First Day of Term: Nine years and a day after it happened, JJ looks back at his first round as a professional golfer. Despite the hour, the temperature was already into the mid-twenties. Despite the temperature, I was shivering. It wasn’t nerves; it was terror.
As January draws to a close and the new golf season gets going, my mind always wanders back to the first tee of my own professional career. Nine years ago yesterday, at seven o’clock in the morning, I stood on the tenth tee of the Royal Durban Golf Club and hit my first shot - the first shot - of the South African Players Championship. Despite the hour, the temperature was already into the mid-twenties. Despite the temperature, I was shivering. It wasn’t nerves; it was terror.
The previous September, I sat in a bar in France with a dozen other Irish golfers. We had all missed the cut in the European Tour School pre-qualifying. Some of others were seasoned pros who had been playing various mini-tours for years. For them, the annual trek back to Europe to try and get on “the big tour” had become as routine as buying a lotto ticket.
Some of them were seasoned amateurs, all of whom had played for the national team, won countless amateur prizes at home and abroad, and had handicaps of plus three or four. They too came here every year and bought a ticket for the European Tour Lotto “just in case.”
Then there was me. I’d never played for Ireland, or even Ulster. I’d never made it past the last sixteen of an amateur championship. My handicap was a paltry plus one and this was the biggest tournament I’d ever played in. Looking back now, it perhaps wasn’t as astonishing as it seemed to me at the time that I missed the cut.
Astonished or not, I had to quickly form a new plan. I wasn’t alone. The seasoned pros sucked on cigarettes and exhaled tiredly as they mumbled about returning to South America, or Asia, or Florida. Jaded to a man, they inspired little hope in the rest of us.
The older amateurs pretended to be disappointed not to have made it through to the next stage of the tournament, but most of them found it hard to conceal their deeper gladness that they still had a small pond to which they could return and swim around like big fish.
The younger amateurs were split into two factions. Half of them were formulating plans that involved another season playing on the amateur circuit to gain more experience, but the other half – which included me – were less convinced that more amateur experience is what you need if you want to be a professional.
By the end of the night, I had gleaned a mountain of information from anyone and everyone who would talk to me. I decided that I would head to South Africa in December and try my luck down there.
The tour school in Johannesburg for the Southern Africa Tour was an altogether different prospect. Due to a lack of entries, the pre-qualifying tournament had been abandoned a week before it was due to start and everyone who had made the effort to enter it was automatically put through to the final qualifying tournament instead. I was thrilled with this little Christmas present, as were my two compatriots who had also made the long journey south.
Turning professional at golf is a bit like starting a fight in a bar; if you’re not careful, you can do it by accident. It wasn’t until an hour or so after signing and returning the official entry forms for final qualifying that one of us thought to check the small print and discovered that in doing so we had all just realised our childhood dreams and become professional golfers.
We celebrated this milestone in the same way as any other professional athlete would have done; we excitedly sat up drinking and smoking until sunrise, at which point we declared the first day of our new careers a holiday and went to bed.
Two weeks later at the final qualifying some more sober truths were sinking in. In a field of more than a hundred people, only seventeen would get tour cards. One of my compatriots had missed the halfway cut and had already booked his flight home. The other had made it to the final day but only just, and he had failed to produce the required final round miracle.
Now he was standing on the fourteenth tee of Crown Mines Golf Club telling me that I probably needed to play the last five holes in one under par to get a card. I birdied the next three holes in a row and - despite a bogey at the last - qualified in thirteenth place.
I called home to tell my dad. Not on to wear his emotions on his sleeve, he once told me that only “happiness and sport” had ever made him cry. I hit him with the double whammy and for a moment neither of us could speak.
Reality bit hard with the discovery that a tour card only bought me the right to turn up on a Monday morning and pit myself against a hundred other low-ranked pros in a one round shootout for a spot in that week’s proper tournament.
The first two events of the tour – the South African PGA in Johannesburg and the South African Open in Stellenbosh – were co-sanctioned with the European Tour, so the fields were severely restricted. For the third event, however, the European Tour had developed a keener grasp of geography and headed north, leaving more spots available to the qualifiers.
I went into the qualifying round at Bluff National Park Golf Club in Durban with a very specific game plan. As level par would probably be enough to qualify, and I was out in the last group of the day in the worst of the heat, I was going to rein in my natural inclination to take risks and instead try to play steady, solid, par golf.
This plan was a good one. It was logical, sensible, mature and it lasted for about seven minutes. After an enormous, adrenaline-fuelled drive at the par five first, I hit an enormous, adrenaline-fuelled three-wood to within six feet of the hole. Somehow, despite all the adrenaline, I holed the putt for eagle.
At the second, I tried to hit my approach shot away from the flag to the safe portion of the green, but I pulled it horribly and accidentally hit it stone dead. At this rate, I was going to shoot 45. Or not.
The rest of the round was like slow suffocation. The weather was stifling, the pace of play slowed to a crawl and suddenly I couldn’t buy a putt. I dropped four shots in the last sixteen holes and finished one over par. As I walked off the final green a tour official met us to see if any of us were needed in the playoff. I suspected I wouldn’t be, and I was right. Amazingly, I’d made it.
Later that night as I sat in a friend’s swimming pool sipping a beer, it finally sank in that I would be playing in a professional golf tournament. A real one. It was going to be on TV and everything. I had to stop thinking about it. It’s not polite to throw up in other people’s pools.
Three days later, shortly after dawn, I stood on the tee of the par three tenth hole at Royal Durban with a four-iron in my hand wondering if I was going to be able to make contact with the ball. Miraculously, I did and somehow kept the ball within the confines of the course, although I did miss the green by twenty yards.
I had been nervous before on the golf course, but never like this. Previously, the nerves would disappear after a hole or two and leave behind a useful energy and focus, but this time, I was as nervous over the last (and 77th) shot of my round as I had been over the first.
I was like when you first play after a long lay off. You swing the club back and it disappears. You can’t feel where it is anymore, and for someone like me who relied heavily on making up for my swing flaws with active hands, that was calamitous.
I hit half of the fairways, but I only hit a third of the greens. I had 27 putts, which means that I was averaging three shots a hole at the long holes and two shots a hole at the par threes. I hadn’t done that since I was too short to use grown-up clubs. Or wear long trousers.
The next day was better, but that’s a story for another time. For now, while we all admire Tiger’s incredible play and he looks set to spend another year sweeping all before him, spare a thought for the new guys teeing off with only their hopes for company in the morning fog that sometimes threatens not to lift.