Feature: Taking nothing for Granted

Paula Grant (Lisburn) driving at the 17th tee at the 2019 Irish Women's Close Amateur Championship at Woodbrook Golf Club today (23/06/2019). Picture by Pat Cashman

Once you learn a little bit about her outlook on life, it should come as no surprise to hear that Paula Grant works as an Optometrist. An amateur golfer with all the talent in the world to turn pro, perhaps it’s examining eyes for a living that has made her see the bigger picture more clearly and quicker than most.

The Lisburn native has always been a talented golfer but even more-so, self aware. Where teens with her progressive golf game would’ve got lost in the headlights of life, Grant has tempered dreams of stardom with constant reality checks along the way. Whether it was a lack of belief, or feet firmly planted to planet Earth, I’ll let you decide.

“When I was 16 or 17, I wasn’t a standout player, so I wasn’t really concentrating on a scholarship to America because I wasn’t sure I’d get into a really good college,” Grant admitted – a first indication that her sight extended far beyond the short-term.

“I was always pretty good at school and wanted to get a good degree that I could use here, so I wasn’t always 100% committed to America. I think that’s why I ended up staying home. I think if you want to go to America, you need to be dreaming about it since you’re like 15.”

Rather than look up to the clouds for inspiration, Grant had her sister Laura, one year her senior, to help guide her through life. Laura was a fine golfer too, representing Ireland at Girls level before opting to study Dentistry. Although the American Dream lingered slightly for Paula, home was where her heart ultimately lay and there was plenty of incentive there too.

“I ended up going to Coleraine where I got the use of Portrush Golf Course and I was at home with my coach so that’s what suited me best.”

Paula Grant (Photo” Cashman Photography)

And so it proved. Grant announced herself to the golfing public in Ireland by beating one half of the mercurial Maguire twins, Lisa, in the final of the Irish Women’s Close at Ballybunion in 2013. For a person so calculated in her approach, Paula managed to pull off an almighty upset, but did she always believe that she could?

“I think I just went into that week with no expectations which was probably good,” said Grant. “It was a really good field; Stephanie Meadow was playing, and the Maguire twins. I was 17 or 18 so I think I’d had a gradual rise in my golf game.

“I didn’t start off really strong or all of a sudden break through, I just went up the rankings quite evenly. I won the Girls’ Close in my last year in Girls and had played a few times for the Girls’ team and then that was the first big win in the senior circuit.”

Yet despite earning many plaudits for toppling one of Ireland’s apparent chosen few, Grant’s priorities lay elsewhere. Balancing her studies with her fairway ambition had never presented much trouble but choosing Optometry was always going to place more demands on her juggling act.

When the course took the Lisburn swinger to Scotland, it was the first time she felt particularly stretched. Sent to Specsavers for having vision, Grant’s access to the ILGU set-up was suddenly limited.

“It was difficult,” she remembered. “I had to go to the store in Scotland to do my pre-registration year which was something I had to do with my degree to get the extra qualification — once you pass your degree, you still have to do that which is tough because it meant I was working full-time, plus doing exams.

“I had to study in the evenings and had visits from an examiner and practical exams. I had to go to London in the summer for a big set of practicals, so I think I knew that it was always going to be tough to balance golf and that year. But once I got that out of the way, I could put more time into the golf.”

A year is a long time when you’re talking about one’s golfing development and Grant knew it, but being removed from the National Panel wasn’t going to spell the end. Rather than allow her career calling to become the defining stumbling block to her ever-blossoming side-venture, she joined St Andrews – the life support machine to her future fairway hopes as she continued her studies in Scotland.

“I joined The Duke’s Golf Course and that had some really good facilities for me to keep practicing away,” she said. “I think I knew in myself that even though I wasn’t on the Panel, I still had the talent – I just hadn’t been able to apply it. I just had to kind of stick at it and keep working on it when I could. Then when I got the chance to practice, I wouldn’t be too far off and I’d get back to that level.”

Time. It seems nobody can get enough of it these days, especially for golf. It’s the scourge of the game’s governing bodies as they try to encourage increased participation, and yet here’s one of the country’s top amateurs performing admirably whilst working and studying away from the national headquarters situated to support her. So, what’s the secret?

“I think it’s just time management,” she explained. “Planning out when you’re going to do things so you’re not wasting time not knowing what you’re doing. Instead, you plan what you’re going to do and just make sure you’re fully present when you’re doing it.

“There’s no point going out to hit golf balls for three hours if you’re not really concentrating and just wasting time. If you do 45 minutes, but do really good, smart practice, I think it’s actually fine – there’s plenty of time to fit everything in.

“With golf, you don’t have to play 18 holes. I like just going out for 9 holes and playing a short game that could take me maybe an hour and a half which you can do in the evenings. It’s just about being smart about it.”

Intelligence, something Grant has in spades. With her pre-registration complete, she soon moved home from Scotland and didn’t take long putting her time management theory to the test in reintroducing herself to the elite of Irish golf with a second Close win.

Now armed with the ability to dedicate time to the game, Grant was ready to make up for lost hours with a run at the Curtis Cup, taking the near impossible route from ‘career amateur’ to secure selection to a team reserved for those who’ve largely never worked a day in their lives, at least beyond a putting green.

A place on the Curtis Cup team, the women’s equivalent to the men’s coveted Walker Cup team, wasn’t going to be easily attained. Then again, Grant only knew hard work as a path to success.

“It was a huge goal a few years ago and I made the team in 2018 which was just amazing,” Grant said. “It was such a great achievement for me at the time.

“The week itself was disappointing because I didn’t play my best,” she added, GB&I having been swept away by the United States 17-3.

“It was a totally new experience for me. Ball striking was a real key to that week at Quaker Ridge and I didn’t quite have mine. The rough was so thick, hitting the fairways was such a bonus. And then the greens were so quick and sloping that you could hit the green but if you were in the wrong part of it, you couldn’t two-putt.

“Even the chanting going around the first tee and the TV cameras – it was just unbelievable. I’d never played anything like it! I would obviously love the chance to play it again, especially on a home links course, just to see the difference.”

It was only natural that such an experience would whet the appetite for the now 25-year old, and having struck an enviable balance between work and play, she finally has the means to strive for that something extra.

“At the minute because of the summer and all the golf, I do locum work, which means I can just pick and choose the days I want to work. I’m self-employed technically, so I just get dates sent through to me for places that need cover and I can just look at my golf schedule and take it from there.

“I’ve taken a maternity cover position from September to May which is three days a week so it’s pretty good – over the wintertime it should still work alongside the golf quite well.”

However, Grant’s lifestyle doesn’t leave time for much else. Friends are met intermittently with Grant away every other week and trying to balance rest and potential earnings in between. But don’t be fooled, this is far from a solo venture and unsurprisingly, Grant is all too aware that without the help of the Irish Ladies Golf Union, something would’ve had to give long ago on this inspiring search for equilibrium.

“They’ve been absolutely incredible with the amount of support I’ve received from them since about the age of 16,” said Grant.

“I’ve got coaching off some of the best coaches in the world; Donal Scott, Strength & Conditioning from Robbie Cannon, Chris Jelly, Johnny Foster – they’ve got such a good team.

“Then Dave Kearney, he’s running it and always just there if you ever need anything. It’s a great system they have going now because it’s very individual, not just everyone turning up for a weekend training and we do the same thing.

“It’s more ‘at this stage of your life, you need this’, or ‘what would you like from us?’ and then even just the opportunity to go to all these tournaments. They’re allowing me to play in Scotland and they’re sending me to the South American Amateur in January. I’ve got to see some of the most amazing places and play some great tournaments and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without them.”

Grant’s ILGU family is one huge part of her life but closer to home there’s another, with Lisburn Golf Club an ever-present in her golfing journey thus far.

“They’ve been great to me, always calling up asking how I’m getting on and even putting up my Curtis Cup badge in the clubhouse. The members are so friendly and my coach, Stephen Hamill, he’s the pro in Lisburn and he’s been great.

“He’ll check on me to see how I’m getting on and give a few wee tips – he’s not technical at all so he doesn’t change a whole lot – he just kind of lets you get on with it and if I need anything, he’s there. Obviously, my parents and family have been amazing too – Mum and Dad have even let me move back into the house!”

Thankfully, outside the door of the family home, opportunity most definitely still knocks for Grant, but where exactly the driveway will lead the rest of her golfing journey remains anyone’s guess.

“It’s always in the back of my head,” Grant admitted when I asked if she’d ever turn professional at this stage.

“I often think, ‘I may as well give it a go, I’ve come this far’. But then I have quite a good thing going here with just working a bit and being able to play all the amateur events which I love. I think there’s always the comfort of not playing golf full-time and trying to do it every single day as the be-all and end-all, so that lifts a bit of pressure.

“I’ll make the decision next summer if I do want to give it a try for a few years – it’s just something I keep putting off! I just don’t know whether playing for money might take the enjoyment out of it a bit.

“I do love my golf so if it takes away the fun aspect, will it then suddenly become a job? It’s not the end of the world though I guess. Once you turn pro, you can always come back again!”

One thing’s for sure, no stone will be left unturned in this calculated thinker’s decision, and there’s no doubt Paula will settle on the right route for her.