McGrane proving that hard work pays off

Damien McGrane might not have won the KLM Open on Sunday but his professional trajectory continues to be an example to Ireland’s budding tour stars — the poster boy for those who bite the bullet and take the PGA assistants’ route to the top.

McGrane proving that hard work pays off

Few are like Rory McIlroy or Graeme McDowell, players so talented they could earn their European Tour cards on invitations alone, making enough money in their first few starts (or winning in the case of McDowell) to earn their places in the big circus.

Fewer still have McGrane’s ability to believe implicitly in their ability, set out a realistic plan and execute it as well as the Meath man has since he turned professional 21 years ago as another member of what he self-deprecatingly calls the Mars bar selling brigade.

At a time of year when youngsters are taking their first steps on the road to a new career, through university or the workplace, it’s worth remembering that not all tour stars began as plus five handicap wonderkids, signed up by agents while still in the amateur ranks.

For every Jordan Spieth or McIlroy out there, there’s an Ian Poulter or Eamonn Darcy folding Pringle sweaters.

McGrane is another member of that brotherhood who triumphed through sweat and tears.

There isn’t much glamour attached to the life of the PGA professional, but it was through that route that McGrane and English-born tour winner Simon Thornton eventually earned the chance to make a decent living and went on to achieve the dream of earning their tour spurs.

McGrane’s career is especially interesting in that he was no boy wonder, getting his first handicap of 10 in 1986, when he was already 15. Within two years he was the number one player in Headfort’s winning Provincial Towns Cup team and by 1988 he was crowned Irish Boys champion in Birr, where he finished three strokes ahead of a promising youngster from Stackstown by the name of Pádraig Harrington.

Still, there was no question of getting star-struck, even when he took Mark Gannon to the 20th in the quarter-finals of the Irish Close at Baltray in 1990.

The real star that year was a big lad from Dungannon with streaks in his hair and a game to match — Darren Clarke — who went on to beat young Harrington 3 and 2 in the final.

While Clarke went on to turn professional the next year, joining Chubby Chandler, and Harrington became a three-time Walker Cup player and an accountant before eventually turning professional five years later, McGrane did things his way.

He was never going to be a flash ball-striker in the Clarke mould or even a Harrington so in 1991, having won a Irish international cap against Scotland at Youths level and captured the Kilkenny Scratch Cup and the Connacht Youths title, he became an assistant to Joey Purcell at Portmarnock.

There was to be no European Tour Qualifying School adventure for McGrane for another five years. His mission was to learn his trade, build up his confidence and see how good he could become.

“Know thyself,” the Greeks tells us. McGrane is the living embodiment of that code. He knows exactly what he’s capable of at all times, tries to be nobody else but himself and lives out his career as the ultimate pragmatist without necessarily giving up on the dreams that other more talented players might have abandoned long ago.

“I’ve known Damien a long time and I would always have put him down as a really strong competitor,” Harrington says.

“He is probably the best role model out there for any pro going on tour. He is somebody that everyone can learn from. There are very few people who understand themselves as well as he does and have a better approach to what they do.”

One wonders if McIlroy gleaned anything from playing with McGrane in his first professional tournament at the Forest of Arden as a 16-year-old in 2005 when he overdrove the Meath man by 40 yards but shot rounds of 82 and 81 to McGrane’s 72-77. McGrane went on to make €24,000 that week.

“He didn’t have his best day but he showed his class out there,” McGrane said at the time. “Golf is a funny game and tomorrow will be another day for Rory.”

Peerless as a grinder and a competitor, McGrane established himself on tour through the PGA route, turning professional under Purcell in 1992.

He won the Irish Assistants Championship in 1993 and 1994 before moving first to home and Headfort and eventually to Wexford, where he remained as club professional for eight years, combining forays onto the EuroPro and Challenge Tours with his PGA Irish Region career before finally breaking into the big time.

His story is not exactly a conservative one — he took his own chances and put his own livelihood at risk. But it is a story of perseverance and discipline.

As Joey Purcell recalls: “The fellows on the tour would have given their right arm to have the short game Damien had, even at age 17 and 18. Once you have that and you bring a half decent long game to it, it’s amazing what you can do. He was basically trying to get his qualifications as a club professional and work from there. He simply set his goals. I think he repeated his Leaving Cert, decided he wanted to become a club professional and qualified as that.

“Then he realised, as his game got better, that he might make it. Like everyone else, and I was no different, he had ambitions but times have changed and Damien deserves enormous credit for making it.”

McIlroy might be a major winner but one wonders what he might achieve if he had McGrane’s mental toughness.

“I always saw him (McGrane) as a dogged guy who never gives in,” Harrington says.

“But he is far more than that. Way, way, past that.

“He fully understands what he is doing and he is a very experienced pro who fully recognises how to get the best performance out of himself. And this is where the credit lies, he would be ahead of 99 out of 100 pros in that department. You would struggle to find 100 pros who are as comfortable as he is.”

Career winnings of €4.6 million do little justice to McGrane, the patron saint not just of Irish PGA pros, but those who root for the little guy in a big, bad world.

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