December in Ireland and the promise of golf seems a distant land. But all is not quiet for Mallow’s James Sugrue, the British Amateur champion. The rewards from that amazing win keep on coming and this past month has taken him on a circuit of award ceremonies.
Nominated for Cork Person of the Year, Sugrue was named Men’s Amateur of 2019 by the Irish Golf Writers’ Association. The week before Christmas, he stayed over in Dublin following another end of year bash and that night, he mixed with stars from other codes, among them household names of Gaelic games.
“You eventually made it to Croke Park,” his father, Mick, teased beforehand.
Before this strapping young man of 23 won renown as a golfer, he hurled with power and aplomb. Sugrue played for his county at underage level and still carries a hurley with him to golf tournaments. Easy to picture him, standing 6’2, in Cork colours when he pucks about after rounds.
Portmarnock, glorious as ever, was the stage for his remarkable triumph during the summer. At the beach nearby, Sugrue spent those evenings pucking a sliotar with his caddie, Conor Dowling and though the world around him has changed, he plays life much the same.
“It’s not like I’ve tried to reinvent the wheel or anything,” he says.
I’ve just tried to do what I’ve been doing all along, maybe on a bigger scale.
That ‘maybe’ makes the point sound debatable. The second half of his season passed in a whirlwind and next year beckons with promise on all fronts.
“What’s to come is really exciting,” said Sugrue: “I’m looking forward to the year ahead. Time to go out and enjoy myself.”
The Sugrue roadshow moves across the Atlantic in 2020. First stop is Augusta, Georgia for The Masters in April; New York comes next on the schedule where at Winged Foot in June, a vocal Mallow clan will join one of golf’s most enthusiastic galleries
Last July, the family decamped to Portrush for The Open. The previous month had featured those magical days at Portmarnock when Sugrue rose to the top of the game.
He struggled to find adequate words at the time: “It’s so hard to believe that I’ll be going to The Open and The Masters. There’s lots of pros that play their whole life and don’t get to play in a Major. Now I get to play in three of them.”
Victory that week moved him into golf’s upper echelon. So many doors opened: US Amateur, Walker Cup, all those Majors.
At Portrush, for the Open, he prepared in the company of Shane Lowry: “I played a few of my practice rounds with Shane. It was unreal.”
That was just the beginning. When the British Open was finally staged on these shores, 68 years after its last visit to these shores, Sugrue was first out, playing alongside Darren Clarke. Day one, he hit full stride. A round of 71, achieved on high emotion, pitched him right into the mix.
The following day, his momentum continued. Five holes from the finish, Sugrue was under par and coasting, weekend ticket almost secure. But his bid was soon to come unstuck: “That tee shot on 14, I’ll never forget,” Sugrue recalls.
His wayward drive flew down the right-hand side of the 14th fairway. An army of marshals and spectators combed the rough but his ball could not be found and Sugrue was forced to sign for a very damaging seven, and a two-round total of 144 that left him one shot outside the cut: “It would have been nice to be there on Sunday with Shane lifting the trophy and maybe me getting the silver medal but it wasn’t to be.”
As the New Year approaches, he casts his mind back to Portmarnock Golf Club and his heroics on that sun-kissed day.
“It was unbelievable,” Sugrue recalls: “I had never played in front of crowds that milled around. Sometimes, when you’re going back to get a line, you might even bump into someone. To have people from my club and friends, even members from Portmarnock that I knew, out there supporting me was unreal. Euan Walker, my coach, and mam and dad were there. Everybody was Irish or from Mallow.
A collection of key moments from his British Amateur win are worth recalling and highlight what a precarious route he had to navigate. After progressing from strokeplay, qualifying with one shot to spare, he inched his way through by birdieing the final hole, while the knockout stages were littered with potential pitfalls.
He had to win the last four holes in the second round to beat England’s Harry Hall and tougher still was his quarter-final against Dutchman Koen Kouwenaar, where he birdied 18 to square the match before winning at the first extra hole. Sugrue then beat Australian David Micheluzzi, the highest-ranked player in the field.
In the final, he appeared to be coasting: “I was five up through nine and I thought I was safe.”
But his lead gradually eroded until, amazingly, the match turned all square: “I was saying to myself: ‘You’ve half thrown this away.’
But down 17, Sugrue wrested back control. His opponent went right off the tee — a no-go area that week — and the home favourite pounced with a winning par.
“I drove the ball really well,” Sugrue reflected.
“That was probably one part of my game that helped me to the win.”
There was another hidden ingredient — food. Each day, after golf, he dined out at Five Guys in Swords: “I’d be lying if I said I went for a salad,” he admits.
“Straight into Five Guys for two patties, large chips, and a milkshake to wash it down.”
That tale is very revealing: Whatever way the world spins, James Sugrue retains a slight tilt: Unaffected and content with his lot.