The Argus

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The American Dream comes true for Josh

Golfers across the country are dusting down their clubs - or perhaps giving them a good wash - as they prepare for a return to play from next Monday when Ireland enters Phase 1 of easing lockdown restrictions.

Despite severe restrictions on their movements to allow for social distancing, there's a big appetite to get out on the course - but one talented local player has a lot more than a few holes of social golf to look forward to this summer.

Eighteen-year-old Josh Mackin, from Darver, has accepted the offer of a three-year scholarship at Southern Illinois University and is making preparations to up sticks and begin an exciting new chapter in his life across the Atlantic.

Josh now plays off +2 after a breakthrough year in which he won the Dundalk Club Championship at 17 and followed in the footsteps of one Rory McIlroy by capturing the Ulster Boys title. It was successes like those that made a scholarship possible, but Josh had his eye on America long before that.

'Ever since I was 14 or 15 when I started to get good at the golf it's been something I wanted to pursue,' he recalled in an interview with this newspaper.

'I've been to America five or six times and I love it there. The people have a funny way about them, the way they go on, and I love the way they take their sport so seriously over there.

'I'm in Maynooth at the moment and it's a great place, but in the States they take a more professional approach and play more tournaments, everyone is more driven and you're playing against better players.

'I'm looking forward to it because it's a great opportunity and bar the golf it's a chance to experience a different country and a different culture for three years.'

All being well, home for Josh from this August until 2023 will be Southern Illinois University, but he admitted the decision wasn't one he took lightly, especially given the fact he hasn't had the opportunity to see the facilities in person.

'I'd been talking to them since before Christmas and it's taken a bit of work to get sorted, but I verbally committed at the start of April,' he revealed.

'I was hoping to go over at Easter, but I've not been able to get a visit in because of Covid-19, so I had to go blind.

'It was a hard decision because it's not like Maynooth where, if you're homesick you can get the bus home on a Friday night, but I just thought if I didn't go I'd regret it a few years down the line.

'If I get to Christmas and I don't like it I can say I gave it a good go, so I've nothing to lose, but hopefully it goes well.

'My plan is to do my three years and then see where I am in terms of the golf - and also academically because the two go hand in hand. Hopefully I'll have my degree in accounting and finance and I should have a fair idea then whether I'm taking up the golf professionally.'

Josh signed the lease for his accommodation last Wednesday and has been looking at flights - it looks like he will have to fly to Chicago International, Nashville and then take a third flight to a local airport near Southern Illinois University - and the only obstacle now to him arriving in the States in August would appear to be the coronavirus.

'The coach over there was on to me about getting my visa application done as soon as possible, but I don't know what the story is with [Donald] Trump. Hopefully there will be flights in because he will get the country back up and running before the people!

'I've exams coming up in Maynooth in the next two weeks, so it's a matter of passing them and then seeing what happens after that.'

The former De la Salle student is coached by the professional at Dundalk, Leslie Walker, while he has another great source of inspiration in fellow Dundalk clubman Caolan Rafferty who is officially Europe's number one amateur.

'It's amazing to think how far Caolan has come,' Josh reflected. 'He drives you on - if he wins one week you want to go out and win the next week - and he raises the bar for everyone in the club to push on. It's great to see what can be achieved if you put the work in.

'The Club Championship was always one I wanted to win - I think Peter Rogers won it 16 or 17 times. In the first round I was three-over after four holes and wasn't expecting to win at that stage, but I ended up shooting three-under and it was nice to get him [Rafferty, who placed third]!

'My coach Leslie is great as well. He went to Wake Forest [on a scholarship] but has an idea of what to expect, so he's good to talk to and knows a lot about the game.

'In 2018 I was doing my Leaving and I decided to take a year out from the golf. I wasn't enjoying it and was just going through a phase. I was growing up and didn't want to be on the golf course.

'Then I came back and won the Ulster Boys, but in the Leinster I was leading on the last hole and took a triple bogey [to finish second]. There weren't so many texts [of support] after that tournament, so Mum and Dad would be the biggest influence on me because they've been there on the good days and the bad.

'Dad used to play a wee bit, but I started playing pitch & putt when I was 11. I've been in the golf club six or seven years now, but I was a late starter - I didn't pick up the clubs when I was two or three.'

Josh has certainly made up for lost time, enjoying both individual and team success.

'With Dundalk we've had big wins like the Barton Shield, but when you win on your own you get the glory all on your own. It's not like the GAA. You're in full control and if you put the work in you'll reap the results. It keeps you fit as well and I've already made friends for life through golf even though I'm only 18.

'There's the travelling - Caolan has travelled the world for free through the GUI - and there's a bit of money to be made as well!'

In terms of a career highlight, though, Josh regards the experience of representing his country as his number one memory.

'The Boys Internationals was one I'd always wanted to tick off. When I gave up golf for a year I didn't think I would've made it, so it was nice when it happened. Some of the other boys would have ideas about themselves, so it was nice to be able to say 'Look at me, I gave it up for a year and still got on the team'!'

Not surprisingly, the current World number one is on top of the list in terms of professional players that Josh takes inspiration from.

'McIlroy is obviously one - I wouldn't mind having his bank balance! - but they're all so professional nowadays. They're all in bed by 7.30 and up the next morning at 7.30 to go to the gym.

'I haven't met him before - the only big one would be Darren Clarke through winning the Ulster Boys. It was nice meeting him and he gave a good bit of advice. He said if you want to have serious ambitions of playing professional golf you have to consider going to America.'

The Argus