Black hole in golf needs to be closed
Transition from amateur to pro worlds is strewn with pitfalls - but Paul McGinley is offering help
With a 25th season on the European Tour completed, and his 50th birthday less than a month away, Paul McGinley acknowledges this as a time for reflection. Yet typically, he is doing so with an eye to the future, rather than indulging the past.
Much has changed in the game - financially, technically and administratively - since a closing 72 delivered third place for McGinley in the European Qualifying School at Montpellier on November 14, 1991. Though he would need no further visit to the school, he remains conscious of others not being so fortunate.
Which is why he is currently talking to officials here, including the Sports Council, with the objective of protecting the future of young talent in the Irish golf game, male and female. In his view, they need to be protected from what he describes as a "black hole", between the amateur and professional tournament scenes. The Dubliner is aware of other countries looking closely at Ireland in the hope of learning how so many world-class players are being produced here, relative to the population.
"Obviously we're doing a lot of things right," he said last week. "But there's a weak area we need to confront. We need to create a smoother transition for players leaving the protection of the GUI and the ILGU. I would envisage the creation of a new umbrella body, headed by a former professional who knows the ropes. And I'm happy to do what I can in an advisory role."
Enlightenment and sadness come in equal measure when researching a quarter of a century of golfing endeavour. One stark statistic is that from the 50 players - 40 from the Qualifying School and 10 graduates from the Challenge Tour - who gained exemption for the 1992 season, only three are still active at a high level.
They are McGinley, Scotland's Paul Lawrie and the Australian, Peter Lonard, who competes on America's PGA Tour; a fourth, 53-year-old Jose Coceres, is easing himself towards retirement. From success in Europe, the Argentinian moved to the US in 2001 when two tournament victories made him the first from his country to win there since the great Roberto de Vicenzo captured the Houston Champions Invitational in 1968.
Meanwhile, a decade on, three of the Challenge Tour graduates remained active, though they didn't include Ireland's John McHenry, one of the original 10. Most revealing, however, was that England's Andrew Hare, who led the '91 Qualifying School, had dropped from sight.
Consigned to 146th in the final money list of 1993, that inevitably meant a return to Qualifying School, where he finished 75th after a closing round of 80. Another attempt the following year culminated in premature retirement after rounds of 75 and 78.
A report on the 2005 British Club Professional Championship over his home terrain of Woodhall Spa had Hare admitting to a serious attack of nerves on the first tee. Then, on finishing 22nd, he said philosophically: "You can't expect anything in golf, because you just never know."
This was the same Andrew Hare who was quite rightly hailed as a hero of the historic Walker Cup triumph at Peachtree in 1989, when Ireland's Eoghan O'Connell also played a prominent role. Having won both his foursomes matches as Jim Milligan's partner, Hare earned a priceless half-point in the second day's singles, by coming from three down with six to play and two down on the 17th tee against the doughty American, Doug Martin.
Three years later, without the support systems of amateur ranks, he struggled. "Being successful and lasting in professional golf has a lot to do with how you handle life getting in the way," said McGinley. "It's how you manage to adjust to being married, having kids and being on the road and away from your family for 25 to 30 weeks a year."
He went on: "Playing in internationals or the Walker Cup, there's always somebody close by to hold your hand when the going gets tough. On the road as a pro, however, you need the resilience to persevere when things are not going your way and financial pressures increase, as they most likely will.
"From showing great potential as amateurs, a lot of guys fail because they are simply not prepared for the hurdles and responsibilities thrown up by life on the road. On their own, they lack the capacity to cope with deep waters - and they simply drown.
"Without a guaranteed income, your play will determine where your children go to school and the sort of life they'll have. Resilience is crucial. We've all succumbed to pressure, but you must have the ability to bounce back. That's the biggest requirement of any player aiming at a long career in professional golf."
But he doesn't see this being a problem for Paul Dunne, arguably the brightest of our upcoming talent.
"Where guys like me were getting on the boat to play in the Lytham Trophy, Paul travelled the world as an amateur, experiencing all different climates and conditions," said McGinley. "Now, in contemplating his future, I'll bet he's not thinking of simply making the top-10 in a Major. He's thinking about winning one. There's no doubt about that.
"As for the idea of your future hanging on a three-foot putt to make the cut on a Friday afternoon: that's something put about by people who think that way. Good players like Paul Dunne look at a much bigger picture.
"They know their competitive future doesn't hinge on a particular cut. They learn to accept that some putts drop and others miss the target. Simple as that."
While the latest aspirants are looking to a future on tour, they might note McGinley's thinking back in 1990. He felt he needed to be a dominant amateur before making such a move, and this involved making the Walker Cup team at Portmarnock in 1991.
If he didn't make that team, the Tour School was out of the question. Incidentally, unlike nowadays, that was a time when committing to the Tour School meant ruling oneself out of the game for two or three years in the event of failure. As it happened, he made the Portmarnock team and headed for Montpellier three months later.
"I was also conscious of having the fall-back situation of a degree in marketing, unlike other players I knew who had no escape route," he added. "They were guys committed to the long haul, which would have placed far more pressure on their shoulders.
"Now, 25 years on, I can look back on a successful career having made a lot of money and a lot of top-10s. But I didn't have the winning ratio I should have had. Through self-imposed limitations as to what was achievable, I imagined the biggest prizes being beyond me, which has to be viewed as a disappointment."
He concluded: "On that point, the biggest change during my time has been the fact that Irish players are no longer going to the big events content to make up the numbers. Thanks to Pádraig [Harrington], they're now going as potential winners."
McGinley neglected to mention that a month prior to the '91 Tour School, he captured the under 25s European Open in Paris for prize money of £14,160. Which gave him the rare distinction of being a professional winner - right from the outset.
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