Nurturing Ireland’s next star crop

The Leaving Certificate exams seem a long way off right now but the business of choosing which colleges and universities to apply for is a necessarily important process and not least for golfers with ambitions of becoming a touring professional.

As usual, there will be offers for many from schools in the United States but there is an increasingly viable alternative to going west in the form of the Paddy Harrington Scholarships being offered at NUI Maynooth.

And if you ask Barry Fennelly, the scheme’s manager, he will tell you that applying to the NUIM golf programme could be the best thing you ever did.

Named in honour of Pádraig Harrington’s father, Paddy, and backed by the generous sponsorship, amongst others, of JP McManus and the Oceanico Group, the Harrington scholarships were introduced in 2006 with the intention of building on the success of that year’s Ryder Cup at the K Club.

“The vision was to set up an elite scholarship programme to really try and produce touring professionals,” Fennelly told Irish Examiner. “That was and is the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do.”

With access to the GUI’s national academy facilities at the even closer Carton House, as well as coaching from the GUI’s Neil Manchip and an annual warm weather training trip to Oceanico in Portugal, the Harrington scholars have access to the best an elite coaching programme can offer on either side of the Atlantic. Fennelly should know, he spent a year at Texas university before enrolling at NUI Maynooth during the early years of the Harrington scholarships and can offer potential recruits his first-hand experience of both environments.

“I was in Texas and heard from my friends about the Paddy Harrington Scholarship back home. It looked a great opportunity for Irish golfers because when I left Ireland as an 18-year-old there wasn’t really anything at home, no scholarship programme. You came out of the GUI coaching programme, which was great, and America was really the only option.

“I enjoyed America but it wasn’t what I really wanted. I wanted a degree and to play golf at a high level and Maynooth ticked all the boxes. So I packed it in in Texas after a year and started a Paddy Harrington Scholarship.”

Now on the staff, Fennelly is determined the scheme strikes the right blend of academic work and golf and also between making players better and keeping them competitive.

“We put a lot of emphasis on developing the players. We try to have a balance between competition and coaching. In America, it’s very much a strategy of getting better through competition, so they play lots of tournaments and it can get very elitist in as much as if you’re one of the top five golfers in the programme you’re on the team and having a great time. I found that made me more competitive but I didn’t improve as a player, technically or mentally. It was structured around results.

“That has its pros, just look at the amount of players they get onto the tours, but to me, our golf programme is more about investing in and developing the players to get to the next level. We put a lot of energy into improving them technically through regular coaching sessions and on the fitness side they have tailored golf-specific programmes, they do yoga and regular mental fitness workshops with our sports psychologist and there’s lifestyle management with a performance nutritionist.”

Competition is still a key element and there was no greater boost for the programme and its objective of creating a team culture than when NUIM lifted the Barton Shield at the 2012 Cups & Shields finals in Kinsale.

“When they go out into the world, whether they’re going down a business career route or they’re trying to play professional golf, it’s a lonely path for a lot of guys and I think it really helps them being part of a team.

“Winning the Barton Shield from an Irish point of view was huge because the Cups and Shields are really competitive and it’s ingrained in clubs. So winning it made a lot of people take notice and think ‘they’re a high performance scheme and they’re really churning out some good golfers’. And from a recruitment standpoint it’s been great because guys have seen the power of that team.”

Since then the strides have been seen from individuals like Gary Hurley, from Waterford who is the only European-based player on the Europe team which contested this year’s Palmer Cup, the collegiate version of the Ryder Cup.

Skibbereen’s Kieran Lynch, an Irish U18 international, is another elite scholar who this summer broke into the Munster inter-provincial senior team, while Clara’s Alan Lowry, younger brother of world number 72 Shane, was a runner-up in the Irish Youths in August.

Also on the panel is club captain Shaun Carter, who hails, appropriately enough from Paddy Harrington’s Stackstown GC, Connacht senior interpro Declan Loftus and Spanish Point’s Sinead Sexton, now in her final year and having improved from a 3 handicap to +1 in her time on the scholarship.

“Now we’re very keen to recruit the next wave. There’s a lot of talented, up and coming players in Irish golf and we’re expecting quite aninflux in September 2014. We’re also keen to recruit more girls and offer them a unique opportunity here to pursue both a good academic career and a good golfing experience.

“We’re heavily recruiting for next year, Fennelly said. “A lot of that Barton Shield team have graduated and gone on to better things and now we’re looking for our next dream team. I think the up and coming players in Ireland now see us as a really strong alternative to going to the States. I think they see they can get elite coaching and be part of a programme and get a good education and get all of those things at NUI Maynooth.

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