Hello, Mr Chips: James Quinlivan's Mullingar journey

Hello, Mr Chips: James Quinlivan's Mullingar journey
James Quinlivan in his shop at Mullingar Golf Club

James Quinlivan in his shop at Mullingar Golf Club

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's Thursday, Tee to Green supplement on 13 July 2016.

It was 9pm before James Quinlivan had time to chat, so busy is the daily life of the club professional in summer.

“You’re a bit like a squirrel,” the 30-year old said of his new role as Mullingar’s head professional. “I know from experience that golf can be quiet in the winter in Ireland, so you have to work hard in the summer.”

The uninitiated might think that the professional golfer’s life revolves around sleek private jets, fat endorsements and six figure cheques but for your average club pro, it’s a battle to remain busy, motivated and economically viable.

With nearly 1,000 members to look after, Quinlivan is never short of things to do at the club where he learned the game watching the annual Scratch Cup and even competing in it agains the likes of Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry.

As a golfer, his amateur career was curtailed at a crucial stage by a cruciate knee ligament injury and so coaching became his outlet. 

He firmly believes it’s important to be as good a player as he can be for the benefit of his students and while he’d love to play more, last year’s joint runner up finish in the Irish Professional Championship proves he’s got plenty of game and lots of wins ahead.

He’s also got plenty of energy and enthusiasm and it’s that vocation to help golfers get better that keeps him going from dawn to dusk.

When we speak, he’s home again and relaxed with his wife and 16 month old baby. But it’s been a tiring Tuesday which sees him conduct Junior coaching at Mullingar in the morning before motoring up to Carton House for his first round tee-time in the Johnston Mooney & O'Brien PGA Challenge.

After a one under 72, he’s back on the range at Mullingar within the hour for more coaching.

“It’s summer so we you really are trying to teach as much as you can and then work hard in the summer and hopefully have enough for the winter because the winters are hard,” he explained. “As I said… a squirrel.”

Quinlivan depends on coaching for the lion’s share of his income but he’s hugely enthusiastic about it and strongly believes that a PGA professional should strive to be as good a player as he can be.

James Quinlivan in action at Carton House

James Quinlivan in action at Carton House

“I am trying to do as much teaching as I can in the summer and trying to keep the playing going because that’s something I really enjoy,” he said. “I always think that if you are going to get lessons, you should get them from a good player. 

“And if you are a good player yourself, you will attract a few players who are good 

“So I find it a good part of coaching because I feel I can relate to the players and what they go through.

His students include Gareth Carr, who was third in the Irish Boys Championship earlier this month, and plus two handicapper Liam Grehan, who also helps out in the shop.

“I feel that my working hard on my own game, I can relate to players better,” he said. “You hit the shots that they hit. You understand the battles they have.”

The list of great coaches who were great players is a long one and golfers familiar with the Irish scene will know how well coaches such as Jimmy Bolger, Eddie Doyle, Johnny Foster or Neil Manchip can play the game.

Quinlivan learned his trade with Joe Purcell at Portmarnock, joining an impressive list of assistants that includes Damien McGrane, John Dignam, Jamie O’Sullivan and Peter Duignan, to name just a handful.

“It was great to work at just a great club and there was an opportunity to play with good players after work too.”

He continues to learn from his peers to this day, soaking up all he can when he gets the chance to play on the domestic circuit alongside former tour players such as McGrane, Philip Walton or David Higgins.

In truth, he’s always been able to spot talent and he picks out Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Niall Kearney as three contemporaries from the amateur game that always stood out.

Then there is his cousin Sean Quinlivan, a former Mullingar Scratch Cup winner and PGA professional who encouraged him to pursue a career in golf. 

“I was in college in DIT Athlone with Shane Lowry, actually, when I tore my cruciate ligament doing a fitness course,” he explained.

“I was off one at the time and I missed out on youths golf with the knee injury and I got a bit lost. I had been playing good golf at the time of the injury and I asked Sean what to do.

“He advised me to try to become an assistant pro because I would get games with good players. And he was right. You get to see where your game is at.”

He knew from an early age that he wasn’t going to be a superstar like McIlroy, having played with him in an Ulster Boys Championship some 14 years ago.

“I think it was at Armagh and everything he hit was right out of the middle of the bat. I remember coming home and saying, this guy is unbelievable. 

“He was 14 at the time but he hit it so long and straight, it was amazing.”

James Quinlivan with members and officials at Mullingar Golf Club

James Quinlivan with members and officials at Mullingar Golf Club

Quinlivan’s first move when he qualified as a professional was to set up the Mullingar Golf Academy, quickly attracting a loyal clientele. 

When John Burns retired last years as Mullingar’s head professional after 41 years in the business, Quinlivan jumped at the chance to return to his roots.

“I love it, love teaching, love the buzz of coaching,” he said, recounting how devastated he felt when the Fred Daly side fell to holders Kilkenny in extra holes recently.

“We were gutted,” he said. “I have coached some lads for six or seven years and we have some great juniors coming through and that’s what I love— helping someone with their golf game. 

“I’ve always been technical and loved gadgets like Trackman that I feel can make golfers even better. I get a great it 

“Some people go into the PGA and they don’t want to coach and I think that’s a mistake because it is definitely part and parcel of what you’re trying to do. 

“You are there to give a service and help the members as much as you can.”

With a gang of young golfers keen to learn, Quinlivan plans to launch a big junior golf programme this winter.

Given his passion, it might not be long before the club is celebrating its first homegrown winner in the prestigious Mullingar Electrical Scratch Trophy.

“That’s what got me into golf, watching the Scratch Cup with the huge crowds,” he said.

“Leslie Walker driving it onto the putting green. Darren Clarke playing. Rory and Shane Lowry winning, then Shane’s brother Alan last year.

“If it wasn’t for guys that push the Scratch Cup, the late Joe Healy and Albert Lee nowadays, it wouldn’t be the event it is today. It’s a great part of the club. And it’s a great club."

This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent's Thursday, Tee to Green supplement on 13 July 2016.