Sunday 15 September 2019

Numbers count and ball control is the difference

Players warm up on the putting green ahead of the first day of play at the final stage of the European Tour Qualifying Schools yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Players warm up on the putting green ahead of the first day of play at the final stage of the European Tour Qualifying Schools yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Golf, we're informed, is a game essentially about scoring, as captured in the popular phrase 'it's not how, but how many'. And we can see this concept coming sharply into focus for three young Irishmen in the European Qualifying School on Spain's north-eastern terrain of Tarragona.

This is when clubhouse pats on the back from supportive friends and colleagues are replaced by envious stares from pressurised rivals, hoping your next arrow-straight drive ends in a deep divot. Robin Dawson, Gavin Moynihan and Cormac Sharvin should be buoyed, however, by a wonderful Irish tradition in stringing stroke-play rounds together.

I'm reminded of a letter from Billy Feherty, David's father, in late January 2001 in the wake of Mark Calcavecchia's record-breaking aggregate of 256 - 28 under par - in the Phoenix Open. He wondered if his son's 1989 scoring blitz merited a mention in the context of such an exploit. And it did.

Having engaged Bob Torrance to re-model his swing, Feherty shot rounds of 65, 64, 68, 65 around Lisburn for a winning 26-under-par aggregate of 262 in the Ulster Professional Championship. Which prompted him to remark: "If I wasn't a tour pro, I think I'd become a gentleman of leisure." In a way, that's what he became some years later in the CBS commentary booth.

In the event, Feherty fell short of the record aggregate here for 72 holes, delivered by Des Smyth in the final staging of the Irish Dunlop Tournament on the old course at Headfort in June 1980. With rounds of 65, 67, 65, 64 for 261, Smyth was 27 under par and 16 strokes clear of second-placed Peter Townsend, a 33-year-old former Ryder Cup player.

My first golf assignment was a Monday morning play-off for the Irish Hospital Sweeps Tournament at Woodbrook in 1960, when Himself carded a course-record 63 in beating Ken Bousfield by eight strokes. However, O'Connor's lowest aggregate was 264 (68, 67, 67, 62) at Bangor, when capturing the 1962 Irish Professional Championship. Philip Walton later compiled 266 (-14) for this event at Castle in 1989 and Niall Kearney had the same aggregate at Dundalk in 2015.

O'Connor would ruthlessly keep his foot pressed to the floor in pursuit of success, as could be seen in a run of 16 sub-70 tournament rounds at Shandon Park, in an average of 67.12 strokes per round. Smyth displayed similar resolve at Headfort.

It happened in the middle week of an amazing three-week run which began for him in the Newcastle Brown "900" at Northumberland GC on June 5. By holing a 45-foot putt on the 72nd green three days later, he won by a stroke from no less a figure than Greg Norman, in a share of second place. Then came Headfort, to be followed by the Greater Manchester Open starting at Wilmslow GC on June 19.

Brimful of confidence, Smyth closed with rounds of 69 and 66 to tie Brian Waites. He then went on to gain the decisive breakthrough when a sand-wedge stopped inches from the pin for a winning birdie-three on the sixth play-off hole. With this, he had completed a thrilling journey of 222 holes in 47 under par.

"I don't remember the individual rounds at Headfort," was his remarkable admission last week, "only the total and Townsend being 16 strokes back. It's hard to explain, but being young and hungry for success, I suppose I was afraid I'd give up the lead, so I kept going for everything. Mind you, I was on a streak and putting really well at the time, with my confidence levels sky-high."

He went on: "For the Irish guys in Spain, it's all about numbers. They'll be conscious of that. And to achieve consistent numbers as a tournament pro, I discovered that I couldn't survive simply on a good short-game. I had to get my performance levels up which meant hitting more fairways and greens. And when I shot 71 or 72 I knew I was off the pace.

"In regular visits to the East of Ireland (at Baltray), I have people telling me about guys playing off plus-3 and plus-4 and I'm thinking they must be good. But when I actually see them, they can't hit a fairway. Tournament golf is about ball control and these guys were unbelievably wayward. I'm thinking their handicaps must be earned on very easy courses."

He continued: "I'll take you back to Colin Montgomerie, a guy who never impressed me on the range. He just didn't seem to bother until he got to the first tee. Then, all of a sudden, you saw Daniel Dart in operation. First drive goes down the left half of the fairway and finishes in the middle, and he'd repeat that on all 14 driving holes. And his iron shots were impeccable. That's why he won the Order of Merit eight times.

"Was he seriously impressive? Not really, but he was a pro who knew exactly what he was doing with the ball. Later, there was the tremendous desire you saw in Pádraig Harrington. Talk to Pádraig today and he hasn't much sympathy for guys who cry about bad breaks.

"His motto is go out there and do the work. Which is what I did. On realising I didn't have the talent that others had, I decided the only way I was going to make it was through hard work and determination.

"You could describe me as a mini-Harrington, though I never got to the heady heights that he reached."

Tradition can be a great teacher, yet you wonder how many of today's young Irish players are aware of their glorious past. How many of them could imagine Harry Bradshaw being 33 under for 10 competitive rounds on Irish courses in 1945, for a stroke average of 68.7?

The first to raise scoring here to new levels, however, was Jimmy Bruen. Much has been written about his international exploits as a teenager in the 1930s, but when limited to domestic competition by World War II, his achievements remained hugely impressive.

For instance, when playing off plus-4 as a 21-year-old in 1941, his 15 competitive medal rounds at Cork GC contained a 64, 66, four 68s and six 69s. And his scores for 17 winter rounds from October 1943 to April 1944 were: 71, 66, 70, 68, 69, 65, 67, 70, 65, 69, 65, 70, 73, 65, 69, 73, 67. Truly amazing, especially when considering the equipment of the day.

Finally, here's another thought the Irish trio might consider over the coming days. On his Qualifying School debut in 1998, Justin Rose crashed to a sixth round of 80 and missed out on a card by nine strokes. Today, he is world number one.

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