Ploughing their own furrows
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Paul Gallaghertalks to a number of former top Irish golfers to find out the latest twists and turns in their respective career paths
RORY McILROY is back riding on the crest of a wave. The world really is his oyster after the Quail Hollow win. Not every player dines at the top table of world golf though and, for the select few Irish players that do, there are countless others carving out careers within the golf industry.
Ireland has long enjoyed a rich pedigree in this sport and many who once grabbed the headlines might be out of the spotlight, but it doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. New challenges, new directions, whatever the case, many former Irish champions are still making their mark within the game.
To focus on a small sample illustrates the varied paths some Irish professionals have taken, normally after their best playing days are behind them. To delve into the annals reveals many more examples too.
Ryder Cup hero Christy O’Connor Jnr has become one of the finest course designers of his generation since stepping away from the competitive arena. There are countless examples of his work across Ireland and beyond.
In conversation with Stephen Browne, he referred to his amateur days and playing alongside Raymond Burns and he considered him – like so many others did – one of Ireland’s finest talents. Burns is now a successful PGA club professional at The South County Golf Club.
Burns’s former Warrenpoint team-mates, Paddy Gribben and Jim Carvill, went down similar routes to Browne, in that they were both reinstated as amateurs after time spent in the paid ranks. Gribben did it twice and also played Walker Cup and both helped their club win the Senior Cup in 2008.
Philip Walton still keeps his hand in by playing mostly on the Irish PGA circuit. At 48 years old the 1995 Ryder Cup hero has ambitions of competing on the senior circuit when he turns 50. Former European number one Ronan Rafferty (46) intends to go down the same route and plays a number of Scottish Tartan Tour events as he currently lives in Perthshire.
Others Irish players from yesteryear have immersed themselves in golf-related business. Eoghan O’Connell’s playing career was curtailed through injury but the Cork native went on to be successful with ventures in the States such as the Fox Club in Palm City, Florida, where as co-owner he helped his friend Darren Clarke to redesign the course layout there.
The list goes on and it’s not so much, where are they now as opposed to what are they doing now?
Turned Pro: 1997
Residence: Knoxville, Tennessee
Keith Nolan is still based in Knoxville, East Tennessee and leads a varied existence within golf and is now assistant coach to Fred Warren at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) where he was on a scholarship from 1993 to 1997 before turning professional.
“There’s a bunch of Irish guys here – Séamus Power, Garth McGee and Paul O’Kane – and I mix my time between coaching and playing in a few pro-ams for extra cash,” explains Nolan, who has also been plagued by injury.
This month Power won the individual at the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships and helped ETSU secure a place in this month’s NCAA finals.
Nolan currently has a medical exemption on the Nationwide Tour but is only guaranteed five starts. He plans some Monday qualifying in a bid to get into more tournaments this season.
“I picked up a Staph infection in my wrist last year and it turned out to be quite serious. The Nationwide Tour will be my main focus but I still have aspirations of making it back onto the main PGA Tour,” adds the 38-year-old, who “didn’t play well” at last year’s Tour School.
After almost 17 years in the States the Bray native, who now possesses a strong southern accent, is thankful for a supportive American wife, especially as he spends so much time on the road. “Yolanda is the one with her hands full. We have three children, the eldest is nine, I’m fortunate to have the support of a good woman behind me.
“Financially it can be hard-going sometimes. I had a couple of decent years in 2007 and 2008, but the injury didn’t help,” adds Nolan, who has also caddied for ETSU graduate, Garrett Willis, on the PGA Tour on occasion.
Like Richie Coughlan, Nolan has spent most of his adult life in the States and that’s where he now calls home. It’s been three years since he was back in Ireland but his family visit the States most years.
Turned Pro: 1968
These days it’s more about quality than quantity for Eamonn Darcy who will compete in up to a dozen events on the European Senior Tour providing he remains fit.
Although a win on the senior circuit still eludes the Enniskerry resident he has knocked on the door on many occasions with no less than eight runner-up finishes since joining the over 50s tour in 2002.
“I’ve eased off a little bit, played 11 events last year and will do something similar this season,” explains Darcy, noting the Senior British Open at Carnoustie in July as the standout event on the calendar.
“Ideally I’d like to play 20 events as that’s only five months of the year. I was never into course design or anything like that. In any case, that’s become a thing of the past. Golf clubs are simply trying to keep their head above water. There’s no confidence out there, not just with golf but the whole economy.”
The 57-year-old still has the competitive desire but blade in hand remains something of an Achilles heel. “Putting is my biggest problem, I’m back using the long putter and that’s as much to do with my back as anything else. Mind you I don’t hole any more putts, it’s just not as painful,” says Darcy, who also has inflammation in the shoulder.
“I’m struggling like hell with my shoulder and have only played 12 holes in last five weeks. I can do anything else, sit up on a horse, but the problem starts when I swing a golf club.”
Darcy, who often spends time on his “oul” horse and the dogs on his Enniskerry acreage if not hitting balls at Druids Glen, misses the camaraderie from yesteryear.
“I still enjoy meeting up with the likes of Des (Smyth), Woosie (Ian Woosnam) or Carl (Mason) but it’s not like it used to be back in the 70s. I wish I’d played more golf with Christy (O’Connor Jnr) but when I started on the seniors he was nearly stopping.”
Darcy is due to tee it up in the Handa Senior Masters in England next week.
Turned Pro: 1997
Residence: San Antonio, Texas
“It’s funny, people still think Keith (Nolan) and I are joined at the hip after all these years,” quips Richie Coughlan, who now gets his kicks out of coaching after an injury in 2005 curtailed his playing ambitions.
Coughlan and Nolan got plenty of ink when they both turned pro in 1997 and embarked on playing careers on the PGA Tour after college scholarships in the States. These days coaching features prominently for them both.
Coughlan works for the latest PGA Tour Academy in San Antonio, Texas where next week’s Texas Open will be played. “I’ve been with the company since 2008 and was teaching at TPC Sawgrass until January before I moved here,” says the Birr native, who first got into coaching when he lived in New York.
“I tore muscles in my chest when playing the mini tours in Florida in 2005. I took time off and was browned off with the constant injuries and that’s when I started coaching.
“I’m hitting the ball as well as ever but not playing competitively.
“The magic in the fingers is still there but I don’t have the will or the desire. I don’t have the potential to make the same kind of money I used to either, plus I get to sleep in my own bed,” adds the 36-year-old, whose best PGA Tour finish was ninth in the 1998 BC Open.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll feel the draw to play when the Texas Open comes here. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t go looking for an invite as 10 were available. It’s a bittersweet situation.
“Besides I’m still single but one day I’d like to settle down, have a family and I certainly don’t miss the travel. I really get a kick out of teaching. I teach everyone from beginners and have five professionals on my books. I can also impart my own player experience too,” adds Coughlan, who picked out Rory McIlroy for special mention as one of the most exciting players he has seen in the game.
He plans a trip to Ireland in December to see his parents but the affable Offaly native has taken root in the States and is enjoying life in Texas, the “golf capital of the States” in his view.
Turned Pro: 2001
Stephen Browne must wait until September, 25th, 2011 before he’s fully reinstated as an amateur after the RA gave him three years “gardening leave” since leaving the professional game.
It hasn’t stopped the 36-year-old returning to his roots and playing “good golf” at the Hermitage Golf Club where he won the gross in last week’s medal off a plus two handicap.
“I can play at the Hermitage because I’m a member but can’t play any championship golf until 2011,” explains Browne, whose regular game tends to be with mates early on Sunday mornings.
Browne quit life on tour in August 2008 and immediately picked up a nine-to-five work life with a financial company based in Rathmines, Best Advice, who specialise in insurance and software.
“It’s easier to reflect on my decision now, I don’t want to sound terrible, but in many ways I got bored of life on the tour,” he says.
“I was very fortunate to play golf for a living but there’s no buzz if you’re not in contention. Travel was a killer. When I was working hard at my game – and getting coached by Jimmy Ballard in Florida – I could have been on the road 45 weeks of the year.
“You’d be amazed how many guys dislike the life on tour, walking about in a daydream. Andre Agassi was the same with tennis. The Challenge Tour, in particular, you need to be young with no responsibilities or have made it on the main tour and plenty of money behind you.
“I also missed home life and being able to have a pint with friends,” added Browne. He and his wife had their first child in October 2008 and baby number two is on the way this October. He’s also been known to hold a tune too.
“The other side is I’ve always been fascinated by business and how to make profit. And when not enjoying tour life I thought why not give the business side of things a crack.”
After a couple of Challenge Tour wins in Kazakhstan and Norway, the former European amateur champion has ruled out a potential return to represent Ireland. “Hitting my first tee shot representing Ireland in Sweden in 2001 still ranks as one of my proudest moments in golf but I wouldn’t be able to commit fully again. That’s how I feel now but, who knows, things could change.
“The Aer Lingus gold card was handed in and, looking back, I made the right decision,” concluded Browne.