'The dream of being a pro is from another time'
Once a rising amateur, Brian Omelia grateful to still find joy in game, says Dermot Gilleece
All the ingredients are there for a heart-rending tale of cruel fate and broken dreams. How a leading amateur seemed headed for similar prominence in professional ranks, only to be frustrated at every turn by recurring injury.
But the really interesting thing is that Brian Omelia has no wish to buy into this seductive scenario. "It seems that every guy who doesn't make it in sport has an injury," he said with a wry smile. So he would rather talk about the fascinating way in which golf inveigled him back into the fold.
At 37, a remarkable acceptance of life on life's terms was evident in Omelia's reaction recently when a much-anticipated visit to The European Club was effectively destroyed by horrendous weather. Playing with Clontarf professional Eamonn Brady, an old amateur pal and one-time college colleague at East Tennessee State, he sensed he was fighting a losing battle when needing two drivers and an eight iron to reach the green on the 424-yard opening hole.
Racking their brains to think of anything comparable from their amateur days, the pair eventually admitted defeat on the long third.
When the Irish Youths Championship was staged at Tullamore in 1994, Omelia carded stunning rounds of 69, 66, 69, 68 to win by seven shots from a field which included future Walker Cup players in Richard Coughlan, Keith Nolan and Noel Fox. Four years later, his colleagues on the British and Irish team in the St Andrews Trophy at Villa d'Este, Italy, included Luke Donald, the current world No 1, and Simon Dyson, the reigning Irish Open champion.
During the 13 years between then and now, the red-haired Dubliner from Newlands GC crossed the US in reverse, from Seattle to Boston; worked in Florida and went back to Seattle before ending up in a suburb of Los Angeles. His American odyssey finally came to an end last autumn, when he returned home with plans for a future as a club professional.
"Having decided not to wait for the Walker Cup, I turned pro in the autumn of 1998, went to the European Tour School and didn't make it," he recalled. "But it didn't seem a problem. More worrying was a nagging pain in my left shoulder. Diagnosed as stemming from a disc problem in my neck, it would require surgery, but I felt sure I could live with it.
"So I travelled to Asia early in 1999 with Peter Lawrie and played a bit there before returning to the mini-tours in Britain. Newlands had been wonderfully supportive, so I didn't have any real financial concerns. But looking back, I realise now that I turned pro in a bit of a rush."
A fascinating aspect of those early years is that any time he felt disheartened, a performance like the Youths in Tullamore would remind him of his splendid golfing skills. "There was also a deep-down anxiety simply to grow up and to earn some money," he said.
After spells on the Hooter's Tour in the American south, he went in 2002 to the Canadian Tour School in British Columbia, where he shot 15-under-par to win it by seven strokes. "Here we go," he thought. "We're on our way." Two months later he was in Seattle, happy to have a job in Starbucks.
"I had played only three Canadian Tour events when my shoulder gave out," he said. "I couldn't practise and any little cash I'd earned wasn't going to last long. I felt emotionally crushed. So I stopped, and wondered how many months it would be before I could start all over again."
He went on: "I had a real hunger to see what the world beyond golf was all about and I was always interested in Seattle. The Emerald City. Lots of rain. Just like home. I stayed there for almost two years. The manager at Starbucks loved U2, was a decent golfer and a great fan of the game. We hit it off.
"By that time I was following the progress of guys like Peter (Lawrie) and Harrington, especially Peter. We had been friendly rivals at Newlands. Part of me was saying that it could have been me, but I didn't resent them. In fact, I was delighted they were doing well."
Early in 2004, he went to Boston where he worked again for Starbucks. They wanted him to go into management but he saw it as no more than a living. The call of the fairways still remained strong. As he put it: "I never stopped wanting to play." But that, too, would change.
During an 18-month stay in Boston, he read a biography of Ben Hogan which triggered something within him. He was inspired by the challenges Hogan overcame, not least the devastating injuries from a near-fatal car-crash. "I tried to figure out a way of playing again," he said.
The upshot of it was that he left Starbucks in December '05 and headed for Florida and a job at the Lake Jovita GC in Tampa. There he met a former Tennessee State colleague, Garrett Willis, the 2001 Tucson Open champion and another member of their college team, Brendan Webb from Canada.
Encouraged by their support, he returned to Boston and the New England Tour. With the shoulder feeling good, he shot a 54-hole score of 12-under to finish runner-up in the first event of 2006 for prize money of $10,000 and went on to finish the year in the top 10 on the money list. "So I moved back there," he said. "I'd always loved the American north-east."
After two summers of the mini-tour, however, he had had enough. And he didn't have the $10,000 necessary for a trip to the official Tour School. The spark had died once more and he headed back to Seattle for a job laying synthetic golf greens in the gardens of the wealthy. "It wasn't a very sensible thing to do from a golfing standpoint," he said, "but I realised I wasn't really in a position to keep playing. I wanted to, but not the mini-tours. If somebody had presented me with a Tour card, I suppose my thinking would have been very different."
Late in 2010, he made his final US move, this time to Los Angeles where he spent eight months living on his wits and working at a driving range in the San Fernando Valley. There he realised he was tired of the road. It was time to come home and find a way of getting back into the game in a meaningful sense. Become a qualified PGA professional.
In a way, it was old implements that prompted these thoughts. Omelia explained: "Most of the golf I've played over the last few years has been with old, persimmon woods and vintage blades. It has had the effect of reconnecting me with the game. I used persimmon at college, well into the metal era. When our team won the Conference Championship, I finished second individual with a persimmon driver."
With that, he removed a head-cover from one of the clubs in his bag to reveal a classic, old MacGregor driver, endorsed by Jack Nicklaus. "Using these clubs with old balata balls reawakened my enthusiasm," he said. "They really opened my eyes, allowing me to play shots that have been taken out of the game."
So, has he abandoned the dream? "The dream of being a Tour pro is from another time in my life," he replied. "But I believe I can still get fulfilment from the game."
With that, he caressed the old persimmon like it was a precious heirloom, grateful for the practical shape it had given to his golfing future.
Sunday Indo Sport