Home comfort for McCrudden as an ideal opportunity knocks

 

IRISH OPEN PREVIEW:The Portrush golfer grew up playing against Rory McIlroy before their careers diverged wildly, writes JONATHAN DRENNAN

THE CLUBHOUSE at Royal Portrush golf club has not seen commotion like this for many years. The beautiful and pristine course has been transformed into a building site with burly workmen in hard hats mixing easily with golfers in their pressed slacks. In the bar there is a sprinkling of elderly members, eating alone. A young man, meanwhile, sits apart from them. He holds a club sandwich in his hand but, rather than devouring it, he looks out dreamily though the rain-splattered window at the vast grandstand that has been erected at the 18th hole.

Patrick McCrudden (26) will tee off at the Irish Open as the lowest ranked player in the tournament, not that he minds. “It’s actually a great position to be in, nobody is expecting much from me, but apart from Graeme I know this course as well as anyone and I just want to show people what I can do out there.”

McCrudden has been a member of the club since he was 10 years old, and he will get to play out his wildest schoolboy dreams on the course he loves.

After he had attended college at the University of Denver, where he’d won a golfing scholarship, McCrudden worked for two years at the tills in the club’s pro shop. His professional dreams had, by then, come to naught. While selling Mars bars and balls to weekend golfers, did he ever wonder where his promising golf career had gone wrong?

“Absolutely, it’s hard not to get negative thoughts when you’re in that position.”

A local boy who grew up just a short drive from the club house, McCrudden’s thoughts on slow days in work sometimes drifted to the gifted players he had played against as a schoolboy at Coleraine Academical Institution. McCrudden never forgot his time playing against the most talented of them all, Rory McIlroy.

He speaks warmly of McIlroy, a friend he has known “since he was about four foot tall, but with the most incredible natural talent you could imagine”. McCrudden remembers the first time he saw McIlroy’s ability to close out a game as an opponent.

“It was a school game, and we were level going into the last hole, and then he hits this perfect flop shot, the kind of shot you aren’t meant to do as a schoolboy, and he wins the game for his school. We all knew he was going to be a one off.”

They competed against one another throughout their teens, and McCrudden recalls how McIlroy’s attitude stuck out amongst his peers.

“He competed with us and he definitely had a swagger, maybe with a bit of cockiness, but he had the ability to get away with it. He walked around the course with his chest puffed out. But the thing about him was after it was over, he’d always come over and chat to everyone, and on the rare occasions that you’d win against him, he’d be very gracious.”

After competing against one another throughout their teens, McCrudden smiles at the different direction their careers have taken.

“All I have for Rory McIlroy is respect, he went out and did everything himself and I know speaking to him it wasn’t easy. He took big risks. He didn’t go to school after 15 because he was so set on his golf, and his huge natural talent of course helped. Maybe I just didn’t have his confidence.”

When McIlroy and McCrudden meet sporadically as adults at Royal Portrush, the talk rarely strays to their golfing days. “When I do get to see him, which is rarer these days due to his time demands, we just end up talking about normal things, football, girlfriends, or whatever, anything but golf. He gets enough of that. When I was working in the pro shop, he’d always come and thank people when he played a round, that’s the sort of guy he is.”

While McIlroy went pro soon after school, McCrudden decided to follow his close friend Graeme McDowell’s path into the American collegiate scene. The culture shock was vast for a boy from the north coast of Ireland.

“I arrived there with one suitcase and a golf bag, a golfing Dick Whittington almost. I had never visited Denver and I was completely alone. I was met at the airport by this huge guy who was the coach. He left me at another player’s house and he immediately told me to dump my bags as they were having a keg party. I thought it would be rude not to join in. I was a 19-year-old Irish boy surrounded by confident college kids and it took some getting used to.”

Four years of intense training and study rewarded McCrudden with a business degree and a vast improvement in his game. His collegiate team-mates have mostly gone professional in Canada and the United States, but he wanted to get home

“I had four great years, but home is home and on a nice day Royal Portrush is paradise, and I wanted to come back and get ready to qualify for the European Tour which I felt I had every chance to do.”

With ill luck and terrible timing, McCrudden suddenly had to have his appendix removed. He was out of the game for months. His carefully honed swing was taken to pieces when he became terrified of ripping stitches out of his body every time he turned to drive the ball and his confidence suffered.

“I’m like anyone, you get frustrated, and you wonder why is this happening to me when I just want to push on, you wonder what if when you’re sitting working in the pro shop, but I knew I had to just work harder and come back.”

Last year, McCrudden did just that by winning the North of Ireland championship at Royal Portrush. The return to form gave him confidence that he could still have a future in the game.

“I’m good friends with Graeme, and I’ve been out playing with him here, and I find sometimes on certain holes I can match him. Then I find myself wondering can I really compete at this level? But then you realise very quickly what separates these guys from the rest. I see Darren Clarke down here regularly practising alone for up to 10 hours. If he does that after all he’s done, that’s what it takes.”

McCrudden has recently stopped working at the pro shop and he also given up his evening job at a local bar. Instead, he now works from home, putting in long hours for an online golf booking facility as a way of funding his golf. He fits his training around an exacting work schedule.

“I just have to fit my golf practise in when I can, I try to get up really early, and be at the club for around 6am hitting balls on the range, anything to get better. Then after work at 5.30, I’ll hoover my dinner down and be at the club for six on the dot ready to play until sunset.”

Having played against McDowell as an adult and McIlroy as a schoolboy, McCrudden explains the shock of getting a wildcard into the tournament as an amateur. “To be able to compete against these guys will be incredible. But I feel so comfortable, I know it won’t overawe me. I love playing with crowds. The way I look at it, its just a couple more pairs of eyes to look for my balls that I hit. I love a challenge, and this is exactly what this is, nobody expects anything from me.”

McCrudden gets up and insists on paying our bill and now faces a long drive to Donegal. Every weekend is spent in clubs around Ireland, competing for his club, bunking in bed and breakfasts. The Irish amateur golf fraternity is a tight-knit community that competes against one another, but always has time for a beer and a bit of banter. In one week McCrudden will abandon this cosy corinthian community for a professional one where Sky Sports cameras will be trained on him.

His first tee shot cannot come soon enough.

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