Thursday 29 June 2017

Relentless adventurer transforming sterile lists into lifetime's memories

Though working from a fairly tight budget, O'Leary still managed to gain an appreciation of the efforts made in other lands to attract the world's leading designers such as Coore and Crenshaw or Tom Doak for new golf course developments
Though working from a fairly tight budget, O'Leary still managed to gain an appreciation of the efforts made in other lands to attract the world's leading designers such as Coore and Crenshaw or Tom Doak for new golf course developments

Dermot Gilleece

With a familiar topic dominating the magazine's open pages last weekend, it wasn't much of a stretch to make the link with a certain look in the eyes of its reader, Fergal O'Leary. Yet he insisted: "Don't worry. I've already played most of the new ones on the list."

This little interlude took place in the Cape Cod abode of an irrepressible Dublin golf enthusiast and his Meath-born girlfriend Karen Lynch, who happens to be a neurologist at a local hospital. They were together at Durban Country Club in South Africa last month when O'Leary became at 32, the first Irishman to play all of the world's top 100 courses.

Now he was studying the latest biennial list in Golf Magazine, which shows six changes from the one he used from 2013. "Of those, the only ones that I haven't played are Ellerston GC in Australia and the Ayodhya Links outside Bangkok," he said. "I'm already planning to play them, which won't be a problem, given that Karen will enjoy Thailand before going on to visit her sister in Melbourne." Which would suggest that it is, in fact, possible for a sane partner to meet the needs of a hopeless golf nut.

To date, an elite group of 29 have done the top 100, and five of them have since passed on to the Elysian Fields. It is a safe bet, however, that O'Leary accomplished the challenge more efficiently than most, having been scratch or better for 14 years and currently playing off plus-one. In fact he shot a level-par 72 at Durban and reckons he covered the 100 courses in creditable cumulative figures of about 150 over par.

Born in Dublin, his first golf clubs came as a gift from his father, Pat, in 1989 and he has been playing the game competitively since he was 12. From membership of Malahide GC, he progressed to Portmarnock and then to The Country Club at Brookline after emigrating to Boston in 2005. He has worked with Ernst and Young for the last five years.

"A bug seems to have bitten me while I watched busloads of golf tourists arriving at Portmarnock from Dublin Airport," he said. "In caddying for them, I became fascinated by stories of where they'd been - all through golf. The Boston connection was first established while I was at Trinity, in that my sister lived there and I would go to work at Brookline during my summer holidays."

He suggested that the challenge of playing the world's top courses is not actually as daunting as it would appear, especially for someone like him, working in financial management. "You just have to be smart in how you tackle it," he said. "For instance, around half the top 100 are in America and as many as 15 are in Massachusetts and New York, within easy reach of Boston.

"My job could take me to Europe, Australia and Japan and always having my clubs with me, I began chipping away at the list about four years ago. And if you look at a world golf map, you'll note that a lot of the courses are clustered together. So, on reaching a particular region, you can hop into a car and drive around.

"I used hundreds of thousands of accumulated frequent-flyer miles and hotel points. Eventually, on a trip Down Under last winter, I found myself on New Year's Eve playing Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and realised it was my 99th.

"Which made Durban the last one, and I set about planning to go there in August. Which I did. And the nicest part of it was that as a huge surprise, my dad, God bless him, flew down from Dublin to walk the course with me."

His South African hosts also made a big fuss of him, even to the point of arranging accessible pin placements to facilitate decent scoring. And the climax of his round was marked by a bag-pipe rendition of Danny Boy, behind the 18th green.

Their delighted visitor then repaid the compliment by telling them: "This has probably been the most important day in the last eight years of my life. I couldn't have finished at a more special venue."

Earlier his formidable trek had included visits to the seven Irish courses on the list - Royal Co Down (5), Royal Portrush (15), Ballybunion (17), Lahinch (41), Portmarnock (55), Waterville (83) and The European Club (90).

Though working from a fairly tight budget, O'Leary still managed to gain an appreciation of the efforts made in other lands to attract the world's leading designers such as Coore and Crenshaw or Tom Doak for new golf course developments.

"I don't know if we in Ireland met the challenge of using the best pieces of land that are out there, land that is precious to all of us," he said. "Nor did we attract modern-day architects, especially during the Tiger era.

"It's been a long, long time since a world-class course has been opened in Ireland, one that the country would have reason to celebrate. In fact the European Club is the last one that comes to mind, which to me points to a very significant missed opportunity."

In the meantime, faraway greens continue to beckon a special golfing adventurer. The sort for whom sterile lists are transformed into captivating images, which will go on to shape the memories of a lifetime.

Sunday Indo Sport

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