Out of Bounds: Just how healthy is Irish golf?
Look past the big names and lack of real depth on tour is disconcerting
There will be too many weeks this season when Paul Dunne is ploughing a lone Irish furrow on the European Tour. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
On the surface, it all looks fine and dandy. A record number of Irish tour professionals - five - have full cards on the PGA Tour, the most lucrative circuit in the game. It’s where Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Séamus Power will, more often than not, and fitness and scheduling permitting, likely provide a green hue to leaderboards most weeks of the season.
Scratch under the skin, though, and it is not so appealing.
For aspiring tour professionals from this neck of the woods, the first port of call is to make it on the European Tour and, these days, the numbers game makes for rather grim reading. From the times when more than a dozen Irish players, a band of brothers of sorts, went from tour stop to tour stop, the number has seriously dwindled to the point where we’ve already had two events on the European circuit this season with no Irish players involved.
Let’s start off by making some comparisons. As it stands, there are seven Irish players with full playing rights on the European Tour for 2017: Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne and Paul McGinley.
Of that septet, four of them - McIlroy, Harrington, G-Mac and Lowry - will primarily play on the PGA Tour, while McGinley, who has a card for being in the top 40 on the career money list, but who can expect invites to at least ten events on the Champions Tour stateside now the former Ryder Cup captain has passed 50 years of age, will only play a limited schedule. Clarke likewise. There’ll be many weeks when Dunne is ploughing a lone furrow.
In bygone years, when the PGA Tour was not on the radar for Irish players, and as recently as the 1990s, upwards of 15 Irish players with full cards were involved in the week-to-week stops on the European Tour. And despite this current golden generation of Irish golfers in amassing nine Majors’ inside the past decade - McIlroy (4), Harrington (3), McDowell (1) and Clarke (1) - and with Lowry adding a WGC of his own, the strength in numbers has worryingly dissipated at a time when their very deeds should be providing inspiration to those coming behind.
Let’s make some more comparisons. While Ireland (technically) has seven players with full cards for 2017 on the European Tour, it pales in contrast with the might of England which has 41 players with full playing rights. More? Sweden has 19, France 13, Spain 11 . . . South Africa 14!
Dip below the surface further, to the Challenge Tour, and Gary Hurley and Chris Selfridge were the only Irish players to make it to the Road to Oman series finals last season but neither managed to earn a ticket to the Grand Final where full tour cards were won.
All of which makes the arrival of Des Smyth as leader of Team Ireland rather timely, certainly in terms of providing tutelage to aspiring players, but perhaps as importantly in using his status to generate increased revenue that can be dispersed to assist fledgling players.
This time last year, 12 players were issued funding by Team Ireland, which is supported by Sports Ireland. The two largest allocations of €20,000 went to Dunne and Stephanie Meadow. After that, awards of €10,000 went to Kevin Phelan, Selfridge and Ruaidhri McGee. Hurley, Gavin Moynihan, Cormac Sharvin, Brian Casey, Alan Dunbar, Jeff Hopkins and Reeve Whitson received €5,000. In all, Team Ireland had a total budget of €200,000 which also included allocations to the GUI National Academy and the GUI and ILGU High Performance managers to work on the scheme.
It’s something, for sure; but is it enough? It pales in comparison with the funding which fledgling pros in countries like Sweden and France - where budgets to give young players a kickstart their careers annually exceed €2 million - can avail of.
Smyth was once a part of a strong group of Irish players who travelled in strength of numbers to events around Europe, albeit with no funding from anyone. And although these days the PGA Tour is undoubtedly the ‘promised land’ for professionals, the European Tour is the better parameter of gauging true health of Irish professional golf.
As Smyth observed: “It’s disconcerting when you look down the list, when I go on the internet and they bring up the flags on the left hand side and I go down looking for the Irish flag and there’s not that many out there. Our top players are in America; this is why we’d like to see more out there (in Europe).”
For Smyth to succeed, he needs help.
Money, as ever, is one of the key factors. He has already come up with the idea of a pro-am at Luttrellstown Castle in July and he’ll be on the phone to Padraig et al for their help. But, with the upturn in the economy, there’s also the opportunity for corporates to get involved and, dare we say it, also increased government funding.
The reality is that the annual allocation to players would need to improve to give at least provide a little comfort that the initial basic expenses of travelling, caddies, hotel and food are to an extent looked after and players can focus on the task of getting the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. This is a must if young Irish players are to make the transition from amateur to pro, reach their potential and ensure Irish representation on tour increases. As it stands, we’re top heavy in quality but very low in quantity.