Young guns standing on shoulders of giants
System that made Ireland such a fertile breeding ground for Majors is producing new generation of stars, writes Karl MacGinty
RORY McILROY was born to win and his parents, Gerry and Rosemary, made Herculean efforts to ensure he had every opportunity to fulfil his potential.
Yet many others in the Irish golfing family also should take credit for the cultivation of McIlroy, fellow Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke and pioneering Dubliner Padraig Harrington into Major champions.
Golfers from this small island have won seven of 26 Major championships played since Harrington broke a 60-year Irish drought in the 2007 British Open. Only the USA, with 10, has claimed more Major titles in that time.
It's not by chance that Ireland harvested such a rich crop, with more in the offing in 2014, should McIlroy, as expected, recover his Midas touch and McDowell click into overdrive in the British Open at Hoylake or the US PGA at Valhalla, two venues that suit him to a tee.
After eight years as national coach at the Golfing Union of Ireland, few are better placed than Neil Manchip to explain this sporting alchemy.
"Rory once said the strength of Irish golf is rooted in the clubs and he was spot-on," says Manchip.
"The competitive element is so strong throughout the game here, it creates a great atmosphere.
"We've also got great courses, and our weather requires players to be able to perform in all conditions," adds the Scot, aged 19 when he first came to Ireland in 1992 as an assistant to newly-appointed Royal Co Down pro Kevan Whitson.
Manchip, winner of the PGA Irish Professional title in '99, then enjoyed seven years as a teaching pro under Leonard Owens at Royal Dublin before landing the "job of my dreams" with the GUI.
He has cherished every moment spent "in such a great country to be involved in sport".
"Whether it's soccer, rugby or Gaelic, Irish people are mad for sport. I see it when my own little boy goes to Gaelic football, and there are so many volunteers out there. Well golf is my thing and I'm in my element here," explains Manchip, who firmly dismisses any attempt to describe the GUI's High Performance programme as a production line for Major champions.
"It's not like we're producing players on a conveyor belt," he insists. "That would make it look as if we'd a formula, but there's no such thing.
"It's simply a matter of providing the right environment, which gives golfers the opportunity to reach full potential.
"When it comes to player development, many people are important: his parents, his own coach, the Union's provincial coaching network and the club member who pays his sub and funds the whole thing.
We all work together. As national coach, I'm a figurehead. It's about getting everyone involved so, if we do get a few diamonds in the rough, they'll have the best environment in which to thrive."
'THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS THE NEXT RORY MCILROY!'
SO, where's the next Rory McIlroy coming from? That question was asked, half in jest, as we cast an eye over the 17-man Irish senior panel for 2014, which Manchip rates among the most powerful in his tenure.
"There never will be another Rory McIlroy. That's a fact. In the same way, Shane Lowry would say nobody's like him," Manchip replies emphatically.
"Every golfer is different. Before Rory came along, nobody was saying 'where will we get the next child prodigy from?' and nobody should now."
The elite amateurs in the national squad all are different folks with different strokes.
"There's no right way or wrong way to do it," Manchip maintains. "You just have to do what's right for you."
Six of the national panel are golf scholarship students -- Gavin Moynihan, Paul Dunne, Chris Selfridge and Stuart Grehan in America; Cormac Sharvin is at Stirling in Scotland and Gary Hurley at NUI Maynooth.
Yet each has faced disparate challenges, none more gripping than Moynihan (19), who leapt straight out of the Walker Cup cauldron last September and into fiery competition for a place on the star-studded Alabama State team that won last year's NCAAs.
Moynihan returns to Tuscaloosa tomorrow invigorated by the opportunity to rejoin the battle to establish himself among the elite of US collegiate golf. Fittingly, The Island favourite figures with Dermot McElroy on the European team for the Michael Bonallack Trophy in Bangalore in March.
They are Ireland's two hottest amateurs, with Ballymena man McElroy (20) expected to take the plunge into professional golf after June's British Amateur at his favourite links, Royal Portrush. Mind you, that week's Irish Open at Fota will be a tempting counter-attraction.
UNION SPENDS €1M-PLUS A YEAR ON HIGH PERFORMERS
THE GUI invests €970,000 per annum in coaching, international competition and, in some cases, living expenses, for Ireland's high-performance golfers.
Under the sport's strict amateur code, all funding for golfers must be administered by the Union so, unlike other elite athletes, they cannot receive direct grant aid from outside sources.
With around €300,000 provided by the Irish Sports Council, €40,000 by the R&A and €30,000 from Sport NI, the lion's share clearly comes from the Union's own resources, effectively the subscriptions paid by golf club members.
Throw in associated expenses and the figure soars over €1m annually, with convenor John White, his fellows on the high-performance committee and, of course, coach Manchip charged with ensuring maximum return for those resources.
"The high-performance programme has evolved over a number of years," says White, explaining that a close eye is kept on the methods employed by other nations, emerging and established, "to see what they are doing to bring on their elite players."
For example, eight members of the senior panel go to South Africa later this month, literally to warm up for the season in practice and at two top-class stroke-play events.
This concept initially was devised by the Scandinavians to escape their savage winter. It worked especially well for the Irish last year, leading to Reeve Whitson's spectacular early-season success at the Spanish Amateur Open.
HOW TO PICK'N'MIX YOUR WAY TO GLORY
THE support given to Ireland's Tour stars of tomorrow extends far beyond the fairway or the practice ground.
It was revealing, for example, to attend a talk given by Dubliner Poll Moussoulides to the senior panel during the annual four-day pre-Christmas session at the National Academy in Carton.
An internationally acclaimed speech specialist and image consultant, Moussoulides coaches a broad spectrum of clients, from captains of industry to international sports stars, plus a dazzling array of entertainers, like Whoopi Goldberg, Gabriel Byrne, Pierce Brosnan and Martin Sheen.
Through a series of role-play exercises, Moussoulides demonstrated how the golfer can and should play an active part in determining the way he's perceived by the public and portrayed by the media.
It's vital, he argued, for any leading performer to build the image he desires rather than leaving it to third parties. Is it any wonder so many Irish golfers are famously adept in dealing with the media?
Visiting speakers can have a profound impact. McElroy admits advice from leading English sports psychologist Dr Karl Morris led to a dramatic change in his on-course attitude and form in 2013. "I was really interested in what he said about keeping all thoughts on technique for the practice range and simply go out on the course to play golf. It made a really big difference to me," he says.
Last month, Harrington's caddie Ronan Flood gave a revealing insight into the nuts and bolts of life in the upper echelons and the importance of keeping faith in one's own tried and trusted methods amid a myriad of distractions.
"Ronan spoke brilliantly," says Manchip. "He has seen big names in the amateur game turn professional and try to change everything.
"They get different clubs, different sponsors and a different coach yet the things they did as a boy probably will stand to them in the man's game."
Manchip explains how golfers, their parents and their mentors, are encouraged to "design their own coaching. We want them to be self-reliant, to be in control and not just be told what to do."
Kevin Phelan personified this as he transitioned from Walker Cup to European Q-School last autumn and brilliantly secured his Tour card for 2014.
"Golf's an individual game," says Manchip. "You've got to figure out what's best for you. We just guide the process and help you fill in the blanks as you go along.
"Our key goals this year are the European Team Championships in Finland, the Home Internationals in Wales and the Eisenhower Trophy in Japan and preparing the guys as well as we can for those events.
"Yet it's part of our duty to provide that environment in which people are happy, comfortable and secure with what they're doing."
It's on such fertile ground that future Major champions grow.