Who? Now, that one word poser is a loaded question when it comes to the golfer/golfers most likely to make the year ahead a breakthrough one; for, in truth, there is quality and quantity among those Irish men and women, professional and amateur, ready and able to make a mark on the global stage.
Being ready and able is one thing. Actually doing it is another, if we're honest, in what is a cut-throat competitive arena, especially for those seeking to make it on the main professional circuits – the PGA and the LPGA Tours stateside, the DP World Tour (aka the European Tour) and the Challenge Tour in Europe and even development tours like the EuroPro Tour which serve as feeders – where depth has rarely been as strong.
In many ways, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has also complicated matters for those aspiring to get full tour cards in their hands. For instance, the qualifying school on the European Tour was abandoned altogether last year, which stymied the ambitions of aspiring male professionals to move on to the bigger stage.
One advantage that fledgling professionals from Ireland have is support, financially, but also in back-up in terms of nutrition and strength and conditioning, through the Team Ireland programme, with the likes of Conor Purcell, Paul McBride, David Carey, Robin Dawson, James Sugrue and Olivia Mehaffey among those able to avail of it through 2021 in seeking to make the leap initially from amateur to professional but then in the early stages of pro careers. It works. Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow proved very much the poster girls for that programme which has been in play since 1999, while Jonathan Caldwell earned a breakthrough European Tour win last year.
For those players – men and women, amateur and professional – seeking to make 2022 a year to remember, the challenge is to do it on the international stage.
And, as if to underscore the quality that is out there, it is worth noting that someone like Matthew Wolff was ranked 1,659th in the world when he made his breakthrough win on the PGA Tour at the 3M Open in 2019, while current world number one Jon Rahm – who topped the world amateur rankings for 60 weeks – took the now traditional route of graduating through the US collegiate system before bringing his game seamlessly to the PGA Tour.
As PGA Tour player Luke List observed of how players these days are jumping straight from college into the winner's circle, "[it's just] the mentality [has changed]; you felt that you'd go to college, then graduate, then go to the mini tours . . . that doesn't exist anymore. These guys are ready to win, 18-22, that range, they're ready to go. They're weathered and their swings are good and they're ready to make a bunch of birdies."
Here are six young Irish players to watch on the birdie trail through 2022 . . .
Murphy jumped into the professional ranks midway through 2021 – after graduating from the University of Louisville -– and, with limited opportunities, showed he had the game and mental fortitude for tour life in guaranteeing a full Challenge Tour card for the 2022 season ahead.
The 23-year-old from Kinsale, Co Cork, had a rich pedigree from his amateur days: he won the prestige St Andrews Links back in 2018 and was a serial winner on the US collegiate circuit in his time in Louisville. He'd also performed well on a losing Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team against the USA in Seminole before signing professional with Dublin-based JMC sports agency, which numbers South African PGA Tour winner Erik van Rooyen among its clients.
Murphy would appear to have the attributes to break through: “I know I have a lot of improving to do. I know that I’m not the longest hitter out there; I’m not the straightest driver out there; my approach play is not the best out there; my putting is not the best; but when I stand on the first tee, I convince myself that I can go toe-to-toe with anybody and I think I can,” he said.
During a stellar amateur career, Mehaffey – the 24-year-old from Tandragee, Co Armagh – was a two-time Curtis Cup player for Britain and Ireland but also a stalwart of the Arizona State University golf team that won the NCAA title along with a number of individual successes. She has already competed in five Majors (as an amateur) and has the game and temperament to make an impact on the professional circuits, hopefully hitting the ground running in the year ahead.
Mehaffey, who turned professional after graduating with a master's degree last May, has a status on both the Symetra Tour in the United States (which serves as a stepping stone to the LPGA Tour, a route taken by Leona Maguire) and also on the Ladies European Tour for 2022. She cruelly missed out on a full tour card for the LET at Q-School in December, by one stroke, playing shortly after her father, Philip, had passed away.
Of fulfilling her father’s wishes to continue playing in her quest for a card, Mehaffey observed: “I learnt many things from my dad since I was a young girl. But over the last year, I have learnt more from him than I could ever imagine. Watching his strength, determination, amazing attitude, positivity and gratefulness while his health deteriorated was truly admirable. This is the manner in which I promise to strive to live the rest of my life.”
Mehaffey is likely to juggle a schedule between opportunities on the Symetra Tour and the LET.
Already a trail-blazing pioneer in advancing the visibility of disability golf, the 24-year-old from Dundalk, Co Louth – who suffers from Ellis-Van Creveld Syndrome, a rare growth disorder that leads to shorter limbs – is set to make a further impression on the sport globally.
This week, for starters, Lawlor – who turned professional last year and is with Niall Horan’s Modest! Golf Management – is competing in a tournament for disabled golfers that is run alongside the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua.
Lawlor moved to number one in the world golf disability rankings last year – after dominant wins in the Cazoo Open, the ISPS Handa World Disability Invitational at Galgorm Castle and then the season-ending European Disabled Golfers' Association Grand Final in Dubai in November – and is very much the leading light in advocating playing rights for disabled golfers, arguing strongly that it should in future be part of the Paralympics.
Having turned professional as a genuine scratch player, Lawlor – 4-feet 11-inch in physical stature but with an ever-growing global reach that makes him the biggest all-ability player on the planet – intends to grow the game for all through the coming year:
“People ask how I’m so good at promoting Disability Golf but it’s easy, I’ve such a passion for it. It’s my everyday life. I want to bring people into the game. I want to help people. It’s my nature.”
A teenage prodigy, hailing from Holywood Golf Club (the same as Rory McIlroy) only adding to the sense of expectation, the Ulster teenager's decision to jump straight into the professional ranks rather than accept numerous collegiate offers from stateside only served to underscore his intent.
McKibbin, 18, turned professional last April and got a taste of life on tour straight away with missed cuts in his first three tournaments (two on the main European Tour in the Canaries on sponsor’s invites and another on the Challenge Tour). Then, a 12th place finish in the Irish Challenge earned him his first payday and he was very much up and running and cutting his teeth into that of a professional life.
Already accustomed to global travel – he won the World Junior Invitational at Pinehurst as a 12-year-old and the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in the USA as a mid-teen – McKibbin's potential has already manifested in a number of sponsors, among them Galgorm Castle and Grant Engineering, coming on board as he aims to work his way up the ladder in 2022 when he will primarily focus on the Challenge Tour, but also aiming to achieve some sponsor's invitations onto the main DPWT circuit too.
The 21-year-old from Kill, Co Kildare is ticking all the right boxes as she navigates a route that ultimately should lead her to the LPGA Tour . . . in a couple of years.
For now, Walsh's focus is very much on the amateur game, where she has proven to be a serial collector of titles going back to the days when she won Leinster and Connacht girls' championships in 2017, to the point where she is among the elite of the women's amateur game with the potential to contend in numerous championships in the coming months.
Into her third year of a golfing scholarship to Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Walsh – who played Curtis Cup for Britain and Ireland last year – is currently 17th in the world amateur golf rankings and is headed into a busy collegiate schedule and also a hectic summer ahead. Given her world ranking, Walsh is set to make her debut in the Augusta National Women's Amateur in April and also to make it back-to-back Curtis Cup appearances for the match at Merion Golf Club in June.
The only Irish male amateur ranked inside the world’s top-50, Power – from Kilkenny and into his third year of a scholarship to Wake Forest University – will seek to add further to his growing reputation this year.
Of course, golf is very much in the blood: his mother Eileen Rose was a Curtis Cup player and three-time Irish Close champion; and his father Eddie was also a three-time Irish Close champion.
Power – who played in last year's Walker Cup at Seminole – will have a number of big targets for the year ahead, among them the British Amateur Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes in England in June.
And, who knows, maybe the chance to become the newest Power to lift an Irish Close title? The men's Irish Amateur Close takes place at Headfort Golf Club in Kells, Co Meath, in mid-August. Power will also likely be a key player for Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy, the world amateur team championship which takes place in Paris in late-August, early-September.