Passion and the winds of destiny draw Howley to Portmarnock

Passion and the winds of destiny draw Howley to Portmarnock

Some say that the feared 'Tramuntana' wind that blows down from the Pyrenees across l’Empordà in Catalonia in northeast Spain either turns a man mad or inspires him to creative heights. 

For Francis Howley, the new head professional at Portmarnock Golf Club, the wind that inspired the great Catalan writer Josep Pla and shaped the imagination of Salvador Dalí proved to be a welcoming wind of change.

Raised in the shadow of Ben Bulben in Rosses Point and weaned on golf from the time he was a child, he progressed from sitting in the West of Ireland trophy when he was two (making the semi-finals of that great championship 25 years ago) to playing on the European Tour.

Tour ambitions had fuelled the young Sligo man from the moment he discovered that he'd prefer to do his PGA apprenticeship under John Harnett at Milltown than study accountancy. 

And having come through Q-School alongside Pádraig Harrington, David Higgins,  Jimmy Heggarty and John McHenry in 1995, he lived the tour "dream" for six years when the famous "Tramuntana" gave him the clarity to see that it was time for a new start that leaves him where he is today — just the sixth head professional to serve at Portmarnock since 1900, following in the footsteps of Willie Nolan, Eddie Hackett, Harry Bradshaw, Peter Townsend and Joey Purcell.

"I played the tour until I was  31 or 32 when it came to a stage where it wasn't working out," the 45-year old recalled this week. "And what made up my mind was I got through to the final stage of Q-School at Peralada in Catalonia in 2001. 

"I opened up with a 77 or 78 and was way off the mark, but came back with a 67 or 68 and was just one outside the qualifying mark with one round to go. And I was doing nicely the next day after 14 holes, one under in very windy conditions, when the round was suspended for high winds. 

"So we sat around in the clubhouse for a day and a half and eventually they shortened the event to 54 holes. So I went, that's fine. I'm missing out. But I also thought it was a sign that it was time to move on. In fact, I took it as a blessing in disguise."

A few months later, he was appointed as Ballyliffin's first professional, beginning a new career in club golf that gave him a broad grounding in what it means to be the face of a club, teaching him some of the many skills required by the modern club professional.

Not only did it make him a better teacher, he also learned about running competitions, about marketing and the ambassadorial duties that he would later hone at Carton House, where he was head pro from 2004 to 2007 and Director of Golf for another nine years before taking over as Head Professional at Portmarnock last November.

It was a wrench to leave Donegal for County Kildare and equally difficult to say goodbye to the Mallaghan family at Carton House, who became close friends. 

As a son of Rosses Point, he immediately understood what it meant to be passionate about your club and having been infused by the club spirit that was the mainstay of County Sligo, Milltown, Ballyliffin and Carton House, moving to the venerable golfing terrain of Portmarnock is clearly a natural fit.

"Portmarnock has only had five pros in the last 100 years, so it's a huge honour to follow in the footsteps of some of the great names in Irish golf at a club like Portmarnock, which upholds all the great traditions of the game," Howley said.

While not wholly detached from the marketing and daily running of Portmarnock, taking up his new role has meant a return to his golfing roots and the love of the game instilled in him by his late father, Declan, a former President of the Golfing Union of Ireland.

"Once you are passionate about something, you put your heart and soul into it," he said. "And they are passionate about golf at Portmarnock where it's been a case of going back to being a traditional pro — running the golf shop, giving lessons to members, playing golf with them and welcoming their guests and visitors. 

"My roles at Ballyliffin and Carton have prepared me for my new role. The pro's shop is the hub of every golf club and the role of the professional at Portmarnock is an ambassadorial role for the club."

With 120 juniors on the books, he's busy preparing coaching programmes that will surely produce more championship winners to follow in the footsteps of recent homegrown stars such as Noel Fox or last year's South of Ireland champion Conor Purcell.

"It's all about the golf at Portmarnock, and since I came here, I've found that I now play a lot more," he said. "There's a real tradition for the game, which is fantastic, and a huge emphasis on the junior and the future of the club."

Francis Howley at his new home, Portmarnock Golf Club

Francis Howley at his new home, Portmarnock Golf Club

With the club set to celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2019 by hosting the British Amateur Championship, thoughts of other big events at Portmarnock are secondary for now.

The arrival of The Open at Royal Portrush in 2019 is enough to make any Irish golfer wonders if the R&A would ever consider a move south of the border.

Howley has no idea, only venturing that it would be "fantastic". But he is sure of one thing — the love of the game will never wane at his new home.

"What amazed me about Portmarnock is the pride and passion they have for the club," he said. "The welcome I got made me immediately think, 'Wow, this was the right move.'"

So much has happened in the 25 years since he lost to Ken Kearney in the semi-finals of the West, Howley finds it impossible to imagine what the next 25 years might bring.

Asked what kind of mark he’d like to leave on the venerable old links, he thought long and had and reflected on those who paved the way for him. 

“It goes back to being an ambassador for the club,” he said, thinking back to the likes his predecessors such as Willie Nolan and Harry Bradshaw. "If my name is associated with Portmarnock Golf Club in the same way as the names of the men who came before me, I will have achieved a lot."

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent's weekly golf supplement, Tee To Green on April 27.