I was invited to the Irish Open at Baltray ten years ago. At the time, I was probably the number one amateur in the country, but I’d never played in an Irish Open or professional tournament before. I rang up our captain at the time, Kevin Flanagan, and asked him would I be able to play in it because there was a big tournament going on in the UK that same week, the Brabazon Trophy, and they generally send the best players over to that one and maybe give back the Irish Open invite. He said yes. That was a couple of months beforehand.
There was a lot of golf between then and playing in the Irish Open. I remember playing the two weeks leading into the Irish Open, at the Lytham Trophy finishing third, and then at the Irish Amateur in Royal Dublin, where I had a pretty good week too and finished fifth or sixth. I knew I was going in playing alright, but I didn’t go there with any expectation whatsoever.
I drove home from Royal Dublin on the Sunday night after the Irish Amateur and my mum, she was a great one for getting a good turnaround on my suitcase, so she had my suitcase ready for me again the next morning, washed and ready to go.
Then I headed up to Baltray about eight or nine o’clock that morning because I was just so happy to be playing. That’s kind of the way it was the whole week. I was just delighted to be there. Obviously, I wanted to play well, but I wanted to try and make the cut and that would have been a good week for me. Little did I know what was going to happen.
That Friday feeling
I started on the back nine, which is tougher than the front at Baltray, and I was three over through five. I still managed to shoot five-under – so I was three over through five and for the next 31 holes, I was 18 under!
I just kept on hitting good shots and holing some putts. It was amazing. I remember the crowd building up and when I got to the eighth hole in the second round the TV cameras came along. I always remember that. I holed a putt on the tenth for birdie to take the lead. I said to myself then, “Oh well, I’m happy now, I’ve led the tournament at some stage anyway”.
On the Friday I shot 10 under par. The best score I’d have probably shot before that would have been seven or eight under. It was weird. When I got to Friday evening I was leading by two and thought “Jesus, what’s happening here?” I said to my brother Alan that evening that I’d no idea what was going on.
I was leading the Irish Open by two shots and I was 15 under after two rounds! It was pretty outrageous.
Leading from the front
I would’ve been happy to make the cut, but I was leading the tournament on Saturday. Then you start thinking about winning it. I was competitive and a fairly decent golfer in my own right, but I didn’t think I was going to do anything like that.
There was a big weather delay on the Saturday. It was a lovely day but it was really windy and the greens were too fast and the balls were moving. So, we had a lot of the day sitting in the clubhouse – I remember watching Man Utd play a game to pass the time. That was back when they were alright.
I went down Saturday evening and finished late – about half seven or eight o’clock. I went home, had dinner, got to bed and we were teeing off early the next day because the bad weather was coming in, so I didn’t have to wait around until two or three o’clock on Sunday for my tee time.
I slept all right that night as well, but the next morning, I was a bag of nerves. I didn’t eat breakfast in the house we were staying in or anything. I remember my coach, Neil, he brought me into the player’s lounge and made me eat something.
But then as soon as I got my first tee shot away, I was all go. When you’re at that level of even amateur golf, once you get on the golf course and you’re kind of familiar with it, you can freewheel a little bit. I was on the golf course and that’s what I do best, so I was happy enough there once I started.
Coping with pressure
I definitely did interviews around it, but I’d done press before. That helped me a little bit. The amateur game was very well covered then. Rory had just turned pro. He was a top amateur and I was playing West of Ireland and Irish Amateurs and you’d have four or five media at the end there to talk to you.
The week before, I did an interview with Greg Allen after the Irish Amateur and we were heading up to Baltray. So, I was somewhat used to it. Obviously, the Sky Sports cameras and stuff were entirely different.
And, when I was playing amateur golf, you used to get decent crowds going to tournaments too. It was familiar enough surroundings and that helped me an awful lot.
It was Robert Rock, Johan Edfors and myself in the final group on Sunday. We were quite far ahead of the pack. I was 18 under, 17 under was the play-off and then maybe sixth was probably 10 under. It was basically between me and Robert Rock at the end.
I remember putting on my wet jacket on the fourteenth tee. I was more used to the rain back then than I am now. I’m a fair-weather golfer these days. People remember the weather was horrendous, but it was bad for a few holes, it wasn’t like that all day. And there were thousands following us by now, but I didn’t even think about it.
I walked off the thirteenth green and my coach was standing there on the way to the next tee, and I said: “I’m just going to have to hole a putt, I haven’t holed a putt all day.” On the fourteenth then, I holed a great putt down the hill for birdie and then I holed a putt for birdie on 16 as well.
Straight after I’d won I said: “There’s no way I’m not turning pro now”. I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Why would I not do it when I have the chance?
I’d have a two-and-a-half-year tour exemption too. That was huge. People talk about the money and all that – I couldn’t collect the prize money because I was still an amateur, Robert Rock in second got the first prize and I didn’t get paid anything.
It actually didn’t bother me though. I wouldn’t say I had 500 quid in my bank account at the time, but if somebody had put 500 grand into it then, you might not have heard from me again. It might have been bad for me. Too much, too young and you’re never heard from again. The two-and-a-half-year exemption was a good enough prize.
I still can’t believe I did it, to be honest. There are no amateurs playing this year, but if you were to tell me one was ever going to win an Irish Open, I’d probably laugh at you. I’ve been trying for 10 years trying my nuts off to win tournaments since and I’ve only won three times.
That there’s none in it this year shows how big the Irish Open is now, the European Tour won’t give up any spots for amateurs. It means a lot to all the pros to play here. I thought they should’ve found some way to get James Sugrue in.
He’s obviously a bit of a superstar in Ireland at the minute. He’s from Cork. It would have been nice for him the invite. Maybe they may look at it in the future.
Golf’s a fickle game
Winning feels very different now compared to then. Like Abu Dhabi this year, it was a while since I really had a great chance. When you’ve taken a few knocks your confidence takes hits. Abu Dhabi was special because of that, because I nearly didn’t win that with a four-shot lead going into Sunday. I would have taken it very hard if I’d not won that.
Look at Canada this year. I played the golf to win the tournament but if somebody like Rory McIlroy turns up and plays better than me, he’s going to beat me. That’s the way golf is.
But if he has an average day, I win that tournament. It’s a fickle sport.
I’ve only recently learned that really you just have to keep trying to the bitter end on a Sunday, and then from there, you just see where you finish, have a look at the leader board and see what position you’re in.