independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Wife's counsel prevails on long route back to top

A change of mindset is the source of David Higgins' renaissance

David Higgins

Though he has set his sights this week on treading the same terrain as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, there is no question of David Higgins overstepping his recently-recovered Tour status. He has simply opted for a promising assignment on the same course in Antalya, Turkey where the illustrious pair competed two months ago.

In the company of fellow Irish professionals, Barrie Trainor and David Ryan, Higgins will be in a field of 26 for the PGA Play-offs, a 72-hole tournament starting tomorrow and involving the elite of the British and Irish regions. He's there in preference to the Nelson Mandela Championship, currently in progress in South Africa.

By finishing in the top 10 at Antalya 12 months ago, Higgins qualified for a place in the BMW Championship at Wentworth last May, when 10th place brought him €78,300, the biggest pay day of his career. "The way I'm playing, Turkey is likely to open more doors for me this time around," he said.

In fact, a top-two finish at Antalya on Thursday would also deliver spots in next season's Scottish and Wales Opens, which would probably be beyond his tour status as a Qualifying School graduate. He has already claimed an Irish Open place at Carton House by winning this year's Order of Merit on the PGA Irish Region. "If I was to get into all of these events and do well, I could jump ahead of the other school graduates in the re-ranks," Higgins said. "Either way, Wentworth holds a special appeal for me, because of what happened there last May.

"All credit for that goes to my wife, Liz. 'Why don't we try something different,' she suggested, regarding the week leading into the tournament. And when I protested that I needed time to practise, she really stung me by saying, 'That hasn't done you a whole lot of good in the last few years, has it?'"

Liz, who has a graphic design business in Cahirsiveen, had in the past seen the need for change, but as the player admitted "she couldn't bring herself to tell me." This time, however, she dug her heels in.

Higgins and his wife went for five days to a seminar she had sourced in England, far from the practice ground. "I don't want to name who gave the seminar, except that he was a motivational guy who attracted people from all walks of life," he said. "It was essentially about self-awareness and I went to Wentworth a different man.

"Finishing 10th was great but I felt I could have done even better. That mental change totally transformed my year, especially under the immense pressure of the Tour School. I got back to playing freely, with lots of positive thinking and self-belief."

This is the player who can remember childhood days watching his father, Liam, practising at Waterville. And after taking up the game as a 12-year-old playing off 27 handicap and idolising Seve Ballesteros, he had the aptitude to be a scratch player only five years later.

Within weeks of turning professional, enormous potential became evident in a low-scoring performance of stunning quality in the South African Tour School in October 1994. On the 7,200-yard Crown Mines course in Johannesburg, his final round began: eagle, birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, birdie. He was an astonishing nine under par after seven holes, a record scoring burst for an Irish player.

In the event, he bogeyed the next and eventually finished with a 63. "Given that start, I suppose it was a bad 63," he recalled with a wry smile. From then on, however, the game became a struggle, punctuated by serious setbacks, the most damaging of which was a riding accident at the end of December 1998.

"It happened in an indoor arena in Limerick after I had just regained my European Tour card," he said. "I guess the horse got a bit spooked and ran at a wall which I hit with my left palm and my right elbow out front, trying to protect myself. My left wrist and right elbow were broken. Then, unable to hit a ball in four months, I tried to come back at the highest level, which was a big mistake. I should have taken a year out on a medical exemption."

Further heartbreak came in December 2006. One stroke out of the lead through an opening 69 in South Africa's Alfred Dunhill Championship, he disappeared off the golfing radar. Food poisoning had forced him to head home after the first day. Worse was to follow in 2007, his last year with a tour card, when a mystery liver virus effectively destroyed his season. Against this background, it hardly seems fair to note that this latest visit was, in fact, his 13th to the Qualifying School.

During 40th birthday celebrations among family and friends in Waterville last weekend, the talk was of how many years he might have on tour. Five? Maybe six? "I no longer want to be looking back with regret," said Higgins. "I've learned that it's really all about how you handle it in your head, and with this opportunity I've created for myself, I've got to move forward.

"I'm playing well; I'm in good shape physically and I'm better mentally than I've ever been. So there's no reason why I can't have five or six good years, then take a little break and start again as a senior when I'm 50. And I'm going to take it one year at a time."

After Turkey, there will be Christmas at home and time to plan his start to the season in South Africa in early February.

But before that, a January pro-am invitation to Barbados offers the chance of an extended stay for productive practice in the sun. And the reward of a holiday for the good wife, who showed him the way back.

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