Friday 19 January 2018

GAA and golf team up for assault on Wentworth

Niall Kearney getting high-level help ahead of PGA Championship

'McGinley could be considered something of an expert on the West Course after 22 appearances in the PGA Championship there'
'McGinley could be considered something of an expert on the West Course after 22 appearances in the PGA Championship there'

Dermot Gilleece

It was almost inevitable that a mixture of golf and Gaelic football would find Paul McGinley at the heart of things. Either way, he has played a key role in preparing fellow Dubliner Niall Kearney for a maiden challenge in the BMW/PGA Championship, starting at Wentworth on Thursday.

The 1,750-acre Wentworth estate has long been a special place, going back to its development in the 19th century for the Duke of Wellington's brother-in-law. And among countless stirring battles, its West Course became the scene of a remarkable triumph by Rory McIlroy last year, in the wake of a shattered romance.

Now, McIlroy, McGinley and Kearney are among nine Irish challengers for one of the biggest prizes on the European Tour. And with the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open a week later, it should provide a useful pointer to happenings at Royal Co Down.

Set in the heart of the Surrey countryside, the essence of Wentworth was captured beautifully in a conversation I happened to overhear while attending this championship about 10 years ago. It involved an exchange between a visiting greenkeeper and a woman scorekeeper.

Greenkeeper: "What club are you from?"

Woman scorekeeper: "Wentworth."

GK: "Do you live on the estate?"

WS: "Yes."

GK: "You don't live in one of these £3m houses, do you?"

WS: "No, darling. I live in one of these £10m houses."

Interestingly, Kearney will be attempting to make further progress along a path trod by David Higgins in 2012. Just like Higgins did, he earned his place at Wentworth through a special PGA qualifying process in Turkey last autumn. And it would be a tremendous outcome should he match the Kerryman's finish of tied 10th behind Luke Donald, for a reward of €78,300.

Kearney's preparation began a month ago when he and fellow Royal Dublin member Stephen Wade travelled to Wentworth to walk a course where Dollymount icon Christy O'Connor set an aggregate record of 274 in the Daks Tournament in 1959. Those of a GAA persuasion will be aware of Wade as the former Dublin football coach under Pillar Caffrey.

"Before making the trip, I texted Paul McGinley in the hope he might run through the course for me, over the phone," said the 27-year-old reigning Irish Professional champion. "He agreed, straight off. But I never expected him to pick the two of us up at Wentworth and take us over to the Queenwood club, where he gave us about two hours of his time."

McGinley could be considered something of an expert on the West Course after 22 appearances in the PGA Championship there, quite apart from a memorable run in the 2005 World Match-Play Championship in which he was runner-up to Michael Campbell. Understandably, Kearney hung on his every word.

"Paul was brilliant," he said. "He went through the course, shot by shot, and provided wonderful insight, answering all our questions. And when I raised the caddie issue with him, wondering whether I might be better with a professional bagman, he replied: 'Look. Wentworth is not all that difficult. I think you're better off having a mate of yours on the bag, someone you know really well. Someone you can enjoy the experience with.' That made up my mind. And when I asked Stephen if he was interested in doing it, he immediately said yes. That's how it happened."

Though Wade has obvious limitations compared with a seasoned, professional bagman, there is valuable compensation. "From his experience with Dublin, Stephen is an expert on the psychology of achieving competitive sharpness," said Kearney. "On being prepared mentally for a big event. That's going to be a great help to me."

From his own perspective, he can draw on the experience of Walker Cup combat at Merion in 2009 and later, on the European Challenge Tour. He understands the demands of the game at a high level away from his native patch, as he demonstrated when securing an Asian Tour card last autumn.

So, after walking the West Course four times during last month's two-day visit, and armed with McGinley's guidance, he has reasons for optimism. "Stephen helped me in mapping out the course and how I would handle it while I played imaginary golf, trying to visualise the shots I'd like to play in competition," he said. "Strategy and all that. Like the last two holes (par-five 17th and 18th) both being three-shotters for me."

Especially comforting is that he's playing well, right now. In fact only 10 days ago, he shot 63 at Killeen Castle as a guest in the Turkish Airlines World Golf Cup. Admittedly Kearney was playing off the medal tees, but particularly impressive was the quality of his iron play while carding 10 birdies.

On arrival at Wentworth tomorrow, he will play nine holes. He then hopes to play the other nine on Tuesday in the company of Shane Lowry, last year's runner-up. A close friendship from their amateur days still endures.

Later this week, he hopes to be among the chosen ones when the European Tour announce their list of invitees for Royal Co Down. Despite being the reigning national champion, his status as a tournament professional curiously precludes him from one of the PGA exemptions, which are reserved for club professionals.

"There happens to be an Asian Tour event in Bangladesh that week, so if I don't make the Irish Open, I'll be heading there," he said, describing a fairly stark choice which is familiar to players in his situation.

Before that eventuality, however, there is Wentworth, and its remarkable capacity for generating Irish stories. And his chance to become part of its latest offering.

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