Saturday 16 December 2017

Helping hand keeping our aspirations on right course

Michael Hoey shows what can be done with good financial support, writes Dermot Gilleece

On a flight home from the European Amateur Team Championship at Penina in 1973, Des Smyth informed a colleague that he planned to turn professional. "Don't, for God's sake," urged Rupert de Lacy Staunton with genuine concern. "You'll starve."

Thirty eight years on and after 23 tournament victories at home and abroad -- the latest only last June -- it could be said that Smyth clearly made the correct move. And while he had somewhat different experiences to the struggle of Michael Hoey in establishing his worth as a professional, both players demonstrate how rash it can be to predict the route a career might take.

Smyth made his big breakthrough in the 1979 European Matchplay Championship, five years into a tournament career. For his part, however, Hoey needed seven years before a maiden victory in the 2009 Portuguese Open. And though his second victory came in the Madeira Islands Open last May, it was only through success last Sunday in the Dunhill Links Championship that he could realistically claim a place among the game's front rank.

The Dunhill outcome was remarkable for the fact that Irish players were first, second (Rory McIlroy) and tied third (Graeme McDowell). This last happened in the Dubai Desert Classic of 1990 when Eamonn Darcy was first, David Feherty was second, and tied third-placed Smyth jokingly regretted on the presentation platform that the intrusion of "a bloody Spaniard" had blocked an Irish clean sweep. To which Seve Ballesteros famously piped up: "It was me, it was me."

Meanwhile, Smyth finds it odd that last Sunday's result was greeted in certain quarters as essentially a Northern Irish effort. "Golf in Ireland has always been under one umbrella and I never looked on it any other way," he said. "Just as rugby is."

He went on: "The same applies to winning Majors. When I played with Darren Clarke just before he turned pro, I had never seen a better amateur. Then Rory McIlroy came along and eclipsed that standard. And it's been wonderful to see these two guys and Graeme McDowell win Major championships. But it required somebody to flick the switch. And that somebody was Pádraig Harrington."

The all-Ireland nature of events at St Andrews is emphasised by the financial support Hoey received from the Team Ireland Golf Trust. Over a seven-year period from 2002 to 2008, when he was plying his craft on the European Challenge Tour, the Belfast player received €125,000 from southern coffers.

I make this point simply to illustrate the tremendous benefits which accrue to players from both sides of the border from an administrative structure dating back 120 years. This weekend at Portmarnock, for instance, the reigning Open champion is helping the country's future golfing talent through the Darren Clarke Foundation.

Hoey's triumph should be inspirational to aspiring champions like Paul Cutler, who struggled at the European Tour school's First Qualifying Stage last week.

And one suspects financial help from the Golf Trust would have been the envy of many youngsters over the years.

Like the golfer at the Final Qualifying of 1993, who was seen at a hotel breakfast slipping a few bread rolls and ham under a morning newspaper for sandwiches that would save him the price of a meal later in the day. This was observed by Peter McEvoy, later a Walker Cup captain, who staged something of a one-man crusade of dissuading young players from ill-conceived entry into professional ranks.

"I felt it incumbent on me to point out the problems," he told me. "During the 1990s, I calculated in rough terms that out of the hundreds seeking cards, only two players per year from these islands (Britain and Ireland) would achieve successful careers. And it's got to be even tougher now. My concern is what happens to the remainder. It's frightening."

The player he had observed was Londoner Van Phillips, a one-time Walker Cup representative who would make 10 further visits to the Tour School, the last of them in 2009. Interestingly, like Hoey, he too made a breakthrough in the Portuguese Open, of 1999. But his struggle continued and after nine months' rehabilitation following hip surgery last year, he decided to call it a day. At 39, he is now coaching at a golf range in Chiswick.

Hoey, of course, had the wonderful confidence boost of a British Amateur triumph in 2001. Still, as the 2005 winner, Brian McElhinney, discovered, the thrilling reward of a US Masters appearance is not accompanied by guarantees further down the line.

In this context, mention is frequently made of England's Trevor Homer, who was a British Amateur champion not once, but twice -- in 1972 and '74. To a suitably loud fanfare, he turned professional only to fail miserably before being reinstated as an amateur in 1978.

"Things don't always work out according to plan," said Smyth, whose tournament career has stretched from the twilight years of Christy O'Connor Snr to the arrival of McIlroy. "With such good structures put in place by the GUI, however, I always felt it was only a matter of time before guys started doing amazing things. And that's what's happened.

"Sure it's about talent, and Michael Hoey is obviously a very good player. But that's not always enough. Look at Pádraig (Harrington). In terms of raw talent, he hadn't got a whole lot going for him as an amateur. That's why I'm invariably stumped when parents ask me how they can help their kids to improve at golf. If you look at Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus: their children couldn't have had a better chance, yet none of them made it on tour.

"I liked what Nick Price once said when asked what he'd do for his own son. He replied he'd get the kid a set of clubs and a bicycle; leave both of them in the hall and see what happened. There must be a desire and the will to succeed; to be prepared to do whatever is necessary to get where you want to be. Like Pádraig did.

"How do you nurture those qualities? I don't know. They must be inside you." Then he concluded with a smile: "And I know it doesn't matter which part of this country you come from, north or south. You either have it or you haven't."

In the meantime, the rest of us can but rejoice that so many of our golfers appear to have succeeded in uncovering this precious gift.

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