Monday 18 December 2017

Ireland's journeymen make most of talents

Supporting cast can still earn more than Taoiseach without ever reaching the heights of 'Big Three,' writes Liam Kelly

Ireland's golf elite of Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke with the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October. Photo: Reuters
Ireland's golf elite of Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke with the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October. Photo: Reuters
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

"Blessed be the journeyman golf professional for if he keepeth his head down, and his putting stroke solid, he shall maketh many millions of shekels"

You won't have seen that statement in the 'Book of Wisdom' -- because I just made it up. However, the sentiments are borne out by a perusal of the European Tour ranking list for 2010.

We all know about life in the fast lane of golf occupied by Ireland's current 'Big Three' -- Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy.

They and their ilk are showered with tournament earnings, sponsorships, appearance money and operate in the constant glare of media and public attention.

In terms of prize money alone, McDowell, Harrington and McIlroy have banked the lion's share of prize money captured by Irish professionals this year, and deservedly so.

But further down the pecking order the 'supporting cast' are still in the big league of earners, particularly when compared with political leaders and industry chief executives.

Never mind the mega-millions available on the PGA Tour -- in Europe alone there are big bucks to be made without hitting the top 10 in the rankings list, as is evident by the 2010 season performances of Gareth Maybin, Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie.

These are the players who typify the backbone membership of the Tour -- solid, committed, hard-working professionals.

More importantly, they have served their dues and settled in so well to Tour life that in 2010 they each earned hundreds of thousands of euro.

For 36th place, Peter Lawrie took home €845,718. Maybin at 40th had gross prize money of €784,076, while McGrane in 41st was on €782,719.

Rookie pro Shane Lowry got to 62nd place in the rankings on his first full season, and banked a cool €501,278.

I'm sure Taoiseach Brian Cowen, a keen golfer, looks on with envy at his Clara, Co Offaly neighbour Lowry.

The latter has only his golf game to concern him. Cowen has the worries of the country, the ECB and the IMF on his shoulders, but the Taoiseach earned just over half of Lowry's income for 2010.

Indeed, while Lowry has big ambitions in the game, especially after winning the '3' Irish Open as an amateur at Baltray in 2009, he would have an excellent living if he averaged a top-40 to top-30 place for the rest of his career.

There are taxes and management fees and caddies, coaches and support staff to pay, but if a golfer keeps half of his earnings per annum, it's still impressive income.

And that doesn't take into account sponsorships and promotional contracts.

The media and followers of the sport often call the likes of these players 'journeymen' in slightly condescending manner, but in the world of professional golf, these guys are highly respected among their peers.

Their status is not easily attained and once having got there, it's tough enough to maintain.

doddle

If anyone thinks it's a doddle turning up to play golf for a living, just look at the experience of Philip Walton and Gary Murphy.

Walton will be forever remembered as the hero of the Ryder Cup in 1995. He came into professional life as a Walker Cup player and proved himself as a tournament winner in the paid ranks.

However, he lost his game and slumped down the rankings to the extent that he slipped off the Tour and has never returned to his former level.

Gary Murphy had been carving out a decent career, but earned less than €20,000 in 2010, and failed to get his card at Q-School earlier this month.

That is the downside of pro golf. The glamour is all in the eye of the beholder, all the more so when 99pc of golfers worldwide have to fit their weekly game in as recreation amid 'ordinary' work and family commitments.

Des Smyth, Ryder Cup vice-captain in 2006, and a model pro who achieved the massive feat of maintaining his card on the regular Tour from 1974 when he started to 2002 when he went on the Seniors circuit, put it in perspective.

I asked him that when it comes down to it, is money the ultimate measure of a pro career?

"No," he replied. "I wouldn't say the measure is money. Everyone starts with an ambition and a career and a dream. They want to be a Ryder Cup player and they want to win Majors.

"They all start out with those ambitions, but at the end of the day if you're out there for 15 years and you're not making money, or you've lost your card, you're out. There's no sentiment in professional sport. I was one of the lucky ones in that I held on to my card and enjoyed my career.

"It's a very difficult thing to do, to stay out there. So, I'm happy that the guys who perform well out there, and maybe don't win very often, but who are well up the rankings, deserve their rewards because they're out there banging it out, week after week.

"You could call them supporting players, but they're really good players and they know how to win. The way the structure is set up it's simple enough. If you can get through the qualifying school or the Challenge Tour and make it to a main Tour, for a start you're a hell of a player. And the way you look at it is, that's your opportunity, it's up to you to take it.

"The safety nets aren't there. If you miss your card, you're back on the Challenge Tour and if you miss that, you're out.

"There's no point in pretending otherwise. You can tell a guy 'you're not good enough', or you can tell another guy 'you're great, you'll make it' but there's only one way to prove it; you've got to go out there with all the other pros and make your way and deliver. The way our players are performing as a group, Irish golf has never had it so good in terms of our professionals," said Smyth.

John McHenry, former Tour Pro and now a consultant to the golf industry, had a central role in making the Irish Open a huge success. He has seen both sides of life on Tour.

"There are a number of factors you've got to consider, the principal one being that you're pursuing a career where it's up to you, so therefore you're not reliant on anybody else other than yourself," McHenry said.

"In many ways that's a great livelihood to live. You are your own boss and fundamentally you're in a profession that you enjoy.

"Don't get me wrong on this. I know Tour golf can be extremely tedious and difficult, but at the same time it is still something you enjoy yourself, and there are the rewards.

"If we're talking about Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie they're making the guts of €600,00 to €700,000 a year and even the captains of industry now in Ireland aren't making anywhere near that sort of money.

"Really you could say they are at the very peak of a CEO's position or above it in any form of industry.

"A very good example of that is I know a CEO of a semi-state company who earns €550,000.

"Without the massive responsibility of a workforce of maybe thousands of people and all the headaches that brings and the shareholders, the golfers are out on Tour and they enjoy themselves and they're making a remarkably good living.

"Now if you take it down the pecking order, say you're at the Gary Murphy stage where he's lived the last couple of years excluding this year on the €110,000 to €120,000 mark, it becomes obviously very tedious because you're under so much more pressure week in, week out, particularly if you've got a wife and a family.

"It can be very difficult to justify yourself at times because your mood isn't good, you know your game isn't good, you're potentially going to lose your card.

"If you look at Gary Murphy this year, he made about €19,000 on the Tour, but probably spent the guts of €60,000.

"Throw in the cost of a caddie on top of that and you're probably talking the guts of €100,000 and you've made a huge loss, and there's no pensionable position there.

"There's no state income or anything like that, so there's all those trials and tribulations the pros in this position have to face.

"That's the biggest thing I found. As a professional sports person you're putting in 10-12 hours a day working your socks off, going all over the world and you're guaranteed absolutely no income. You're relying on your own talent.

"But it's when it comes to an end, you're a professional golfer, but what else are you good at? You have to start building your own credibility in other areas.

"I'm off the Tour now 11 years and I've worked bloody hard to generate some credibility in the golf industry.

"I got huge satisfaction out of playing competitive golf, I got huge satisfaction out of playing on the European Tour and I had a very average career on the Tour, with a couple of highlights.

"But I have to say I've got ferocious satisfaction out of being the Director of Golf for the Ryder Cup in 2006. I've got great satisfaction out of working hard to try and revive the Irish Open.

"Tournament golf is a wonderful life, if you're able to make it count and able to make it work.

"The problem is -- and don't get me wrong, I'd encourage anyone to follow their ambition -- but what players have to realise sooner than later is that if it's not going well, they've got to be very frank with themselves.

"If not, the longer they stay out there simply hoping something miraculous will happen, the more trouble they're putting themselves into."

Respect, then, to the journeymen of the Tour who tip away season after season and who, every once in a while, have the thrill of standing on the winner's podium.

May their stroke average decline, and their fortunes rise higher and higher!

Irish Independent

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