Golf is not a sport that’s closely associated with academia but PGA Fellow Professional Jussi Pitkanen is hoping his studies will lead to structures being put in place to help more Irish amateurs make the giant leap into the tour ranks.
General sports lovers pay little attention to golf until a young Irishman or woman makes a major impression and bridges the yawning divide that separates life under the protective wing of the amateur bodies to success on the pro tours.
But given the success of Irish rugby since the academy system was put in place, it’s clear that golfers also need formal structures to prepare them for the transition.
Working out why so few Irish golfers make it through that minefield — just three Irish players have won European Tour cards via Q-School since 2010 while only a trickle are getting to the Challenge Tour— is something that fascinates Pitkanen.
And as part of his Masters in Sports Coaching studies he has produced a thesis entitled: “Elite Irish Golfers’ Experiences of Transition From Amateur To Professional” in association with Dr. Martin R. Toms from the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham.
“The golfers I interviewed stressed how important it was for them to be directed initially,” said Pitkanen, who conducted in depth interviews with a number of unnamed Irish players about their experiences.
“I went into it with some pre-conceived ideas about what might come out and thought it would be an opportunity for the guys to bash the system. But that is not really how it turned out at all. What emerged was how important it was for them to be identified correctly when they are getting into that part of their lives.
“They said they needed to be told, ‘These are the challenges you are going to face, this is what you need to know, this is where you need to go and this is what not to do.’
“So while some of that is in place, what emerged for me was that the players said they’d really love to have is a structured advice service.
“They spoke about the stuff the wish they’d known earlier and I guess that flip side of that is that you only learn those things by actually going out and doing it and being part of it. So there is always a balance to be kept in these things.
“All the guys I spoke to had spoken about wanting to turn pro at a very early age. So in that case it is a question of working out how we help this person achieve his goal and how can we best prepare someone for that life.”
Born in Finland but a native of Co Meath since the age of 10 when his father took a job with Tara Mines, Pitkanen learned the game at Headfort and completed his PGA Training both there and at Royal Tara before qualifying and heading out onto the mini tours.
“That fizzled out pretty quickly and reality struck and I had to get a job,” confessed the 38-year old.
“My dad was involved in the mining business and worked for Outokumpu, who owned Tara Mine at the time. When we were originally moving, it was a choice between coming here or going to northern Ontario or somewhere in Australia or South America. But we ended up coming to Ireland. It’s worked out pretty well.”
After six years at the Dave Pelz Academy at Killeen Castle, he is now the PGA’s Coach Education and Development Manager for Ireland and he’s passionate about his job and the further education of our professionals.
Some 30 new trainees join the PGA family every year with many qualified professionals going on to take more advanced coaching courses and postgraduate degrees.
“In a nutshell, my role is to oversee the coaching qualifications and any further education for PGA professional in Ireland. Apart from the new trainees, there is the up-skilling of PGA professionals — some of them go on to seek further coaching qualifications and post graduate degrees — so it is a varied role.”
By closely observing the Irish scene, Pitkanen has seen the likes of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne make it big and become role models for Irish amateurs looking to make an impression in the professional game.
But the reality for the vast majority of those who take the plunge is very different and like those who watch the rugby academy system closely and compare our players with those coming though in the southern hemisphere, we may be starting too late.
With 19-year olds Renato Paratore of Italy and Marcus Kinhult on Sweden now established on the European Tour, European federations are finding ways to introduce their young players to professional competition at a very early age.
“Looking at the bigger picture, I was at an event recently where David Nucifora from the IRFU gave a talk on talent development and we were thinking how we could link that to golf,” said Pitkanen, who is a Level 3 PGA coach and working to become one of the first Level 4 golf coaches in Ireland.
“He was talking about the Academy system and the argument he was making was that some of the Irish guys might be a little bit too old coming out of the Academy into full time professional rugby.
“You go to the southern hemisphere and you have guys breaking onto the international scene at 19 or 20 whereas our guys are really only coming out at 25.
“Kinhult and 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. The phrase that was used, and which I found interesting, was that ‘tradition can be a handbrake.’
“So it all depends on what the end objective happens to be. Are we producing professional players? What’s our goal?”
The dissertation module of his Masters in Sports Coaching at the University of Birmingham required no little though and it got Pitkanen to thinking about the plight of young professionals trying to make the transition from the amateur to the professional game.
Pitkanen’s thesis involved as series of interviews with young professionals and it emerged that three elements were hugely important in determining whether or not they were successful: psychological and emotional support from family, friends and coaches; financial implications; and the desire and motivation to succeed in a personal career.
In other words, elite golfers turning professional need careful career guidance and proper preparation so they can make that transition.
That the Top 300 golfers in the world make 80 percent of the prize money says it all about professional golf.
Like moths to a flame, our most talented players will continue to turn professional so how best can they be helped?
Pitkanen knows what he’d like to see.
“Ultimately it would be fantastic if you could just walk into an office and speak to someone who will say, ‘this is what you will be able to play, this where you wont be able to play, this is how much it is going to cost, this is where you need to improve.’
“Some of that is in place but whose responsibility is it to have that conversation? That’s the million dollar question. I am not sure anybody has that answer.”
Amateur golf bodies are concerned with the amateur game and the interviewees all spoke glowingly of their experiences as amateurs, travelling the world and experiencing different courses and conditions.
What the amateur game didn't prepare them for was doing everything for themselves, which is why Pitkanen believes that family support is crucial for players from the get-go.
“If things aren’t going well, the first people the players will lean on for support and advice is close family and friends,” he said. “They played crucial role anyway when the players said at the start, ‘It’s my time, I want to go pro.’
“Families and friends want to help and some of that help is financial when times are lean and sponsorship is hard to come by. Some players get grants from Team Ireland and some don’t. So where does the rest of it come from? Invariably, it’s family that plays a big part in that.
“In my view, parents, partners and family should be involved in this advice process whereby somebody points out what they are getting themselves in to in terms of the standard they are facing and the costs involved.”
Pitkanen found that families and friends are often blinded by the rewards earned by players on the European Tour when reality in the lower echelons is very different. Not only can weekly expenses on a mini tour be as high as they are on the Challenge Tour, but the renumeration is far less.
Graduating to the Challenge Tour from one of the four mini tours means finishing inside the top five in the money list and considering expenses can run from €20-€30,000, it can be a loss-making exercise even for the most successful players.
The minimum prize money required to earn promotion last year was £25,644 on the PGA Europro Tour, €21,873 on the Alps Tour, €21,008 on the Pro Golf Tour (EPD Tour) and €28,471 on the Nordic Golf League.
Unless a players has serious financial backing, he is under stress and playing with his back to the wall from the start, especially if things don’t work out.
Not only do players have to deal with performance issues, they also have to deal with the financial strain and the pressures that constant travel can place on relationships.
“Having dipped my own toe into those waters, I can appreciate how difficult it must be to do that year after year,” Pitkanen said.
It’s only the case that players need someone to tell them that it simply isn’t going to work out and Pitkanen admits that’s “a very difficult conversation to have.”
“In some respects, it comes down to working out whose job it is to have that conversation. From a personal point of view, the best bit of advice I got game from Damien McGrane when I thought I was good enough to make it and support myself as a player.
“He asked how I was getting on and I said I was making a few cuts.
“‘Give it up,’ he said. ‘If you are not in the top five, you are losing money.’ And in hindsight, given the situation I was in at the time, he was absolutely right.
“I did the best thing from my family and the best thing for myself and looked at other options. But the harsh reality of elite sport is that most people are going to fail.”
Perhaps the best formula of all is the old fashioned numbers game that requires that you shoot at least one or two under par every time you tee it up.
Give that the scoring average required to graduate from the Challenge Tour to the European Tour last year was 70.4 strokes, it might be tempting to think that this is purely a numbers game.
But given the complex human element, the family ties, the tears and fears and the hidden triumphs, it might be time to take a more pragmatic look at what can be done to help smooth an already tough road for these intrepid adventurers.