Neil Manchip Interview: Chipping in with the quiet and wise word

Neil Manchip almost made it as an elite pro golfer but found his calling as a coach and has inspired Ireland’s rise as a world power in the sport. He is in Augusta this week, as Shane Lowry’s coach. But he doesn’t like to describe their relationship that way...

There’s a big reason why Joe Schmidt and his national team base themselves so often in Carton House, and for at least one weekend this summer the likes of Brian Cody and Mickey Harte will also bring their panels to this parkland retreat on the outskirts of Maynooth.

Not only does it provide high-performance facilities but privacy. Here you can work away on training pitches whose dimensions and surface replicate those of the Aviva and Croke Park, only they’re bordered by green trees or netting of that colour.

Also hidden away from public view out here is a coach whose mastery of his craft is comparable to those household names, but a lot less known, possibly because when the likes of Schmidt, Cody and Harte roll out of there in their team bus, he remains.

As Neil Manchip himself says, a bit like Denzel Washington in the car in Training Day, walking you around the course, “This is my office.”

What profile Manchip does have is probably down to him being Shane Lowry’s coach, but to primarily describe him as such would be to do him something of a disservice.

Firstly to Lowry himself: Manchip baulks at the idea of any player, especially one as skilled as Lowry, being perceived as anything other than autonomous.

“I never like to use the phrase ‘I’m his coach’. I’m not trying to dominate anything. I’m not trying to take ownership of anything. The player is the director of their own show.”

It also implies that working with Lowry is the day job when it’s not. While a week like this one will bring him to Augusta, for the most part he is based out in Carton where he has served as the national coach of the Golf Union of Ireland these past 10 years.

What he does here might be a secret to you, but his work hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers. A few months ago, the European PGAs honoured and acknowledged the 42-year-old with the prestigious John Jacobs Award for Coaching and Teaching.

It meant that since the scheme came into operation, two of the five winners have been Irish-based (Rory McIlroy’s coach, Michael Bannon, winning the inaugural award in 2011), another measure of the status and health Irish golf currently enjoys.

Last year not only saw Lowry, who has described Manchip as “a great influence”, win the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational and break into the top 25 world rankings. Ireland provided five of the 10-man Walker Cup team that at Royal Lytham St Anne’s recorded Great Britain and Ireland’s biggest winning margin over the USA since it was first played in 1922. The senior national team crushed Manchip’s native Scotland in the deciding tie to successfully defend the Home Internationals title. When Paul Dunne, a mainstay of those teams, made such an audacious assault on a British Open that had already been won four times by an Irishman over the last 10 years, it underlined that Ireland, and by extension, its national coach, must be doing something right.

Manchip is loath to attribute Ireland’s success to any formula or template, or any real intervention of his own. “You look at Ireland’s major champions and the courses they’ve come from – it’s very varied. That’s why we’d always say you’ve got to find your own way, because they all got there through different routes.”

But coming from Scotland he’s been struck by some of the conditions that provide such fertile ground. There is a very strong culture of team competition within the clubs. In the UK, most tournaments are for the elite golfer, the low-handicapper. In Ireland, kids are reared in a climate where no matter what handicap you are, you can compete. The game is more accessible, allowing kids to retreat from the real world and inhabit their own, where they can hit a lot of balls.

He noticed too how the captain of the R&A spoke about the importance and value of pitch and putt in Ireland; that’s how Shane Lowry started off out in Clara. Now all that’s married with funding and support from Sport Ireland.

‘Environment’ is a term he puts a lot of emphasis on. To acknowledge the environment each player comes from and then what environment Manchip and the GUI can provide when a national or development squad team up with him and his support staff in Carton.

“Our job is to create an environment where they can get the best out of themselves. So when I speak to each kid or their parents before they come up, I ask them, ‘What do you want to do this weekend? What would a great weekend look like to you?’

“Some kids just want to play all the time. Some want to work on their swing. Some might want to work on their bunker play. Some might want to see the physiotherapist or our strength and conditioning course. Or others might say ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?’ But we don’t impose anything upon them.

“People will say ‘Well, how do kids know what’s good for them? Sure they don’t know at that age.’ But if you force stuff on people, you might think you’re doing a good job as an instructor but nothing much is coming out at the end of it, so a lot of the time it’s about letting the kids make decisions themselves. They’re not coming back from a squad session going ‘I was made to do this and I was made to do that.’

“Naturally some kids will be more hesitant than others, especially at first, because in school they’re used to being told what to do all the time and don’t get to think so much for themselves.”

Of course, Manchip can give real technical instruction, in the traditional way of viewing coaching. For those who prefer method coaching, he can give it, and take you through whatever skill it is; say driving, and help you stop obsessing about keeping your head down.

“Look up once you’ve hit it,” he’ll offer, with the catchy trigger that helps make it stick: “Watch the ball and watch it go.”

What makes Manchip so effective a coach though is his knowledge of HOW to coach, when others can be too consumed by the what. He’s big into the notion that you’re not so much coaching a sport as a person. And so that’s why he’s so fascinated with the make-up and background of the national squad.

Cormac Sharvin from Ardglass only started messing about at golf at 15 and only played it seriously two years later, but was a good underage hurler. Waterford’s Gary Hurley was on the podium at the Young Scientist of the Year awards for designing a miniature snowmobile. Different routes, different backgrounds, different people, all getting there in their own time, with maybe him and the GUI helping them along the way. You’ve to understand players as much as the game, connect with them, through small chat and humour.

You can see why players relate to Manchip, especially someone as genial as Lowry. He still looks like a player, with his assured strut and appearance, yet for all that air of confidence, there’s also a very civil, understated warmth.

He instantly clicked with Lowry. The Offaly man was on the first schoolboys team that Manchip took on when assuming the national coach role in 2005. The Scot was impressed upon learning that Lowry’s father Brendan had been a member of the 1982 All-Ireland winning football team, and Lowry was impressed that the Scot knew so much else about the GAA, such as Offaly (formerly) being one of the country’s few formidable dual counties, until Manchip explained why — his wife Aideen is from Mayo where they’re quite passionate about their football. The three of them have attended All-Ireland semi-finals and finals featuring the green and red since, the same way that Lowry’s success also allows them to take in quite a few NBA games in the States.

The other art of coaching is knowing not to over-coach. Traditional coaching is tell, tell, tell. Manchip comes from a different, newer school.

He was hugely struck and impressed watching the San Antonio Spurs at a game with Lowry last year and how their coach Gregg Popovich would sometimes let the team’s point guard Tony Parker take the coaching pad in a timeout while Popovich would stand back with his assistants. There, in the flesh, he could see why that team and that coach had won five NBA championships.

“He was saying, ‘I don’t have to try to be the leader all the time here. Create other leaders.’ You could tell from his interaction with his players that they just felt so trusted and safe around him.”

For Manchip, his philosophy is similar to that of Popovich’s and that of Liam Moggan, the chief education officer of Coaching Ireland.

A good coach, as defined by Moggan, is one that “will help players become independent so they are able to identify options and find solutions for the changing demands of their sport.” Make them self-reliant, not reliant on you.

So, in cultivating that, he’ll ask players what way do they want their feedback. Say they want to work on their bunker play. Manchip will ask do they want to take alternate shots, or do they want to just watch him or do they just want to hit some balls themselves?

Lowry invariably opts for alternate shots, and so they play little competitive games, so many points for whoever gets more shots closer to the hole.

“We play a lot together. But he’s the director. He’s incredibly self-reliant. And I encourage all the kids with our national and development squads to look after themselves and to direct themselves. Get help here and there from the likes of us when it’s needed, but you’re on your own out there, and you’ve to understand what you do when you play brilliantly and understand how we make a mess of it sometimes.”

“Nor will we interfere with any relationship a player might have with an existing coach. We’d say to the players, ‘keep doing what you’re doing, and then if there’s any gaps that you need filled in, we can help you along the way.’”

So, a good bit of his work is skill acquisition. But, he says, the real role and challenge is in the area of skill access. To help players help themselves to do what they can already do well. To help them become more self-aware.

It helps that Manchip himself was a player, one with his own quirks and insecurities that have helped inform his coaching. He first became consumed by the sport playing it up in the north-west of Scotland visiting his uncle and aunt a couple of hours from his home in Edinburgh. After trying a year of business studies in college and finding it wasn’t for him, he served a PGA training academy apprenticeship. His mentor was a gentleman called Kevan Whitson, and when in 1992 Whitson took up the job as golf pro of Royal County Down, Manchip joined him. Instantly he fell in love with Ireland and has never left. Playing golf was a more tumultuous love affair.

He’d play in some of the third-tier tours, win invitations to a couple of European tour events, and in 1999, the same year he joined Royal Dublin, win the Irish PGA championship, leaving a couple of future Ryder Cup captains Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley fighting it out for second.

But that was the exception. “I was nowhere near good enough to play on tour. My good golf was okay but my bad golf was way below where it needed to be.”

He’d come to realise what triggered his good golf and not so good.

“In 1999, I’d decided it would be my last year playing. ‘I’ve got to go and get a proper job’ and that line of thinking. And because I had taken away all the expectations and trying so hard, I just played. And played really well, winning tournaments. Then I went back into thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can do this!’

“And then,” he laughs, “when I tried, I couldn’t. My attention was again in the wrong place — trying to go somewhere rather than just playing the game.

“So that’s helped my coaching a lot. Helping players be honest with themselves. Is there anything you’re thinking about in the future which is interfering with what you’re doing now? What do you do when you play your best? Often once the expectation is a little bit lower, people play better, especially in golf.

“That whole [1999 PGA] tournament was very much ‘I don’t care where I hit it — I’ll find it and hit it again.’

“For the following few years then I was back to trying to play well and it was so frustrating. The one and only time I made a cut in a European Tour event was in 2004 at the European Open at the K club. And sure by that time I had given up trying again!”

Since then, all he’s been trying to do is create the best environment possible for anyone who comes through the national squads, from U14 up. Is the aim to produce as many professionals as possible, as other unions do, and which some think the GUI do as well?

“No. I wouldn’t have that approach at all. Being a professional golfer is such a personal decision to make — to decide you want that lifestyle, the travel, the expense of it, the loneliness of it. To play amateur golf, you’re going away with teams, things are paid for. So really our idea is to just to give a great environment for players to get the best out of themselves, whether it’s amateur of professional. And if they choose to turn pro, they can still get some support through the Team Ireland Golf Trust.”

They can always ask him for help. He won’t impose, or offer unsolicited advice. But Lowry took him up on the offer and is glad of it. Like the time six months ago he shot a 66 on the opening day of the British Masters at Woburn. He’d been one of the favourites.

“In the past I could have found myself getting up caught by that,” Lowry would admit. But then in speaking with Neil he stressed the importance of playing good golf and not to be distracted by such talk. He also pointed out to me that if I was to go out and now shoot a bad score tomorrow not to get down on myself as my main focus is the Race to Dubai.”

Lowry would finish the weekend £300,000 richer, finishing second. By acknowledging the interference, Lowry removed it.

Manchip was only on the phone. He didn’t hit or demonstrate a shot. He wasn’t the director.

But he was coaching.

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