Sunday 25 March 2018

Don't turn pro

Talent drain is killing the amateur game here

Irish Seniors Team Captain Sean O'Leary with the 2015 European Senior trophy and team members (clockwise) Maurice Kelly, Tommie Basquille (Team Manager), Tom Cleary, Adrian Morrow, Garth McGimpsey, Arthur Pierse and John Mitchell Photo: Pat Cashman
Irish Seniors Team Captain Sean O'Leary with the 2015 European Senior trophy and team members (clockwise) Maurice Kelly, Tommie Basquille (Team Manager), Tom Cleary, Adrian Morrow, Garth McGimpsey, Arthur Pierse and John Mitchell Photo: Pat Cashman

Brian Keogh

Ireland's once burgeoning amateur golf circuit remains in danger of losing its charm and identity to the drain of the professional game.

No, we're not romantics calling for the clock to be wound back to the day when thousands would swarm the fairways to watch JB Carr and Jimmy Bruen or any of the stars of the '70s and '80s. Bar the arrival of another Rory McIlroy - the last amateur to draw crowds to events in Ireland - those days are gone.

However, with so many young players automatically pressing the 'turn pro' button, it remains to be seen where championship golf at men's amateur level will be in 10 years' time.

Last month's South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch was one of the best in years, mainly because the GUI moved the interprovincial matches to earlier in the season, giving Lahinch and the Munster Branch room to attract the best field, even if our top two players decided to give it a miss.

That a 65-year old man whose last championship victory came nearly 30 years ago could reach the last 16 said it all about his class, but also put into perspective the ambitions of young players who may struggle to make it should they decide to follow their friends and turn professional.

Tipperary's Arthur Pierse has seen some fine players make the move and flounder over the years. And that's why he wouldn't trade his amateur career for anything in the world. If there's a word that sums up his reasons, it's 'camaraderie'.

At the end of the month, he will head to Slovenia with the boys he played amateur golf with nearly 40 years ago - the likes of Garth McGimpsey and Adrian Morrow - and try to help Ireland win a fourth successive European Senior Men's Team Championship in Ljubljana.

Heading there will be even more fun for this former Walker Cup player than taking a few young scalps at Lahinch.

He never harboured ambitions of turning professional, even when he turned 50 and pre-qualified for the US Senior Open at Salem Country Club in 2001 and finished 55th behind Bruce Fleisher.

"The guys from my time, myself, Garth, Adrian Morrow, we didn't turn pro," Pierse said. "Now they are all turning pro. Anybody who can hit the ball 280 yards nowadays, they want to sign up straight away. And yet there are so many failures out there.

"Back in the day, you had to work for a living because there wasn't really the money in the pro game until the 1980s and, even then, it wasn't what it is today.

"The game has changed so much and it's mainly the equipment. I hit the ball further today than I did 30 years ago. I'm hitting it 270-280 yards consistently."

Few of Pierse's peers turned professional and made it - Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton were two of his younger rivals to succeed - but the rest remained amateur and continue to be competitive on the senior scene.

"Garth would have been a good pro, but some of the best ones I played against didn't turn pro, such as Peter McEvoy and a few others. But unless you can knock it on all the par-fives and are extremely talented, you shouldn't turn pro," said Pierse, who beat Darren Clarke 6&5 in a gale en route to his win in the 1987 North of Ireland at Royal Portrush.

Pierse remembers well how nine-time former Walker Cup player Jay Sigel - winner of two US Amateurs and a British Amateur - warned him off the professional game 15 years ago.

"When I pre-qualified for the US Senior Open, Jay Sigel, who I played Walker Cup against, came up to me and said, 'are you thinking of turning pro Arthur?'

"I said I hadn't really thought about it. And he said, 'well, don't'. He had turned pro and he was making all this money on the Champions Tour. And when I asked why, he said, 'because I miss all my friends so much'.

"He missed his golfing buddies and felt it wasn't worth it for the money. I think he did it to try and compete, but he wasn't enamoured of the pro game."

Sigel has won eight times on the Champions Tour and amassed more than $9m in prize money, but might trade it all to tee it up with his amateur buddies again.

The number of young amateurs chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are now so big, amateur fields change dramatically from one year to the next.

Pierse occasionally has fun taking down a few young guns yet to take the plunge, but nothing matches the fun he has with the pals he made some 40 years ago.

Of the 33 Irish national or provincial championship winners who have turned professional since 2000 - we are not including the others who never won a title and still turned - just over a third were multiple championship winners. They include the likes of major winners Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, WGC winner Shane Lowry and multiple European Tour winner Michael Hoey.

Add in Gareth Maybin and just five have held full European Tour cards. And yet at least three have been reinstated as amateurs or are applying for reinstatement.

Can anything be done to halt the exodus?

No-one wants to smash the dreams of the adventurous, as the Golfing Union of Ireland's National Coach, former Irish PGA champion Neil Manchip, points out.

"The general advice would be, if you want to go for it, then go for it. I wouldn't discourage anyone from turning pro and I wouldn't encourage anyone to turn pro either because I know how difficult it is.

"You want guys to make their own decisions and do things for the best reasons. And give it their best effort."

Perhaps it is camaraderie and the desire to follow their friends that is forcing our young players to take the plunge as much as the promise of millions.

However, looking at the numbers, it appears that the old adage that you have no business turning professional unless you can win multiple championships and utterly dominate on the home circuit and abroad for several years, is no longer held as the gold standard.

As five-time championship winner and former Walker Cup player Noel Fox pointed out after he turned professional, even the creme de la creme find it tough.

"It is difficult coming from the highs of amateur golf, from winning championships and playing high up on the Irish amateur team. Suddenly you are asking yourself, 'why isn't this happening for me? I seem to be playing the same golf'."

Building up scar tissue and debt rather than wins is demoralising. And yet the lure remains strong, to the detriment of the amateur game.

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