Tiger Woods may have the longest drive in professional golf, but few men have driven further than Ireland's Keith Nolan who drove over 35,000 miles back and forth across America in pursuit of his Holy Grail, a place on the world's greatest Tour. This year he has qualified for the US PGA circuit and will spend the season playing alongside the game's greatest stars. KARL MacGINTY reports from Pebble BeachTiger Woods may have the longest drive in professional golf, but few men have driven further than Ireland's Keith Nolan who drove over 35,000 miles back and forth across America in pursuit of his Holy Grail, a place on the world's greatest Tour. This year he has qualified for the US PGA circuit and will spend the season playing alongside the game's greatest stars. KARL MacGINTY reports from Pebble Beach
HOLLYWOOD fantasy and harsh reality collide with a metallic crack every time Kevin Costner steps onto the tee box.
Since 1996, when Costner starred as golf pro Roy McAvoy in the immensely popular film Tin Cup, he has been followed down the fairways by whispers of surprise and dismay.
``Making Tin Cup put enormous pressure on me,'' he said at this week's AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. ``People thought I could play, whereas in reality it was a cut up movie.
``I hear what their saying in the gallery,'' he laughs, dropping his voice to a stage whisper: ```He's not very good' or `I thought he was better than that.'
``I hear that, man. You think I don't hear that. Then somebody sweet will murmur `Maybe he's just having a bad day','' chuckles Costner, who plays only 10 to 15 rounds of golf a year and is listed as a 16-handicap for the Pebble Beach spectacular, in which stars from stage, screen and other fields play for charity alongside US PGA Tour professionals.
The film Tin Cup struck a deep chord with the American golfing community, with even the organisers at Pebble Beach unable to resist placing Costner and French professional Jean Van der Velde in the same fourball for the tournament's opening three rounds.
Of course, Van der Velde frittered away the British Open in Roy McAvoy-style at Carnoustie last year, but he remains admirably unaffected by this chastening experience and is well able to take their wicked little joke in good nature.
Indeed, he probably appreciated the opportunity to pump Costner for a tip or two about acting. Van der Velde recently revisited the 18th at the famous Scottish links to shoot a TV advert for a range of putters called `Never Compromise'.
He was required to play the hole once again, though this time only with a putter, and he waves away all questions about the outcome with a laugh. ``You'll find out in March when it is screened.''
Van der Velde's watery demise at The Open was strikingly similar to the plot of Tin Cup, yet few of the professional golfers, either mighty or humble, in the enormous field at Pebble Beach, would be unable to identify in some way with McAvoy.
IRELAND'S Keith Nolan is one. The Bray man's first taste of life on Tour as a professional came on the practice ground here at Pebble Beach two years ago, and he confesses that he felt just as awestruck as Costner's character to be hitting balls alongside men he viewed as legends.
``I remember thinking `wow, there's Tom Watson','' he says of his first morning as a touring pro. ``I'd grown up watching these guys on TV and, all of a sudden, there they were hitting balls alongside me.
``I had experienced that a little when I had played in the Irish Open as an amateur, but it wasn't quite the same. Next week, I'd be back playing in amateur tournaments again. I was in a comfort zone.''
Nolan, aged 26 and based in Knoxville, where he studied Communications while on a golf scholarship at East Tennessee State University until 1997, is brutally frank about the salutary lessons of '98, his rookie year on Tour.
After winning his card at the first attempt the previous winter, he set out with high hopes, but was ill-prepared for the desperate struggle for survival which his great adventure was soon to become.
A multitude of near misses were the most frustrating features of a season spent scrambling up a learning curve. ``When you miss seven cuts by one shot, that's really not knowing how to play golf out here,'' he says candidly.
Keith played in 25 tournaments that year, winning prizemoney in just four, with a paltry $17,203 leaving him 251st in the Order of Merit. It meant another visit to Tour School, from which he managed to win his way on to the Nike challenge tour.
After marrying his American fiancee Yolanda in March, he packed his gear into his car and headed out on a 35,000 miles trans-continental mission to regain the Holy Grail a place on the USPGA Tour, something which he eventually achieved at Tour School last November.
``It's noticeable that those who qualify for their Tour cards by finishing in a top position on the Nike usually go on to do well in their rookie year. That's probably why I wasn't ready two years ago.
``I had played well for just three weeks at Tour School to get my card and they had played well for the eight or nine months that the season runs,'' he explains.
``Two years ago, I wasn't as confident or as strong mentally as I am now. I had gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a minnow. I know that's a cliche, but that's the way it was.
``Basically, I went from being one of the top amateurs back home to a situation where I was not even on the ladder, never mind the bottom rung,'' said the former Walker Cup star, who was Irish Amateur champion in '96 and took the Strokeplay title the following year.
``There's no doubt, you have got to serve your time. You have got to learn. And after everything I have gone through over the past two years, I now feel comfortable out here. I really do. Whatever is going on right now, it's not fazing me as much as it would have two years ago.''
Already this year, Nolan has played one event and even if he missed the cut by one stroke in Hawaii, he went into this week's $4m event at Pebble Beach happy with his game, particularly his short game. ``Even if I play a poor shot, I'm confident I can get up and down.''
THAT confidence came under severe examination on Thursday when Nolan, and many others unfortunate enough to open this tournament on the back nine at Pebble Beach, were exposed to the full excesses of a Pacific Ocean storm which forced play to be suspended at all three courses.
Within hours, howling gales and driving rain had transformed California's Monterey Peninsula from a sun-splashed paradise into purgatory, a transition just as sudden and shocking as those which can be wrought by the game of golf itself.
At precisely 9.0 the previous morning, when the rest of humanity was probably clocking in at work, Keith was standing with Sergio Garcia on the first tee at Spyglass Hill. The whole forest around them was illuminated by brilliant sunbeams, while a princely corridor of towering Pines stretched out in front, ending in a mysterious salt-sea haze thrown up by the pounding, frothing ocean surf.
As Garcia stood over his drive, we all fell respectfully silent, but nature kept up its cacophony, with seals barking like Neptune's watchdogs on the nearby shore. As we marched from the trees, we were greeted by the sight of the Pacific in its full boiling, rolling majesty.
For the next four holes, before we returned to the forest, golf and golfers, even the effervescent Garcia, took second place. ``Breathtaking, isn't it,'' said Nolan while lining up his putt in the second green.
Practice, the bread and butter days of the golfing profession, don't get much better than this. How interesting to see Garcia and his new caddy Fanny Sunersson chattering contentedly in Spanish and then cheerily translating for their playing partners, the youngster further seasoning the occasion with a series of trick shots.
Sunersson, who recently became engaged to one of the technical staff who support the tournament players, seems to revel in her new position with one of the sport's most refreshing and exciting young talents after so many years of loyal servitude to Nick Faldo.
Nolan and Garcia are friends from their amateur days, when they both played on Europe's amateur circuit and the Spaniard was crowned European Champion at the ludicrous age of 15. The Irishman always knew that El Nino was bound for the very top.
``Every generation in Spain, there's been one guy. There was Seve, Olazabal and now there's Sergio. He's one of the best players in Europe, one of the best in the world,'' said Keith.
Nolan never looked in envy at the young man's riches. ``You always know that there are going to be people out there with more talent than you. Am I discouraged by that? Not at all.
``It's always good to measure yourself against the very best. It's the only way you will find out how good you are. I go out there intending to beat him and everyone else. If you don't think that way, you might as well give up.''
GARCIA tweaked the Tiger's tail last year when he finished runner-up to him in the US PGA Championship in Chicago. Woods is still the game's greatest player, but the 20-year-old Spaniard, a two-time winner on the European tour last year, threatens the throne.
Nolan has set himself a different target but one which is equally important to his development.
``This year, I plan to get into contention in tournaments. It's like a stepping stone. You've got to be in contention to know how your mind is going to react under that pressure. Nobody can tell you. It's an experience you've got to go through yourself.
``You go through moments like these throughout your career. Tour School was one and playing in the Walker Cup for your country in another. But the one I remember most of all was the first play-off hole for the North of Ireland title against Padraig Harrington.
``I had a putt for the title and I remember that I couldn't get the putter head back. It's lucky the putt was downhill. I don't think I'd have been able to get the ball into the hole otherwise. That was an important stepping stone for me. I had beaten one of the better players,'' he explained.
And the next step's to heaven!