road as a football fan and a self-confessed “petrol head”, leaving school at 16 to become a car body repair specialist with Lindsay Ford Motors.

 Ballyliffin's Gareth McCausland (Professional) and John Farren (General Manager) at the AIG Irish Amateur Close Championship at Ballyliffin Golf Club. (20/08/2016). Picture by Pat Cashman

Ballyliffin's Gareth McCausland (Professional) and John Farren (General Manager) at the AIG Irish Amateur Close Championship at Ballyliffin Golf Club. (20/08/2016). Picture by Pat Cashman

He didn’t swing a golf club until he was 15, learning the game at Cliftonville before improving to such at extent that he moved to Fortwilliam and ended up turned professional at the age of 19 when Chris Spence, the professional at Royal Belfast, took him for lessons and asked me to be his assistant.

“I was there for 18 months and then moved to Castlerock, which was a lovely place to be,” Gareth recalls as we look out over the magnificent 36 links holes at Ballyliffin in Co Donegal. 

“And I worked for Ian Blair for another year and a half and then got offered the job as an assistant professional here in Ballyliffin under John Dolan. 

“I worked for him for two years and was appointed as head pro here at the age of 24. So it was a nice journey to be appointed so soon.”

It’s certainly a long way from Belfast in 1993, when a nine year old McCausland was on the Shankill Road the day an IRA bomb exploded in Frizzell's fish shop, killing 10 people.

“I grew up through some of the Troubles and while it wasn’t as bad as it had been, it was still a rough place to be,” he recalls. “I was on the Shankill Road the day of the Shankill bomb and that’s something that will always live in my memory. 

“But when you are in Donegal, up here on the Inishowen peninsula, it is a completely different world.”

 Ballyliffin Golf Club, Co Donegal

Ballyliffin Golf Club, Co Donegal

He plans to marry in April next year and while he’s now living more than 100 miles from the hustle and bustle of Belfast, he could not be happier that he decided to become a professional golfer.

“Everyone back home is into football so to end up in Donegal as a golf pro was unusual,” he admits with a grin. “My Mum doesn’t play, my dad doesn’t play, my young brother is football crazy. 

“I was the first to take up the game and I have to thank Chris Spence, who was fantastic for me and still teaches me, even though he is out of golf now. 

“I never played much amateur golf because I took up the game so late and I don’t play much now because I am out injured.”

He hasn’t just had any injury either, having just overcome a major battle with cancer.

“I had two Carotid body tumours, which are meant to be benign, but I had one that turned out to be cancerous,” he explains. 

“The last PGA event I played was a Winter Series here in Ballyliffin in 2014. I came off the course and I had a sore neck and I said it to my girlfriend, Aisling Callaghan, who works here and went home to rest.

“When she came home three hours later, I had developed a large lump on my neck. 

 Ballyliffin Golf Club

Ballyliffin Golf Club

“One doctor told me I had the mumps, another told me I had a pulled muscle. So I went to see a specialist three or four days later and he worked out that something wasn’t right.

“I had both lumps removed 18 months ago. So we are back to almost full fitness and touch wood, next year I will be out playing some events in the Irish Region.

“I have to say the club were fantastic all the way though, backing me all the way and giving me all the time off I needed.

“I’ve a great general manager in John Farren and we’d always have a laugh about it because I took as little time off as I could, I love it here so much. 

“Even though I was having radiotherapy in Belfast, I used to jump on the bus on Monday morning, go down and get my radiotherapy and come back up for work on Friday at 12 o’clock and work all weekend. 

“I just love this place. This place is my passion and we are trying to push it forward as much as we can and spread the word.” 

In the Old Links and the Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock designed Glashedy Links, Ballyliffin has two courses ranked inside the top 20 in Ireland.

Add in the scenery and the people and Ballyliffin easily ranks in the top 10 for any aficionado who has made the trip to Ireland’s most northerly links.

“The 13th on Glashedy is my favourite spot,” he says, nodding out to sea. “Heading up that hill and then turning round to see Glashedy Rock, there’s no place you’d rather be. Everyone enjoys it here. 

“The lads who played in the Irish Amateur Close enjoyed it and the R&A really enjoyed it for the Boys Home Internationals. They said it could hold an Open Championship tomorrow. 

 Ballyliffin Golf Club

Ballyliffin Golf Club

“So we are hoping for the Irish Open in a few years and we are really pushing forward towards that. It’s a course that could challenge anyone.

"The run from the 16th to the 18th is special. Anyone who can play those last four in level par has done well. They’ve wrecked many a card. 

“Rory McIlroy comes up and Darren Clarke came twice before he won The Open. And they say it’s spectacular. So we need more people to come up and see how good it is and spread the word. 

“Our visitors come off the course and they want to go straight out again for another go. When you stand on that seventh tee on the Glashedy and look around and see everything, it’s just special.”

McCausland is the first person you will see when you arrive and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We get a lot of American tourists as well as Swedes, Australians… There is someone different here every day. And that’s what I love about being a golf pro.

“While I get a kick out of playing and really enjoy teaching, I love meeting and greeting all the different nationalities and hearing their stories. There is so much more to being a PGA pro that just playing your own game.”

Professionals likes McIlroy and Justin Rose were generous in their time when McCausland was ill and went out of their way to wish him well. 

As for the club and the PGA, he can’t say enough. 

“The help they gave me over the last two years when I was ill was beyond anything I have ever seen,” he says. “And I won’t hear a bad word said about the PGA.

“Guys came from all over to see me, even from the UK and they helped me out with my fees and called often to see what they could do. It’s a fantastic organisation that does more than people know.”

As a PGA pro, McCausland is much more than just a name on a sign about the shop door.

“It’s about meeting and greeting and about promoting the golf club,” he says. “After all, we work for the clubs, who are the members.”

With clubs and pros like this, the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open can’t possibly lose by heading for the beauty of the Inishowen peninsula, sooner rather than later.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent's Thursday "Tee to Green" supplement on September 15.