In April 2015, a 23-year old Chris Selfridge announced to the golfing world that in May of that year, he was going to trade the amateur ranks for the paid circuit and turn professional. The North of Ireland Amateur champion, who had successfully defended the crown at Royal Portrush in 2014, was to draw the curtain down on a glittering amateur career that also included an Irish Close championship win in 2012.
The Moyola man of Castledawson stock had decided to turn professional immediately after completing his marketing and advertising studies at the University of Toledo in the USA, announcing at the time that, “I am forever grateful to the Golfing Union of Ireland for all their help over the past eight years. I am very excited about what the future holds.”
Four years later and few could have predicted where Selfridge’s career has spiralled to now but getting to pick his brain from the highs of a remarkable amateur career to the lows of an injury ravaged time as a professional sure was fascinating.
For Selfridge, a four-handicapper by the age of 13, as soon as his golfing ability began to surpass that of an array of other sports he dabbled in, every step along the way of his personal development was geared towards making it as a pro. So much so, that when I challenged him to pick a highlight out of all his incredible amateur achievements, he threw at me the first curveball of a particularly enjoyable chat.
“I’d say the highlight for me from my amateur career was a win I had in America in 2015,” he said of his victory when representing Toledo at the Talis Park Challenge. “It was a really good field, a big college event. I went out the first day and shot level par but then went five under, five under around a really hard golf course.
“It was my proudest moment and it made me feel for the first time that my game was ready for pro golf. It was a big American style golf course. I went out one off the lead in the last round, shot five under and won by one. It showed me that the signs were there that I could do this. I could play professional golf.”
In truth, Selfridge’s time at Toledo was probably his most enjoyable playing golf. It was an adventure undertaken a long way from home and although it proved to be hard work at times, it was an experience that shaped the person he is today. If he was to advise any budding pro now, however, who’s crossing the Atlantic to pursue their own dreams, his advice would be simple. Enjoy it.
“Regardless of what you end up doing – pro golf, businessman, whatever you end up doing in life, I think you have to realise that the chances of making it as a pro golfer are very slim. So, you have to look at college and think, this could be the period of my life where I have the most fun… ever!
“For me, it was four years of travelling around the country, playing golf, never having to put your hand in your own pocket. You go to university and yeah, it’s difficult, you miss a lot of class playing, it’s intense with late nights in the library and whatever else but it’s great craic and I still miss it. The boys who were on my team over there, I’m still very close to them now. It was four unbelievable years. Regardless of your golf, it’s just a great experience and you can’t lose sight of that.”
Selfridge travelled stateside at 18 feeling like a man but admits with hindsight that he was undoubtedly immature. He learned a lot about himself quickly; grew up fast recognising that those who didn’t went home no sooner than they landed. But in golfing terms at least, he had his own revelation that few others who make the journey from Ireland to America seem to arrive at. In US collegiate golf, Selfridge identified his path to becoming pro and was going to pave his own route to get there sooner than most.
“From the very beginning, I tried to build my amateur game in an American style,” he recalled. “Even though I had success at home at the North and the Close, the standard in those tournaments was nowhere near the pro game.
“As incredibly proud as I am about those achievements, the reality is that they’re a million miles away from pro golf. I built my game to be ready for pro golf. I never even considered hanging around for summer to be part of the Walker Cup. As soon as I graduated, I wanted to be a pro.”
Indeed, Selfridge’s mindset is a fascinating one. Where most amateurs return to Ireland to finish off their season, challenge for summer titles and attempt to make the Walker Cup team, Selfridge always had other ideas.
“When I turned pro I was ranked 60thor 70thin the world as an amateur so not particularly high compared to where some people get to, but I was the only one turning pro in May. Because of that, all the management companies wanted to sign me. I ended up speaking to most of them, if not all of them and I was able to pick my own schedule. I was guaranteed invites here, here, here and here and with a schedule in front of me, I could pick what I played in.
“When all these guys turn pro at the end of the year, they get a couple of invites and by the following April they’re forgotten about. They play Q-School and if they don’t get their card then they’re goosed. Their chance to get starts is so limited so when I think about when I turned pro, I don’t know why more people don’t do it too. I don’t get it.
“I had no interest in going home in 2015, playing links golf all summer and playing Walker Cup. It’s all hearsay but I’m pretty sure I would have made that team comfortably but I just didn’t want to go and play links golf for the rest of the year. I thought that’s actually going to make me move backwards in my progression into pro golf.”
And who’s to say he wasn’t right? Selfridge joined the European Challenge Tour and by the end of 2015, his worst result from 12 starts was a tie for 42nd. The numbers reflected a relatively smooth transition from the amateur ranks to the pro game but all the numbers in the world couldn’t compensate for what happened next.
The first time Chris Selfridge hurt himself was at the end of 2015 at European Tour Q School.
“I was warming up for the third round when I was in 5th place and would probably have been odds on with the bookies to get my European Tour card,” he recalled. “But I damaged a ligament in my wrist. I wasn’t that bothered because I knew another year on the Challenge Tour would do me the world of good. If there was a good time of the year to get injured, then that was it because I had five months off and that injury did clear up.”
He spent that winter working in the gym to put length on his swing and came out with an extra 20 yards going into 2016. Little did he know before that season was out, he would be looking at the beginning of the end of his fledgling professional golf career before it had been given the opportunity to take flight.
“At the end of 2016 I woke up one day and my elbow wasn’t right,” he said. “It turned out it was tendinitis and I got it treated. I’m not quite sure even how I hurt it – it might have been hacking out of rough the previous day perhaps, but it just got worse and I had to pull out of a few tournaments. Then in the first round in Kazakhstan I hurt the wrist ligament again and had to withdraw after the first round and that wrote off the rest of 2016.”
It turned out that he had tennis elbow, a common condition among golfers. He had experienced it previously at college in Toledo where he spent a lot of time hitting off a mat during the winter months. He always had neck trouble and had some issues when he first turned pro. He also had some posture issues because he was tall and walked with his neck down. This only contributed to the problem.
“I tried to play too much and I regret that now. I should have taken a medical. I should have taken time off. I should have fixed the problem. It just got worse and worse and because I wasn’t able to put in the volume of practice, my stroke average went from 70 to 71 to 72 and all of a sudden you’re still playing quite well and the best you can do is finish 40th.
“It’s my fault in the end. I should have known. I also felt invincible. It took me a few months and about 10 missed cuts to realise, ‘hang on a minute here – I’m actually getting worse!’ I was able to practice my short game and hit drivers but just wasn’t able to put the reps in on the mid irons, the shots that take divots, and it took a lot of poor results for me to realise, ‘how can I expect to play well when I can’t even practice?’”
The more he played, the worse the problem got. Hitting shots from a full wedge down to a 7 iron, high speed shots with a divot, only aggravated the pain. Multiple MRI scans confirmed the presence of tendinitis but even after some rest and when it felt a bit better, he wasn’t able to put in the practice required to remain at the top level.
Towards the end of 2017, he had already lost his Challenge Tour card and it was doom and gloom, but he still felt that if he could get healthy, he would have no problem playing at a high level again. Hope reared its head once more in 2018 and Selfridge received a lot of Challenge Tour starts. As luck would have it, he had to turn them down as the injury refused to relent.
“I had invested everything I had earned into it and the hard facts were that my stroke average was two shots higher than in 2016 when I played my best golf. This was from a massive sample of data and a lot of rounds of golf. I couldn’t put the work in to get it lower. I realised that I wasn’t good enough anymore.”
The decision to quit any sport before you even reach your prime must be very difficult to make and harder still to come to terms with. However, Chris sees it differently.
“Quitting was a relief,” he admitted. “The way I felt on a golf course during 2017 and 2018 was hell. I was out playing knowing that I was a lot better than how I was playing. I wasn’t getting the results and people were wondering why.
“I was constantly injured and couldn’t do anything about it. I felt I done everything I could. I invested everything I could. I tried to do everything properly. I never took any shortcuts and it just didn’t work out.”
He doesn’t play much golf anymore, except a few rounds for fun every now and again. He recently hit ten 7 iron shots in a row one day when his new employer, Michael Hoey was practicing in Portugal. He couldn’t brush his teeth that night because of the pain in his arm.
Yet Chris has entered a new chapter in his golfing journey and is approaching his role as caddie in the same way he approached his golf – with a level of professionalism that looks at every detail to ensure he, and Michael Hoey, have the best possible chance in every tournament. I often wonder how good he could have been. I guess we will never know but perhaps the future might still harbour some fairway success, albeit in a new capacity for Selfridge alongside Hoey on the Challenge Tour this year.
“I’m not sure what the future holds,” admitted Selfridge when I asked him, laughing. “I’m 27 now and I really don’t know. But I’m really enjoying caddying at the moment and I’ll keep doing it.
“I’m confident Michael can regain his full European Tour card this year because his game’s really good now. He’s working very closely with Seamus Duffy and he’s improved massively over the last two years. He’s looking after his body and I think he can do really well. I enjoy working for him too and helping him so that’s the immediate plans.
“As far as one, two, three years down the line? I have no idea! But I’m OK with that. I’m enjoying not playing golf competitively too. The last couple of years beat me up so much that it’s just nice to be doing something different, having fun, trying to do a really good job. I’m enjoying travelling; I’m not married, I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have any kids so I can travel and caddie at the moment but as for the future, I’m really not sure! But I’m perfectly fine with that though. I’m happy as can be.”
His outlook is beyond impressive but I couldn’t let our time pass without asking him if any regrets lingered about how cruelly his career had ended.
“You know, a lot of people ask me that, they say ‘it must have been devastating how it all turned out’. But it was devastating to try and play with an injury, it was great to quit!”
Let’s hope Selfridge’s new role as caddie alongside Michael Hoey is sprinkled with the bit of necessary luck that his own professional career sadly went without.