Sunday 18 February 2018

McGinley's sermon on Mount makes a lot of golfing sense

Paul McGinley. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul McGinley. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Under welcome shafts of autumn sunshine, a tall athletic figure was whacking balls down the refurbished practice ground at Mount Juliet. Paul McGinley looked up from the figures on a monitor. "You know that's a ball speed of 179 miles an hour," he enthused. "Which is only one short of Dustin Johnson."

Luke Donnelly, a 20-year-old local member who plays off plus-two, was the sort of student a shrewd schoolteacher would call to the top of the class on the occasion of an inspector's visit. In this particular circumstance, it happened to be the launch of the Paul McGinley Golf Academy at the Thomastown resort.

The personnel and setting were both very different from the sight that confronted me on a somewhat grander occasion 26 years ago. That was Sunday, July 14, 1991, when Mount Juliet's course designer, Jack Nicklaus, marked the official opening by trading exhibition shots with Christy O'Connor Snr, before they headed off to engage in an 18-hole match.

Keenly aware of his surroundings last Friday, McGinley spoke of the challenge of enticing potential golfers away from Kilkenny's love affair with hurling. Which brought to mind a local's reaction on hearing that the '91 match was to be refereed by Joe Carr. "Begob," he said, "that's like having Christy Ring, Mick Mackey and Jimmy Langton in the same half-forward line."

I couldn't resist recounting to McGinley the nature of the clinic to which a large attendance was treated that day. Like when O'Connor informed the audience: "That was a fade, a slice." To which a smiling Nicklaus chided: "I take it you're only going to describe the shot after you've hit it." "Sure," said Himself, unruffled. "That's the only time I'm right."

Then came a display of supreme control over the golf ball as O'Connor began hitting drivers out of divot marks. And one could almost sense the Bear's envy as he watched the 66-year-old tap balls deeper into the turf before proceeding to drill those, too, low into the distance.

Could superiority in skill possibly be true over the winner of 18 Major championships? "Oh yeah," said McGinley. "Absolutely. The game has always had players whose ball-striking talents were better than those at the top."

He went on: "Turning things around, Jordan Spieth is a prime example among the current crop. Would you put him among the top-30 players in the game as to how he hits the ball? I wouldn't. Or how he swings. And you could say the same about Pádraig Harrington, even after his swing was rebuilt by Bob Torrance.

"I think Butch Harmon put it well when he was asked who was superior, Nicklaus or Tiger Woods? His answer was that Woods was the better player but Nicklaus was the better champion. That's really what you're talking about. The ability to win has always been a very precious skill, reserved to the fortunate few."

Quality was once a perennial by-word at Mount Juliet and it's great to see the estate being restored to its former grandeur by its new owners from Tetrarch Capital and their director of golf, Matt Sandercock. Leading agronomist Joe Bedford has done a splendid job on the 15-acre driving range where all varieties of golf shots are accommodated. It has two putting greens and a short game area as part of the new academy, and there are plans for a swing room where leading brands of golf equipment will be available for custom fitting.

All of which is part of an investment of €4.5m by the current owners who acquired the property for a reported €15m. Having built an impressive new clubhouse, they are in the process of extending accommodation in the Hunter's Yard to 94 rooms which would give them 126 in all, including the 32 in the main house.

Meanwhile, though McGinley already has an academy at Quinta do Lago on Portugal's Algarve, he has no plans to have such establishments dominate his life. "I'm not a technician," he said. "Nor am I the world's best coach. But through the credibility I can lend in an overseeing capacity, this can be a way of giving something back to the game in this country."

Given such candour, it hardly seemed fair to badger him with my belief that players of his status have no conception of the high-handicapper's torment with bad golf. Mind you, he protested: "I most certainly do. I doubt if I could break 150 playing left-handed." Which somehow lacked conviction.

"Through my various activities, I can provide insights into what I've learned over the years. Like helping players to find their own DNA. When doing clinics, I tell kids that they need to have a notebook which should be in their golf-bag all times.

"In it, they should write what they've worked on so that when a swing problem recurs, they can see how they handled it the last time. They need to learn about cause and effect. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and with no teacher to turn to when something goes wrong out on a golf course, if you understand why you're doing something, you can fill in the gaps yourself."

To which you could imagine a nod of approval from Himself who, incidentally, beat Nicklaus by 72 strokes to 74 in that memorable exhibition. I can remember him saying that a natural swing was the by-product of repetition, registering with the computer which is the brain. Then, he would tick off the components as in: "Hands . . . legs . . . eyes . . . balance . . . set-up . . . golf. There you are."

Ah, if only it were that easy.

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