Top class coaching, state-of-the-art practice facilities, generous sponsors and government funding are all considered crucial but given the “closed shop” status of the game’s major tours these day, only the crème de la crème will make it to the top.
Ireland had produced four major championship winners over the past 20 years — Darren Clarke, Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
It’s been a bumper period, yielding seven majors in just six years and while the exploits of the Big Four will inspire another generation of golfers, they will also cause an even greater share of heartbreak and disappointment as good money is flung after bad.
The pressure on talented young players to join the professional ranks grows by the year, yet for all our success at the highest level, a truly outstanding talent capable of being more than just a journeyman comes out of Ireland on average about once every 10 years.
Ronan Rafferty in 1981, Clarke and McGinley in 1991 and McDowell in 2001 have been joined along the way by the likes of Philip Walton (‘83) Harrington (‘96), McIlroy (‘07) and Shane Lowry (‘09).
Yet you only have to take a quick look at the list of Irish Close champions who turned professional over the past 20 years to see that more than half have joined the professional ranks at their peril.
Parents have to be cruel to be kind when it comes to youngsters who’ve decided by their mid-teens that school is not for them. McIlroy is not to blame for that. The problem is that the 15-year-olds dreaming of US Open glory are not Rory McIlroy.
“He was doing things at 12, 13, 14 or 15 that nobody else was doing,” says 60-year-old Des Smyth, who knows his onions when it comes to defining what’s required to make it as a tour player — the ability to shoot 68 or 69, any place, any time in any weather.
“He was shooting 61 at Portrush at 15 and winning the Irish championship at 15. You were saying to yourself, ‘Hold on a minute, this isn’t normal.’ You knew this was something special, even at that early age.”
All our most successful players have been thoroughly dominant as amateurs, not just in Ireland, but abroad. McIlroy, Clarke, Harrington and McDowell weren’t just the best amateurs in Ireland, they were amongst the best in Great Britain and Ireland and Europe. In fact, they were amongst the best in the world.
Rather than earning their spurs as aspiring PGA professionals, dozens of our most talented, young players are wasting away on mini tours chasing a dream that’s about as achievable as a lottery win.
Sure, there are exceptions to every rule and the Europro Tour in the UK or the Hooters Tour in the US will point to “graduates” who went on to achieve the Holy Grail — the Ian Poulters, John Dalys, Bubba Watsons and Keegan Bradleys of the world.
No-one wants to crush a young person’s dream. Who has the heart to point to 20-year-old BMW PGA winner Matteo Manassero and tell a young scratch handicapper that he has a long, long way to go to be even half as good? Drogheda veteran Smyth is not afraid to tell the truth to amateurs thinking of going over to the dark side.
“First of all, I say, you’d better become the best amateur in the country because you are going to have to earn a living playing golf,” he says. “It is easier now, because they get support. But in my day, there was no support so you had to earn a living playing golf. That’s how I did it.
“And they look at you and say: ‘But I need 40 grand’. And I say, ‘well there is one way of doing it. You go out and beat everyone else and you will make that sort of money. But if you are relying on people to give you money and you are still depending on them years after, you are on a loser.’
“When I sit down with the guys in America now and we tell stories, they all made a living playing golf. The Lee Trevinos, the Raymond Floyds. They were hustlers. And that’s why they became great Ryder Cup players. They didn’t mind holing putts under pressure because they had done it every week, all their lives.
“They did it for $50 when they only had $10. I can’t afford to miss that putt. Knock it in. That’s how it was. I’d go out and look at the golf course and think, what can I shoot? Okay, 69. I’d better shoot it. If I can’t do that, I’m out of business.
“When people tell me I’m having a bad year, I say yes. It’s simple. I’m not shooting the numbers. Anybody can shoot 72s and 73s. It’s 68 and 69. You will never go broke shooting those numbers.”
Thinking of having a flutter on the US Open? Who better to ask than the last Irishman to play in a competitive event run by the USGA at Merion.
Dubliner Niall Kearney won two of his four matches in Great Britain and Ireland’s 16.5 to 9.5 Walker Cup defeat at the historic Pennsylvania club in 2009.
“It’s just a brilliant course,” said Kearney, who is dividing his time between the Europro, Challenge Tour and the Irish Region of the PGA, where he captured last week’s Pro-Am at Athenry.
“It’s like a game of chess. It’s very strategic, very tight, but with really fast greens. There are some scoreable holes, short par-fours where you can take a chance with the driver. So it’s very much a risk-reward course.
“A straight hitter who putts well will do well, but that’s always the case in the US Open. Overall, it will suit someone who has great course management.”
Sounds like a course built for current world No 1 Tiger Woods. Or 2010 champion Graeme McDowell, who’s No 1 for driving accuracy and scrambling on the PGA Tour this year.
Not only are policemen getting younger, amateurs are getting better every year. At least, that’s how it seems looking at the handicap cut off for this weekend’s East of Ireland Amateur Open at Baltray.
The axe for the 156-strong field fell at a record low of 0.2, which means County Louth men such as Bryan Ronan and Daniel Coyle need withdrawals to get a game. The standard is so high that it’s easier to get into the clashing Scottish Amateur Open Strokeplay at Southerness, where the cut off was 0.4.
Former East of Ireland winner Richie O’Donovan of Lucan is heading for Scotland, which is good news for defending champion Chris Selfridge on his return from college golf in the US.
If he recovers from illness in time, reigning North and West of Ireland winner Rory McNamara from Headfort will be going for a unique treble and a specially produced medal which will be awarded to the Leinster player returning the lowest 72 hole gross score to mark Leinster Golf’s Centenary celebrations.
Walker Cup hopefuls Gavin Moynihan, Reeve Whitson and Kevin Phelan have been nominated by the GUI to tee it up in next month’s Irish Open at Carton House.
Welsh amateur Rhys Davies will join them thanks to his European Individual Amateur win at the Montgomerie Course last year, but while many are hoping to land one of eight invitations, one of our Tour regulars sound less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a windy week in Maynooth.
Michael Hoey, whose exemption for winning last season’s Trophée Hassan II runs out at the end of this year, has missed six of his last seven cuts and lies 131st in the Race to Dubai, €28,797 outside the top 110 who will retain their cards. He made it to Carton House for a practice round recently and while he had “a lovely day out”, he’s clearly hoping for a calm week.
“I have to say I find it a bit of a chore when the wind is blowing,” Hoey wrote in his Tour diary.