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Golf pragmatists measure up for perfect fit

Golf stands apart in the field of sporting endeavour for its extraordinary capacity to delude the most sensible of beings. Like in the blithe belief that competitive competence can be bought through a change of equipment, with no recourse to the sweat of the brow.

I've always thought of it as the gobshite factor, whereby any golfing Everest can be conquered with a new set of sticks and the latest instructional DVD. This hardly seems respectful, however, to wonderful dreamers such as the legendary club secretary, Brud Slattery, who still imagined himself finding magic in the dunes of Lahinch, well into his 70s.

Either way, it now seems the couch potatoes have been right all along. According to Derek Murray of ForeGolf, the magic can, indeed, be bought. And he is perfectly positioned to deliver it as the first non-American to be elected World Clubmaker of the Year.

The honour, awarded by the 6,000-strong Texas-based Golf Clubmakers Association (GCA), has come to Murray at only the second attempt. And he owes his success largely to a serious determination to impress the judges, having been shortlisted 12 months ago.

"I told my sister Jill that we'd beef up my entry this time with a really strong presentation," he said. "I wanted to show the Americans that mine was a serious business, not a cottage industry in some Irish backwater." In fact it was very much a family effort, given that Murray's mother and father, Don and Christine, are also involved in the business in which the fifth member is David Williams, a fellow swing technician from Sunderland.

ForeGolf is situated in the Red Lane Driving Range which can be reached from Junction 10 of the M7, near Newbridge. From modest beginnings in 1996, it is now a €1m operation with clients drawn from all levels of the game.

Involvement in the golf industry started for Murray back in the mid-1990s when he got a job working for Ernie Jones in the professional shop at The K Club. There he met Philip Walton who invited him to the Czech Open at Marianske Lazne in August 1995.

"While there, I happened to meet the late Barry Willett, who was in charge of the Mizuno trailer. When he invited me to look at what he did, it was like you had switched on a lightbulb in my head. Seeing the job Barry was doing for the pros, it struck me how much more in need the general public were of such a service."

The next step came during a self-financed trip to Carlsbad, the home of the US golf manufacturing industry in San Diego. There at the Callaway test centre, the first person he met was a boffin in a white coat. On asking him about his golf handicap, Murray was told: "I used to work for NASA and I've never played golf in my life. I don't need to play golf to tell you how to keep a ball in the air, son."

Suddenly, Murray realised this stranger had pointed him on a road he had imagined being closed to him, given his modest ability at the game. "I discovered I didn't need to be a tour player or a PGA professional to advise people about their equipment. All I needed was to know about equipment."

So it was that he and his Dad did the Golfsmith's clubmakers' training course in Cambridgeshire, where they became mastercraftsmen. And having spied a niche in the golf market, in customising, he was delighted to discover there was also a market in the niche. And one for which he had a distinct aptitude.

The €500,000 ForeGolf trailer carries the names of the game's nine leading equipment manufacturers from which Murray has access to the best of the best. And just like Bob Torrance can tell at a glance when Pádraig Harrington's swing is even slightly out of synch, Murray discovered he had a special talent for 'measuring' a player's club requirements.

"It's an eye thing which I've been blessed with," he explained. "I'm somehow able to formulate a mental graph involving shaft and head permutations and then I try and visualise where the player fits into it. In imagining how the ball should fly, I seem to be able to make it happen. It's an earthy thing; something I don't believe can be learned as a process."

Where shafts, the so-called engine of the swing, are normally sweated and glued into the hosel, Murray has a special arrangement with the various manufacturers whereby the shaft can be bolted home, to facilitate easy changing. And when the various options are exhausted and the decision made on the component parts, his father creates the made-to-measure set.

Even with his natural gifts, it still seems extraordinary that a 35-year-old Irishman could beat the world in such a highly-technical sphere. "I believe that while I'm exploring the importance of custom-fitting, the Americans are struggling in their search for the next step. They see no new metals with the revolutionary qualities of titanium, for instance. Sure, there are new alloys and extraordinary things are being done with carbon fibre, but the cost factor would be prohibitive for golf." So what is the difference between a standard, persimmon head from the 1950s and the ultimate in a modern driver? "If hit perfectly, probably not a lot," replied Murray. "If you look at basic physics, the gap has to be limited." Then he added with a smile: "And the ball doesn't know the difference."

He continued: "What we're doing, in matching the club to the individual, is new to golf. We're innovators; leaders in what is largely an untapped area of the game. In the process, we've been able to show the Americans that we're a real force in where the industry is going."

While looking at the chart of Christy O'Connor's clubs, done about five years ago -- the shafts are an inch longer than standard -- I thought of the endless hours of practice he had done at places like the Atlantic shore of Bundoran, in his quest of golfing perfection. Surely there was something almost immoral about circumventing this process? "Certainly not," Murray replied. "There's no joy in playing badly and my objective is to fast-track the fun-factor in golf. Think of it: we're the only people selling a product that's guaranteed to work. If it doesn't, you simply don't buy."

A magician, we're told, is a person skilled in magic. So what does that make the people at ForeGolf? Pragmatists, most likely. I could imagine the much-loved Brud commending the route they've discovered around golf's endless frustrations.

Sunday Independent