James Sugrue: 'I don’t want to start off playing muck and put myself under pressure'

James Sugrue: 'I don’t want to start off playing muck and put myself under pressure'
James Sugrue of Ireland during Day One of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Portrush, Co Antrim. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

THE professional game beckons for James Sugrue after a stellar 2019, but the Mallow golfer will not rush into the paying ranks on anything but his own terms.

There is unfinished business as a gentleman golfer, for one. The 23-year-old is still enjoying the rewards of his victory at Portmarnock last summer when he won the coveted Amateur Championship at the end of a gruelling week’s play on the hallowed Dublin links.

Success in The Amateur brought with it exemptions into last summer’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush, and this year’s Masters and US Open, in addition to a place on last September’s GB & I Walker Cup team.

Sugrue’s invitation from Augusta National Golf Club to play in their annual invitational dropped onto his the doormat in north Cork last week, confirming that his presence was requested in Georgia in April for the first professional major of 2020, and he is determined not to cross the Atlantic just to tick a box — at least not if his telling of last July’s Open experience is any guide.

“Playing at Portrush was great, unbelievable, but I missed the cut at the end of the day,” Sugrue said bluntly in an interview with the Irish Examiner.

“I was unlucky, I know, but that’s golf. To triple the 14th was sickening and I’m sick of talking about it now, but it is what it is.”

That feeling has stayed with Sugrue ever since, and has informed his approach to the upcoming Masters.

“I obviously want to go over there and play well. It’s great to play in the Masters, but I don’t want it to be a bad experience. You want to go with your A-game and enjoy it because you’re playing well. I think that’s the most important thing. Just going over there being comfortable with how I’m playing, confident in myself and just see what happens.

“I’ve never been there before, so it’s an experience.

“I played well at Royal Portrush, kind of held my own without having my A-game, so I know that I’m there or thereabouts if I’m on my day.

“The key is putting. If I putt well, I’m definitely there or thereabouts. That’s what I think it is. I’ve played with enough pros now to know that my game from tee to green is good. It’s just on the green, can you hole enough putts?

“You can stand on the range, any tournament in the world, and see all the lads flush it. That old saying ‘drive for show, putt for dough’ — it’s a cliché for a reason.”

Sugrue will continue to rub shoulders with the pros for the time being with an invitation into the European Tour’s Oman Open in Muscat at the end of February and the Memorial Tournament on the PGA Tour ahead of the US Open at Winged Foot in June. There are other tournaments, too, in which the Corkman is hoping to receive invitations to play “and a couple of Challenge Tour events in Ireland I’d be hoping to get into”.

“I probably will turn pro after the US Open. That’s the plan anyway, but I was talking to Gary Murphy about it, and he was saying I can play US Open with my exemption as a pro and still get in, so that could be an option. I think it could be a course that could suit me as well, as I drive it fairly straight and I can hit my irons fairly high. That tends to be the way US Open courses play — straight- hitting, stopping long irons on the green, so hopefully … If you play well and collect a few pounds, it could be huge for your season, even if you just made the cut, it could be big.”

There is a caveat.

“If I’m not playing well, I’m not going to turn pro, because I won’t do myself justice in the invites that come my way. I don’t want to start off playing muck and putting myself under pressure. I’d much rather see out the season as an amateur, but hopefully I’ll be ripping it and doing well in the US Open. That’s the plan.

“So it’s an exciting few months ahead. Who knows, 2020 will hopefully be a great year for me, but definitely an exciting one. There’s some great opportunities and I think if I can just be myself, go out there and enjoy it, no pressure, have fun, just the way I’ve always played, I’ll be OK. I’m doing the best I can, anyway, to play well come April.”

For now, Sugrue remains a Golfing Union of Ireland national team panellist and will be flying south next week as part of an eight-man squad for the African Amateur (February 3-6) at Leopard Creek, and the following week’s South African Stroke Play at Randpark.

They will be his first tournaments after a lot of hard work over the close season with long-time coach Michael Collins, ironing out what he describes as a “kink” at the top of his swing.

“South Africa will be the first opportunity to put that work into practice,” said Sugrue. “We leave on the 28th. I obviously want to play well in South Africa and do well, but I’m still getting to grips with this swing so it’s not the be-all-and-end-all if I don’t play well.

“Instead of going out there and trying to guide the ball around the course, I’ll be trying to practise what I’ve been practising and see what happens. If I play well, I play well.”

Sugrue will also travel armed with the confidence he gained from his Portmarnock triumph.

“Winning does so much for you. Whatever it does for you as an amateur in terms of pro invites, what it does for you mentally, just knowing that on your day you can beat anyone, it does a lot more for you than, say, playing in the Masters,” he said.

“Of course that’s an unreal opportunity, but it’s no good playing in them if you can’t actually play. Like, it won’t be enjoyable to go over to the Masters and shoot 90. You want to compete, and winning gives you the confidence to do that. It’s the best thing.”

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