As challenging as the Old Course at Ballybunion, hard by the Atlantic, can be, it will provide a welcome release for Bláithín O’Brien. An escape of sorts; for the Cork-based Roscommon native has been on the frontline – as a physiotherapist working with the elderly at Cork University Hospital – for much of the pandemic, her mind more focused on non-invasive ventilation for patients than worrying about sandy lies or four-footers for par.
O'Brien is in the field for the AIG Irish Women's Amateur Close Championship – which gets under way at the famed Co Kerry links on Thursday – where among the other competitors are players, a number currently on college scholarships in the USA, with dreams of one day following in the footsteps of Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow onto the LPGA Tour.
In O’Brien’s case, a former Connacht women’s champion as a teenager, it is more about rediscovering golf, describing it as “one of life’s greatest pleasures”.
O’Brien has had little time for golf this past 18 months or so. Fresh out of college and working as a physio in CUH, she spent much of the pandemic working in the orthopaedic-trauma floor with the elderly and only recently moved on to paediatrics.
“I was working usually with elderly people who have hip fractures and things like that on the trauma floor, working very closely with the consultants and with the nursing staff and with other physios for non-invasive ventilation, CPAP and BiPAP machines, especially with Covid patients and helping monitor respiratory symptoms and rehabbing.
“Mainly it was elderly people who came into hospital who happened to have hip fractures; if they became Covid positive, I’d to help manage their respiratory symptoms through setting those two machines to prevent ICU . . . it was challenging, being my first job out of college, but I think the thing I most found best working in Cork University Hospital was the people who work there, my colleagues, the physiotherapy colleagues and nursing colleagues and everyone on the team.
“It is like team work makes the dream work. I felt like the people are so giving and so altruistic and every day you went in there was never a complaint, everyone just put their heads down, they were so industrious. It was such a lovely place to work, even in the middle of a pandemic. It was tough but everyone put their head down and got through it.”
It’s only in the past few months, with the easing of restrictions, that golf has made a reappearance for O’Brien, although as a qualified Pilates instructor she did work on her core through the pandemic when golf courses were out of reach.
“It has been a crazy year, pretty much back to the walls with work. I got into a bit of a break from golf through college, found there was a bit of a cliff between junior golf and adult golf where you’re very facilitated as a junior and have a lot more time, but when I got into college I didn’t play as much. But now I am definitely getting back into the whole thing and hope to make the most of this year.”
O'Brien's grounding in the sport came at Roscommon Golf Club, where her mother played and where Philip Murphy has earned a reputation as one of the leading coaches in the country. Indeed, another Roscommon player – 13-year-old Olivia Costello – is also competing in the Irish Close.
“I used to play GAA, and was very into running as well when I was younger, then golf took over when I was a teenager,” said O’Brien who nowadays also finds the time for Tag Rugby and is training to compete in triathlons.
“Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to play a huge amount of golf. I said I’d enter most competitions and I’m playing in the Connacht women’s later this season as well. I intend to play as much as my work would allow me to play,” said O’Brien, who has regularly featured on Roscommon teams which have made it to Irish Senior Cup finals without ever managing national success. Yet!
As she put it: “The part of golf I enjoy the most is playing on a team; that’s what I enjoy, the social aspect. Even the last year makes you realise you are getting out into the fresh air and spending time with people and playing golf is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
“I have a newfound appreciation for golf and it is a relief, to be able to go out and play. The thing I enjoy most is meeting people, the social aspect and enjoying the scenery and the fresh air when you’re walking around.”
O'Brien has played in the Irish Close previously but her expectations might not be as high as such like Sara Byrne, a past champion, Beth Coulter, Rebekah Garnder, Kate Lanigan or Áine Donegan who all recently featured prominently and will have aspirations on lifting the title.
Of her own expectations, O'Brien – who is grouped with Shirley Real and Aoife Browne for the opening round of the Close on her competitive return – said: "They are to use the wind to my advantage, to make wise decisions and create as many birdie opportunities as possible. If I can do those three things, no matter what my score, I will walk away happy."