The Ireland outhalf's golfing prowess has helped to fine-tune his rugby skills, as he tells Dermot Gilleece
If you were to set about creating a gifted sportsman of remarkable versatility, Jonathan Sexton would be a good model. In the key areas of genes and environment, all the ingredients were in place, from an uncle who played rugby for Ireland to childhood golfing holidays in Ballybunion.
As a considerable bonus, there were also powerful genes inherited from his maternal grandfather, John Nestor, who displayed similar sporting versatility as a schoolboy before progressing to international golf as a member of Milltown. And with his analytical mind, Nestor would have heartily approved of the way the Leinster and Ireland outhalf explored the similarities between a rugby kick at goal and swinging a golf club.
Sexton is an absorbing sportsman who exudes a sense of unhurried calm. He is also a good listener. And he happens to have wide-ranging physical talents which have seen him progress to six handicap in golf while scaling rugby's heights. An ability to draw on one sport, so as to help in the other, has guided him towards interesting conclusions.
"I imagine that when Pádraig Harrington is standing over a tee-shot on the opening hole of a Major championship, the feelings are the same as standing over your first kick of the day in front of 80,000 people in a Heineken Cup final," he said. "Why would it be different?"
He explained: "With kicking, the objective is to get through the ball and land on your kicking foot. You load up on the right before you hit through left, just like golf. Though on the face of it, the games are worlds apart, golf helped me become conscious of things like weight transfer.
"I used to dip my upper-body forward [when kicking], which caused me to push the ball right, because I couldn't get my weight through. The solution was to stay tall, just like posture is important in golf. And if a golfer slices his first tee-shot, he'll probably be thinking 'don't slice this one' on the next tee. It's the same with a rugby player."
Then he talked of how his frame of mind could change, depending on what was going on in his career at the time. "Like how you kicked in the three previous games. Or in the match itself. What baggage you're carrying and what the circumstances are. Different thoughts can enter your head at different times."
In this context, Sexton marvelled at Harrington's candour when, at the invitation of coach Declan Kidney, he addressed the Ireland rugby squad four years ago. "I couldn't believe the way he was talking to us about Carnoustie in 2007 and how he hit it in the Burn, then hit it in the Burn again," he said. "And the way he thought of how people would be reacting back in Ireland. And how he wished the ground could somehow open up and swallow him.
"I remember feeling so happy that another sportsman at the top of his game could feel that way. It was so comforting. I'm sure there are people out there who think professional sportsmen are bullet-proof, because they look so calm. But as Harrington illustrated on that occasion, they experience the same thoughts and emotions as everyone else. It's just that they learn how better to deal with them."
As a juvenile member of Milltown, where he stayed until he was 18, he could see from framed photographs around the clubhouse that his grandfather was a very accomplished golfer. "I suppose that really registered with me," he said. "I still have the scorecard from when he held the course record at the club."
Early in 1999, when in the grip of what proved to be a terminal illness, John Nestor phoned his daughter, Claire, asking her to send 13-year-old Jonathan over to tidy up the shed and back garden. And there was a further request to clean old golf irons that had become rusty from lack of use.
"They were a set of Wilson blades and knowing they were his clubs, I cleaned them up really well," he recalled. "I wanted to please him. And when I had them gleaming, there was the wonderful surprise of having him say that they were now mine. Then he died a few months later. I never played with him, which was a bit of a regret, but he looked at my swing and gave me a few hints.
"Before we played England last year, I had a big argument with a player on the training pitch. It can be a problem for me, saying things without thinking. When I told my mother, she said I must get that from my granddad. Because he was so honest, he'd say exactly what came into his mind at a given moment without thinking first.
"If he had been healthy and around a bit longer, I imagine we could have played golf together. As for those clubs, I thought in my innocence I was going to be brilliant with them, but I was to learn that blade irons are pretty difficult to handle. In truth, I couldn't hit the ball out of my way. But I still have the sand-wedge."
He remains a member of Ballybunion which he joined courtesy of his uncle John, the captain there in 2002 and one of the Sexton brothers from Listowel. Another uncle, Willie, gained three caps at flank forward for Ireland between 1984 and 1988. And the player summed up his own father, Gerry, as being from Kerry but "all rugby."
Still, in his early teens, golf continued to grab the youngster's attention. In 2000, when the Irish Open came to Ballybunion, he went on holiday to his uncle John's house on the far side of the road from the fourth green and fifth tee. And he rose at 6.0 each morning and hopped over the perimeter fence to work as a scorer at the tournament.
Less than two years on from that, he made his first significant impact on the world of rugby by landing a late, crucial drop-goal for St Mary's College in their Leinster Schools Senior Cup triumph. And it seemed like only a short time later that he was shouldering the responsibility of goal-kicking at the highest level.
For him, a place-kicker in rugby is a bit like a singles competitor in the Ryder Cup -- an individual with team responsibilities. "Last year in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup, Toulouse had a scrum and we ended up pushing them off the ball," he recalled. "And we got a penalty which I faced, thinking 'I'd better get this, or the forwards are going to kill me'. Now that is obviously massive pressure.
"Routine becomes everything in terms of getting any negativity out of your head. That's another similarity with golf. Then there's the individual thing, which is weird, because
you practise for your team-mates and they're probably hardly aware of that. For instance, I go kicking on Wednesday morning when everyone else is on a day off."
Yet the success of the team remains the primary consideration. "I wouldn't be happy if I got all my kicks and the team lost. Then there are other times when you win a game despite missing a few kicks. That, too, will eat you up. Even with your colleagues getting scores to compensate for your misses, it will still prey on your mind if you really care." It is not difficult to imagine Sexton caring. This is the player who lifted the spirits of his Leinster colleagues with some inspired half-time words in Cardiff last year to bring them back from the brink in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton.
Back with Leinster after a crushing end to this year's Six Nations' campaign, he got a timely lift. Armed with a set of customised TaylorMade clubs with ultra-stiff shafts, he and three rugby colleagues enjoyed a fourball at Killeen Castle. He had missed his golf because of the congested international schedule.
"Me and Eoin O'Malley played Rob Kearney and Eoin Reddan," he said. "We had a good old laugh." Then he feigned disgust regarding the crucial matter of handicaps, as in supposed 18-handicappers smashing 250-yard shots with a three wood. With the match gone before the formidable short 16th, the genuine six-handicapper found it necessary to par the last three to win doubles-or-quits.
Given the precarious nature of sport, Sexton knows it is dangerous to contemplate when retirement might come. But assuming all goes well financially and in his private life, he can imagine himself becoming a scratch golfer after he has departed the rugby scene. "To honour my granddad" was how he put it.
This is probably no more than John Nestor would have expected, given his own, demanding standards. Otherwise he would hardly have trusted his eager young grandson with that precious set of blade irons, 13 years ago.
Sunday Indo Sport