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Why are there fewer and fewer Irish players on the European Tour?

Out of Bounds: Numbers have dwindled since the 1990s due to a number of different factors

Paul Dunne of Ireland lines up a putt during day two of the Turkish Airlines Open at the Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort in Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

It’s an old truism that golf is a numbers game. The basic task is to get the ball into the hole in as few strokes as humanly possible; yet the other side of the numbers game can be seen with the small contingent of Irish players nowadays on the PGA European Tour.

When Pádraig Harrington played in his rookie season on the European circuit back in 1996, he was the new kid on the block in what was a vibrant Irish travelling party who moved from one tour stop to another.

In fact, he was one of 13 Irish players with tour cards – or metal membership badges attached to their belts – that year. Darren Clarke. Paul McGinley. Raymond Burns. Ronan Rafferty. David Feherty. Philip Walton. Eamonn Darcy. David Higgins. Des Smyth. Francis Howley. John McHenry. Jimmy Heggarty. That was quite a close-knit, and relatively large, group for a young player to assimilate into and learn the ways of life as a touring professional.

Times have certainly changed, and not for the better in terms of quantity. There were weeks this past season where no Irish players teed it up in tournaments and, often, Paul Dunne was the lone standard-bearer.

What has happened? True, the game has grown so that larger numbers from Asia, especially, and newer golfer nations in Europe – such as Finland and Denmark – make it more difficult for players to attain full tour cards. The competition, at that level, has gotten stronger and the greater depth has made it more difficult to move from one stage of qualifying school to another and ultimately to the final stage.

That Robin Dawson, Gavin Moynihan and Cormac Sharvin have all managed to earn their places in the European Tour’s final qualifying school brings some reason for hope. The trio will be among 95 players who set out on the marathon at Lumine Golf Club in the Tarragona region of Spain starting on Saturday next, a six-day marathon that Walton once described as akin to a “torture chamber” back in the day.

Looking back over the past 10 years of final qualifying school, Irish players have found it difficult to escape from the chamber: Moynihan (25th) did so last year, Paul Dunne (13th) in 2015, Kevin Phelan (17th) in 2013, David Higgins (16th) in 2012, both Gary Murphy (16th) and Simon Thornton (26th) in 2009 and Jonny Caldwell (26th) in 2009. That’s a low strike rate and a number of years (2016, 2014, 2011, 2010) of complete misses where no Irish players got through the final school.

It is not the role of the Golfing Union of Ireland to produce players to be tour players, even if that is a byproduct of developing young players. The GUI’s duty is to govern the sport (for men) throughout Ireland and to develop teams that compete internationally, which the body has done with tremendous successes: four of the last five Home International tells the tale of how successful that programme has been under the direction of national coach Neil Manchip.

Players transitioning from amateur to professional have been assisted by Team Ireland Golf with Des Smyth’s involvement in recent years a colossal contribution in terms of his time and knowhow.

At least Dawson, Moynihan and Sharvin have got the final stage with destiny in their own hands. Woouldn’t it be something if all three managed to defy the odds and get their hands on full tour cards. Now, that would certainly start tilting the numbers game back in the right direction.