Saturday 24 March 2018

'I knew I was in trouble. And my professional career had hardly begun'

Injury has stalled Niall Kearney's progress in golf's paid ranks, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

W ith hopes that his golfing destiny may be taking a welcome change of direction, Niall Kearney sets off today on the long journey to Colombia. There, at a venue with the beguiling name of Club Campestre La Macarana, he will make his comeback to tournament golf on Thursday, his 23rd birthday.

It has been a long, painful haul for the Dubliner since he turned professional in autumn 2009, when he and a young American named Rickie Fowler were among those who bade farewell to amateur ranks after fine showings in the Walker Cup at Merion. Twelve months later, Fowler was named Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour while Kearney recovered from surgery to his left shoulder.

And when the healing had withstood the pressure of intense competition in December, a different sort of pain had to be endured only a month later. This was when Kearney was forced to withdraw after only one round of the Gujarat Kensville Challenge in India because of severe food poisoning.

"That was really gut-wrenching, in every sense," he said with a wry smile when we met last week. "I had made the sacrifice of going away on my own to Thailand to practise over the New Year, doing gym work and sticking to a strict regime. I was all set; really keyed-up for a new season."

On arriving at his destination, an hour's drive from Mumbai, Kearney did what he felt were all the sensible things in such an environment. During a six-day build-up to the tournament, he took no risks with the local cuisine, sticking to rice, bread, potatoes and bottled water.

"I felt fine during the first round and even with a triple-bogey half-way through, I still shot a 73," he recalled. "Then, after dinner that night, I went to bed at 10. It must have been less than two hours later when I was in the bathroom being violently ill. Feeling terrible.

"I was sick non-stop until six in the morning, by which stage I had no chance of playing. I couldn't even keep water down. Before heading for a local hospital, I knew I wouldn't make my tee-time so I had to formally withdraw. That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

In those lonely moments a long way from home, all the frustration of the previous year suddenly closed in on him. He felt desolate, knowing that the long trip back to Dublin would seem interminable.

All of which contrasted starkly with his upbeat mood this time last year. He had just undergone keyhole surgery on a nagging problem in his left

shoulder and was looking towards a busy, productive season, largely on the European Challenge Tour. In late March, he played the Kenya Open, followed two weeks later by the Madeira Island Open on the European Tour. Then came Turkey in early May.

After an opening 72 in the Turkish Airlines Challenge, chills ran down his spine when a familiar pain returned on the second day. The shoulder had gone again. "Though I managed to scratch the ball around the closing holes for a round of 70, I knew I was in trouble," he said. "And my professional career had hardly begun."

It was a serious recurrence of a problem called impingement of the shoulder, otherwise known as a micro-dislocation and is especially common in sports where the arms are raised above shoulder level. Frantic phone calls ensued on the Friday evening between Turkey and Dublin.

"At that stage, I didn't know what to think," the player recalled. "I was desperate for answers. And in the midst of it all, I still felt I could play into the weekend, which was a mistake. Anti-inflammatories weren't even working."

His scores told the tale. Rounds of 78 and 80 pushed him down to a final placing of 69th. Kearney hardly noticed that he had just earned €420, his first prize money as a professional, outside of the Qualifying School.

On his return home, he decided to pull out of the remainder of the season. Then his regular physiotherapist, Dubliner John Murphy, advised him to contact a leading physio in London, who happened to be very well connected with the top specialists there. It was through her that he made contact with Andrew Wallace, an orthopaedic surgeon at St John Hospital. This, he learned, was the man who operated on Ireland goalkeeper, Shay Given, and on the damaged elbow of India's brilliant cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar.

"I went to see him in late May and in three minutes he had diagnosed the problem," said Kearney. "He then explained what he proposed to do, if I agreed to an operation the following day. Such was the confidence he exuded that I jumped at the opportunity."

Within a few days of that consultation, Kearney was back in Dublin, his arm in a sling but with a clear, positive picture of the golfing road ahead. Wallace assured him he would be right in ample time for the Tour School late in the year. Which is how things turned out.

"There were down moments, when I couldn't bear to watch golf, even on television," he said. "Though the Tour gave me a medical exemption, it was a limited one. I knew that the road back had to be through the Tour School."

Comeback Challenge Tour events in Toulouse and Rome last October eased the competitive rust. Then came Stage Two of the Qualifying School where rounds of 72, 72, 65 and 75 confirmed the surgery had been a success.

So Kearney advanced comfortably to the Tour School proper at PGA Catalunya in early December. There, the competitive grit which characterised a sparkling amateur career, was very much in evidence as he recovered from a potentially disastrous opening round of 76 to be level-par for a gruelling six rounds. And while his 67th place finish didn't deliver a full card, it was good enough for Category 7 status, which it where he was at the start of last season.

Now, as he targets the top 10 on the Challenge Tour's money list, I wondered if he had considered a Plan B. "No," he replied. "There is no Plan B. I can see it's a serious standard from the handful of tournaments I've played; that the guys are extremely disciplined at what they're about. So it won't be easy. But I'm still fully committed to a tournament career."

Meanwhile, fond memories of Merion were revived by Fowler's wonderful exploits in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor last October. On the second morning of the Walker Cup, Kearney and England's Stiggy Hodgson lost to Fowler and his American partner Bud Cauley, only on the 18th.

"Rickie's a lovely guy who is obviously doing very, very well as a pro," said the Dubliner. "He was an absolute gentleman at Merion and I hope our paths cross again in the not too distant future."

After a long absence, the US Open will be returning to Merion in 2013. Perhaps he and Fowler could have a reunion there. "Oh I loved Merion," Kearney enthused, "even though it was very demanding with firm, small greens that made it play like a links. Green-speeds of up to 13.5 on the Stimpmeter came as a bit of a shock. Frighteningly quick.

"It would be great to go back there. Rickie won't have any difficulty in making the US Open field and for me, it would be a good target to set myself. Fantastic." Then, almost guiltily, he paused before adding with a smile: "Within a week of another comeback, I shouldn't be getting ahead of myself."

At a time when Pádraig Harrington has just purchased his own private jet, it may be no harm to acknowledge the full realities of tournament golf. Even at the relatively tender age of 22, it could be said that Kearney has already experienced its downside in no small measure.

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