Ivan Morris Column - Pro Golf’s Valley Of Despair

Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris
IN spite of the successes of Shane Lowry and our four major championship winners, Harrington, McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy, the long list of top-ranked, Irish Amateur Internationals who have ‘bombed’ as pros would make you stop and think.

IN spite of the successes of Shane Lowry and our four major championship winners, Harrington, McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy, the long list of top-ranked, Irish Amateur Internationals who have ‘bombed’ as pros would make you stop and think.

GUI officials are quick to state that it isn’t their role to develop players for the pro ranks but it is the inevitable result that follows on from producing a stream of world-class amateur golfers. To become a successful amateur international golfer today is a full time job that inevitably ends with the majority taking the plunge into what quickly becomes a valley of despair. The day you turn pro is the day that the GUI dispenses with you. The day you turn pro is the day you become an outcast, and an outcast you’ll stay unless by some miracle you cheat the odds and manage to hit the big time. Records don’t lie. Happy endings are few and far between.

Pro golf appears the most glamorous of sports. But, the vast majority of professional golfers live a lonely life with an uncertain income earned in an unpredictable theatre of ferocious competition. A survey of European Tour players, including Ryder Cup stars and a former world number one, reveals that pro golf is not all that it is cracked up to be. 90% of would be pros find themselves in a wilderness.

One concern is the steadily increasing number of tournaments in Asia and other faraway places that puts an unbearable strain on marriages. A professional golfer on the treadmill of the tour and his partner left back at home experience intense feelings of isolation and loneliness. It takes a particular type of person to cope. If you join the circus your family usually travels with you and everyone has a task to make the enterprise work but not so on the golf circus - as it is sometimes called.

There’s no support, no structure and no backup. The Confederation of Golf in Ireland distributes a few bursaries annually but the CEO is probably paid more than all of those bursaries put together. Being left on your own to sink or swim must come as a shock, especially if you have become used to the support and comfort of being part of a representative team in an atmosphere where there is always a supportive team manager nearby to pay your bills, boost your confidence and tell you what to do.

Perhaps lack of GUI support when he was an amateur is precisely the reason why Damian McGrane, unlike other more privileged performers, has survived on the pro circuit, recently creeping past the €5-million mark in career earnings. That’s some performance when you consider he wasn’t considered good enough to play for Ireland and never won any big amateur event.

The relentless programming of amateur golfers often begins as early as 12-years of age. The majority of kids find such dedication boring and by the time they are 15, they drift away to discover other interests. The 10%, who have the extra, special, talent and the even more rare dedication to stay on the treadmill, are forced to embark on a schedule of tournaments in pursuit of ‘ranking points,’ which becomes the be all and end all of their existence. In effect, they ARE professional golfers apart from the fact that they are unable to win prize money. It’s natural that they would want to try pro golf at some stage.

When someone has spent their entire formative years aiming at becoming a professional golfer and they fail, they will have missed out on so much. In the meantime, the hobby golfer with above average ability is also sorely neglected. It’s one reason why golf is slowly dying and doesn’t seem to be as popular as it once was. All Golf Clubs need their quota of low-handicappers. A Golf Club without good golfers is a soulless place. GCs are losing members because the ethos of ‘good golf’ is not as admired or as sought after, as it used to be. Too many good, young golfers between 25 and 35 fall out of golf these days. The GUI does nothing to support low handicappers wise enough to steer clear of professionalism.

In the USA, the qualifying age for mid-Amateur golf is 25 and in European Golf Association events it’s 30. What is more the winner of the US Mid-Am each year enjoys the kudos of being invited to play in The Masters. A 1 or 2-handicap club golfer in this country will find it practically impossible to obtain a place in any of the major championships because there are so many full time hopefuls in the scratch and plus ranks. It makes them think: Why bother?

Keeping your head above water as a professional golfer is far from easy. And yet, many believe it is worth the risk because if you hit the big time you might end up a billionaire like Rory McIlroy.

Words of the Wise

Including air fares, hotels, meals and caddie’s wages, it costs up to €4,000 per event to compete on the European Tour. When you are playing well and winning money pro golf is a great life. When you’re not playing well, missing cuts and not making money, it’s hard - Mahal Pearce