A year ago Séamus Power made his debut at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, a big-money, small-field, no-cut event that, until this year, was restricted to the previous year’s winners on the PGA Tour.
Power’s ticket was stamped by his breakthrough win at the Barbasol Championship in the summer of 2021, a low-wattage tournament that changed his life.
By the end of the week in Hawaii Power was a dozen shots off the lead, which meant that he didn’t make his first appearance in the final round coverage on American TV until he was lining up a birdie putt on the 18th green.
The commentator had just enough time to tell the viewers that Power had grown up in Ireland playing youth golf with Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, importing some star-dust from trusted sources.
At the time Power was still elbowing his way out of the PGA Tour’s vast chorus line, and the commentator was safe to assume that whatever nugget he shared with his American audience would be news to them.
As the season progressed, and Power became a regular on PGA Tour leader boards, the commentators needed some fresh captions for the pictures on the screen. Eventually, one of them excavated the line about Power being offered a golf scholarship at East Tennessee University, only after McIlroy had turned it down.
It has been repeated in many places in recent years, without being entirely true. As head of the golf programme in East Tennessee Fred Warren recruited Power, and in conversation before Power’s debut at The Masters last April, he walked through the chain of events.
“That’s part urban legend,” he said. “Rory did sign a letter of intent. I didn’t know until about March that he wasn’t going to come. So Jordan Finlay came instead. Rory was going to get a full scholarship. I did not give Jordan a full scholarship.
“Rory was getting 100% and I gave Jordan, let’s say, 70%. That left me another 30% for the following year – in addition to whatever scholarship I might have had by somebody graduating. Seamus undoubtedly got part of that. I would be very comfortable verifying that Seamus got part of Rory’s scholarship.”
Admittedly, the Disney version of the story had more zing, and was a smaller mouthful for a golf commentator. The intention was easy to read too: during Power’s long, tortuous breakthrough on the PGA Tour, his back-story with McIlroy and Lowry was a handy way of introducing him to strangers sitting on their sofas. It gave his story some quotable context.
As teenagers they had grown up in the same peer group on the Irish circuit and they had all played together for Ireland at the European Youths Championship in 2006.
Then Power went a separate way. Their names weren’t mentioned in the same breath again until McIlroy and Lowry swerved the 2016 Rio Olympics in the face of the zika virus, and Power was drafted in as one of their replacements.
By then, McIlroy was the number four-ranked golfer in the world, Lowry was number 32 and Power was number 295, plying his trade on the Korn Ferry Tour after years of grunt and grind on the hard-scrabble mini-tours in America.
It would be stretching a point to say that Power was in the shadow of the other two because their shadows didn’t have that reach. When Lowry won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, McIlroy was one of the people who swamped Lowry in the ecstatic celebrations on the final green of the play-off. McIlroy was already into the third season of his professional career; Power was coming to the end of his third year at East Tennessee.
Lowry and McIlroy shared the same management company for a few years and, though McIlroy was flying at a different altitude, Lowry spent a lot of time in the same general air-space. Where was Power? In a different galaxy, far away.
Though all of them have dealt with failure and despair in their careers, neither McIlroy nor Lowry have faced the kind of adversity that Power has overcome. There was one season on the eGolf.com mini tour when the $25,000 he won in prize money simply wasn’t enough to cover his entry fees and expenses.
In another season he had just a couple of grand left in the kitty and desperately needed a result. So, rather than wasting entry fees at courses that he didn’t like, he waited for a suitable opportunity and won $12,000 the next time he teed it up. Think of the guts that took.
Warren and Power kept in touch. His old college coach was convinced Power would make it in the end, but he could see the suffering too.
“Three years in a row he was right on the bubble going into the last round at PGA Qualifying school, and three years in a row he missed by maybe one shot,” said Warren.
“He would come back to campus to practice occasionally and I’d see him and he was so incredibly positive. He’d say: ‘It’s probably good for me to stay on the mini-tours for another year’. He was so strong in his mind. ‘Yeah, it’s okay, it’s going to be better.’
“You know, it’s not about who gets there first, it’s about who gets there and lasts the longest.”
Now? His story is one of the most inspirational in Irish sport: because of where he started, and because of how much climbing he did on his hands and knees, refusing to give up.
Twelve years after he turned professional, and 2½ years after he dropped outside the top 500 in the world rankings, Power now sits inside the top 30, part of the game’s elite.
He doesn’t occupy any of the automatic qualifying places for the Ryder Cup team yet, but he is clearly in Luke Donald’s thoughts. Philip Walton and Lowry were the oldest Irish debutants in that event at 33 years of age; Power would be a 36-year-old rookie in September, schooled by every menace that golf can muster.
When he returned to the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week he was sitting on top of the PGA Tour’s money list. In their remarks about Power the American commentators didn’t need to mention any other names.