Sport Golf

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Purcell clan revels in sweet success of a talent realised

Conor Purcell (above) practises at home as parents Joey and Mary look on. Photo: Mark Condren
Conor Purcell (above) practises at home as parents Joey and Mary look on. Photo: Mark Condren

Dermot Gilleece

On the practice ground at St Andrews, Tiger Woods eyed the gifted teenager from Dublin hitting shots with the eager confidence of youth. Turning to his caddie, Joe LaCava, the great one remarked: "This kid gets it in a good slot, doesn't he?"

Conor Purcell found good swing-slots with admirable consistency last weekend to become the first Irish winner of the Australian Amateur Championship at Woodlands GC in Melbourne. And on returning to his home in Malahide, he readily acknowledged the impact his meeting with Woods prior to the 2015 Open Championship had on a burgeoning career.

Accompanied by his brother Gary, he was among a small group of aspirants brought there by Woods' sponsor, Nike. And the trip involved breakfast with El Tigre; seeing him go through a gym work-out; shared time on the practice ground, then playing the iconic three finishing holes of the Old Course alongside him.

"It was an occasion you couldn't put a price on," said the 21-year-old. "The thing I remember most was the excitement of simply being in Tiger's company. The aura that surrounded him was beyond anything I had imagined."

Their hero's return was clearly a huge event for parents Joey and Mary, not least because of Conor's position as the youngest of their five children. And having retired 26 months ago as professional at Portmarnock GC, Joey is at a time of life when he can fully appreciate the difficult road his son has chosen to travel.

By any standards, Joey Purcell was a decent player. He gained full international honours as an 18-year-old member of Mullingar GC in 1973 and joined the European Tour a year later. It was a time when he rubbed shoulders with Bob Shearer, winner of the Australian Amateur in 1969. And it was a time of regular visits to the Tour School where he gained the distinction in Portugal in November 1979 of being tied second behind England's Keith Williams, while David Feherty was back in sixth place.

Purcell preparing to take a shot in the company of Tiger Woods at St Andrews
Purcell preparing to take a shot in the company of Tiger Woods at St Andrews

Six months later, he collected prize money of £766 for a share of eighth place behind Eddie Polland in the Spanish Open in Valencia. Significantly, among those tied with him were such luminaries as Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Sandy Lyle and Des Smyth.

Like so many talented players, however, he was later forced to abandon the tournament scene and ply his craft at club level as the resident professional at Headfort GC. Then came an appointment in February 1991 to Portmarnock GC where his upbeat personality and enduring skills were appreciated by the members, both inside and outside the professional's shop.

"Looking back on my game in my tournament days, I just didn't have the talent to hit the ball like Conor can," said the father with typical candour. "I hadn't got his ball flight, his clubhead speed or the ability to carry it as far as he does, regardless of equipment or quality of golf ball."

Was he not over-stating the gap? "Absolutely not," he replied. "With what I had back then, I couldn't live with any of today's tournament players. It's a different game today. A power game. Sure, we had skills, but we didn't have the know-how."

He explained: "When you look at teaching methods, we didn't have iPhones or iPads which would allow us to film ourselves and look at our swing. We simply looked in mirrors. And we weren't told that gym work should be 60 per cent of your practice regime.

"I was a decent enough player for my time, but when people ask me if I was as good as Conor at his age, my reply is that I was never as good as Conor. Never."

By way of illustrating how life can cause us to modify our priorities, the father delighted in facilitating his son's talents. When, as a 12-year-old, Conor was the country's best tennis player for his age, he was taken into Portmarnock GC as a juvenile member. And with Mary off 24, father, mother and son would spend precious weekends together on trips to Rosapenna, playing the Sandy Hills course or maybe the Old Tom Morris stretch.

Then came the opportunity at Portmarnock of observing the short-game skills of Eamonn Darcy and getting involved in the Darren Clarke Foundation weekend. And in 2010, as Stewart Cink prepared to defend The Open at St Andrews, Conor made up a fourball at Portmarnock with the American and his sons, 16-year-old Connor and 12-year-old Reagan.

Soon, golf was pushing tennis into the background, but not before a crucial bond was established between Conor and his eldest brother who had been his tennis coach and mentor. It so happens that 37-year-old Gary is based in Fiji coaching in the Pacific region, which meant being in Melbourne for the Australian Open Tennis Championship at a time when his youngest brother was playing in the Australian Amateur in the same city.

Meanwhile, the sort of technology which Joey regretted not having in his formative golfing days became priceless to the family last weekend, bridging the 10,750 miles between Malahide and Melbourne.

The scene was set for an extraordinary 24 hours in their lives when Shane Lowry captured the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship at lunchtime on the Saturday. "I texted Neil Manchip [coach to both players] saying, 'Let's hope it's an Irish double with Conor this weekend,'" said Joey. "And Neil texted back, 'Go! Go! Go! Conor.'

"It's been the thrill of our lives for Mary and myself. To see our kids develop and achieve things completely beyond our dreams is magical stuff; greater than anything I ever got from my own golf."

But they would have to endure high anxiety through Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Conor talked about Facetiming his parents every morning from the putting green at Woodlands and how they followed the final on an internet link created by Golf Australia.

"I became so immersed in the action and everything that was going on, that being that far from home didn't really register," he said. "All the while, having Gary was huge. I was actually staying with him and his partner in a house 20 minutes from the course. Through his involvement in the tennis, he couldn't caddie with me for a few days but after the second stroke-play round, when I shot 65, he promised he would be with me on Sunday if I made the final."

And so it happened. Local member Andrew Newell, whom the Dubliner had met on an exploratory trip down under last October, caddied in the intervening rounds but had no problem in standing aside for the 36-hole decider against Australian Nathan Barbieri.

At four up with 10 to play, it looked as if young Purcell would wrap up victory in another four or five holes. The importance of having his brother on the bag, however, gained serious emphasis when, from a position of two up with two to play, he lost the last two holes to birdie, par.

"Mary and I were in bed, but we weren't sleeping," Joey recalled. "When it went to sudden death, I was thinking of the damage it could do to Conor to lose. It would have been devastating to anyone's confidence."

He wasn't to know that as his two sons went to the 37th tee, Conor turned to his brother and said: "I think we're still going to do this."

Reflecting on those critical moments, he said: "I wasn't thinking I'd blown it. I felt really comfortable, not nervous."

He then proved it by ripping a three-wood off the 37th tee about 270 yards down the right, into the semi-rough and 20 yards outside his opponent. Crucially, he had given himself an ideal route to the pin on the back left of the green and where Barbieri missed the target with a wedge, the Dubliner hit a lob-wedge to 30 feet. From there, he eased the uphill putt to within two feet of the target and clinched the title with a par.

Back home in Dublin there were tears. "I won't talk for Joey but I was definitely in floods," said Mary. "The mixture of delight and relief that he'd won." Neither parent could remember whether they had slept at all. Either way, what did it matter?

We then talked about Conor's return trip to Australia next Friday, so as to compete in the European Tour co-sanctioned ISPS Handa Vic Open on February 7-10 as a reward for his triumph. At this, his girlfriend, Jessie Steele, arrived on the scene. It was 3.30 in the afternoon and the newly-crowned champion with the Tom Watson build, wondered if he could excuse himself. "I was hoping to get in an hour's practice at Portmarnock before it gets dark," he said.

I thought of Ben Hogan's remark: "Every day that I miss practising takes me one day longer to be good." And there was the recognition of a young man who had been very well taught.

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