It’s not often you can walk into a pro shop in Ireland first thing of a Sunday morning and get confronted by a European Tour winner selling you a Mars bar. At Carlow Golf Club, it will mostly likely happen seven days a week. Back in his natural environment, Damien McGrane is once again the club pro he always wanted to be.
An Assistant Professional at Portmarnock under the guidance of Joey Purcell back in 1998, McGrane took up the Head Professional’s position at Wexford Golf Club before his golf dragged him to the European Tour in 2005.
The role has always been in his DNA, his return inevitable, but after living the life of the touring professional in the plush surroundings of the European Tour for so long, even McGrane can appreciate how the landscape has changed from his latest perch, behind the pro shop desk at the picturesque midlands parkland.
“All of my friends are PGA professionals so I would’ve been listening to their tales of woe through the years,” said McGrane, who left his more than capable understudy, Tara Delaney to manage the shop as we moved to the clubhouse to chat.
“Even when I was on the European Tour, I was still in contact with them. I never lost touch with what the industry is but I guess I work harder for less now. The club pro’s job has broadened quite a lot. There are more elements to the job and as a result, I have to work longer and harder hours to fit into the new role of the club pro.
“It’s difficult. I now realise that when I was on the European Tour, money was always free whereas now you have to work for every penny. Still, I’m back doing what I originally wanted to do which is to be a club pro. It’s challenging, but it’s enjoyable – stressful sure, but you could say that about anyone’s job.”
Although the till doesn’t ring quite as often as it did during the boom times of his Wexford days, the 48-year old finds himself busier than ever in a role far removed from the glamorous country club perceptions of years gone by. Reality paints a much different picture of the club pro; one that should be observed closely by young dreamers weighing up a career in golf who falsely believe that they’ll have a pro shop position to fall back on should all else fail.
“The danger for young people now is that they’ll never get a club pro job where they might have the opportunity to work 13 hours a day, seven days a week, like I do, for very little,” McGrane warns.
“They might never actually get off the blocks. They might be one of four, five or six teaching pros on a driving range that really only deserves one pro to make a decent living. It’s changing. The young people now will have to become General Managers or Directors of Golf, or Caddymaster if they want to succeed.”
Opportunity might’ve been more aplenty when McGrane was coming through but that didn’t make his progression up the PGA ranks any easier. While becoming a club pro was his ultimate ambition, it paid very little initially, putting pressure on the Kells man to find a source of income from elsewhere. Fortunately for McGrane, it just so happened that he was the best player playing in Ireland at the time too.
“When I started in the 90’s, I was working for minimum wage but I was handy at the golf and won a lot of money at Pro-Am’s in Ireland when the Pro-Am circuit was OK,” McGrane said.
“It’s fallen a lot in grace since the 90’s but having said that, the Irish Region is still the best region of a bad bunch. Our colleagues in the UK will look to Ireland and admire what we have here. It would be very easy for us to be critical of the Irish Region but it’s actually the best region of all seven. So, because I was number one in Ireland back then, I was able to get reasonably well-paid playing golf. The truth is that I’m a better player now and I probably win 50% less.”
This is the harsh reality of things for anyone trying to make ends meet on the circuit today, and indeed, anyone trying to make it in professional golf, period. Top loaded prize funds, not only in Ireland but on Satellite Tours around Europe mean only a handful of players will cover their costs in chasing the scripted dream.
For someone like McGrane, who’s never shied away from the fact that his number one motivating factor is money, it would’ve been enough to stop him in his tracks had his career panned out differently, and one worth noting for any fledgling pro struggling to take flight.
“If I started off by playing on the EuroPro or the Challenge Tour and I failed, and then I dropped back to doing a 3-5 year apprenticeship on minimum wage in the pro shop, I think I would see the difficult, difficult side to the golf industry that I never wanted to be involved in,” McGrane revealed.
“The chances of me motivating myself to be successful at this different level – I would struggle personally. Do I think I could make a success of that situation for the rest of my life? Probably not.
“I wanted to be a club pro because I wanted to be a club pro for my life. The people you’re talking about – failed players – they’re being a club pro because in their mind, ‘anybody could be one of them’. They would really, really get a rude awakening because the system now is extremely difficult to get through. You have to be very well educated and if you do come out the other side, you need to be because there are very few jobs for those who do qualify.”
There’s no doubt that there’s been a cultural shift, not just in golf but in society in general that influences how people think. That need for instant gratification extends far beyond our smart phones. People like short-cuts. Why go the long way around when you can go this way and it’s quicker? When McGrane grew up, he never had that problem. Golf attracted very little coverage in Ireland. The world of golf didn’t exist outside the British Open, the Irish Open and the US Masters and therefore, seeds of unrealistic expectation could never be planted.
“Now that golf is so much more accessible, young people leapfrog a few of the stages,” McGrane believes.
“They think, ‘right, I’ll get on the EuroPro, then the Challenge Tour and the Main Tour and that’s the dream, happily ever after’. That mindset didn’t exist when I was younger. I saw my avenue as the local club pro because he was the only pro I knew. OK, I knew of Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus but I didn’t have the opportunity to think past stage 1,2,3,4, whereas the young people now try skip to stage 5 because they think of the club pro as a service provider, a nothing on their map.
“They don’t realise what they’ve done to get there. Their history in the game, how hard they actually work. They just see it as a fast track into Bon Jovi status. They don’t realise all the effort and the good fortune that has to come in order for this super group to get to Top of the Pops.
“Young people now have the attitude that if I’m a failed golfer, I’ll just do something else with the rest of my life. As long as they stay true to that philosophy, that’s fine because there’s no room for them as a failed golfer. Carlow Golf Club won’t give them a job willy–nilly because even they want the most highly qualified person who’s willing to spend their own money to set up their own business at a golf club.
“Carlow Golf Club hasn’t got the funds no more than any other Irish golf club has to overpay a club pro so he can sit about and hand out scorecards and drink cups of tea with the members.”
Of course, the alternative is not to fail, however in the competitive cauldron that is pro golf, the odds are stacked against success. It makes you wonder if we put too much pressure on our fledgling pros to take first flight. Are we pushing them off the cliff prematurely just so they can crash upon the rocks?
“I think if they don’t succeed very, very quickly, they’ll become institutionalised,” McGrane answered.
“If I played on the Challenge Tour for more than three years, I would become a Challenge Tour player. If you play EuroPro Tour, year in, year out, you become a EuroPro Tour player. These guys need to progress very quickly. If you look at Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell, Paul Dunne, any player that was successful, the Challenge Tour was a one or two year hit, max, and they were gone – never looked back.
“Any player that struggles to get off the Challenge Tour is a Challenge Tour player. Any player who struggles to get off the EuroPro Tour, is a EuroPro Tour player. Unfortunately for these guys, they play on the lower Tour for a number of years until someone eventually pulls the plug – the cash flow – and they either give up and go into another industry or they fall back into the golf industry because they think they’re a superstar with nowhere to go.
“Only, there’s no room for them anymore because the pro now has to work morning, noon and night. I open my own shop at 6.45 every Sunday morning and I hand out scorecards for the whole day. That’s the reality. The illusion is that these people can talk the talk and tell you about stuff. I can tell great stories but I don’t bother because it doesn’t get me anywhere. I can’t lodge them into my bank account.
“These young people trying to start out, eventually start a family, buy a house, change the car – talk won’t get them there. The best advice I could probably give them is to get out of the golf industry completely and go into a different line of work. Get educated and stay in education for as long as they can because golf is not the soft ticket for anybody.”
You certainly couldn’t accuse the Meath man of mincing his words but this wasn’t some tirade by a club pro with an agenda. It was refreshing advice with no time for sugar-coating from a man long-willing to call a spade a spade. Besides, McGrane’s far from all talk. The former China Open winner has put his money where his mouth is, literally, in the past, extending an olive branch to young professionals who harboured dreams of making it on the Tour.
McGrane introduced the Irish Tour Pro Series Shootouts, taking the best 12 available Irish professionals from across the European Tour, Challenge Tour and Mini Tours and had them put up €100 each into a ‘winner takes all’ pot over 18 holes. Much more than just a money exercise, it was played across the finest courses in Ireland with McGrane calling in favours from some legends of Irish golf in order to create an open forum, scant of sympathy, but rich in truth.
“It’s important to help,” McGrane said, “and I was fortunate enough to be able to provide an access to an insight into these young players’ futures. I would’ve hoped that one of those meetings would have helped these players move forward in their career and if I could do something to help one player, then it was all worth it. But the players themselves also have to want to help themselves.
“I wasn’t a babysitter. They were looking for a babysitting service similar to what the GUI might’ve provided for them. That wasn’t me. I spoke my mind. If somebody was wasting my time, I told them, because I wasn’t wasting their time. I was giving them a good day out, through my contacts, burning up my favours with my friends so they could have access to something that might help them in the future.
“I did my bit at the time; I was free, easy and able to do it and overall it was positive. Those guys will always remember playing with some of the great players of Irish history. Nobody else has done it since and nobody will because everybody’s so busy trying to help themselves now. The golf industry is tough, it’s competitive, but the reason pro golfers want to be pro golfers is because of that competition. And the good news for us all is that if you’re not good enough, the system culls players extremely fast.
“The people who are not good enough are saved from spending their parents’ pensions, their brothers’ and sisters’ wages, their savings out of the credit union. The system culls them before they blow everybody’s money because they’re just not good enough. Believe me, if your stroke average is good enough to play on the Main Tour, you won’t have any problem on the minor tours.”
Yet, that doesn’t make the step-up any less difficult. With five and six-under halfway cut marks plaguing the dreams of those desperately trying to make the grade, “making it” is arguably tougher than ever. It’s not that it boils down to ability – obviously it plays a factor – but these guys all hit the ball like Tour players already.
The difference has and always will be, the six inches between the ears and until Ireland’s young men and women coming through the ranks can somehow convince themselves that golf is golf, no matter the tour, an influx of Irish players atop world leaderboards remains on hold for a while yet.
“People talk about the European Tour as being a different animal. It is different, but it’s still golf,” McGrane maintains.
“Everything is the same except you have to bring your game into a higher standard and the problem most people have, is that the different standard is what they can’t get their head around.
“You see how fantastic Gavin Moynihan did at Portstewart,” – Moynihan tied 14th at the Irish Open in 2017 on a sponsor’s invitation – “but how many guys go to Portstewart and shoot 80,80, the two worse scores they’ve shot the whole year because they’ve realised the importance of playing well that week.
“Mentally, in your head, in your friend’s head, in your parents’ head, everybody’s saying, ‘now this is a big week, make sure you don’t f*** this up, this is important’. Golf’s not like that. You spin the dice every day of the week, whether it’s a big tournament or a small tournament, you give it your best. But it’s hard for these players because when they think it’s a big week, they think they have to give it more than their best and ultimately, that’s where they fall.”
With the focus of our conversation very much on the playing prospects of those trying to make the grade to that point, it was easy to forget that the man sitting opposite had been there and done it. Not just that, but he still housed significant talent in an arsenal that was unleashed upon the Region when he picked up his second Irish PGA Championship title in August at Bunclody.
The talk after that commanding win naturally turned to the Senior Tour with McGrane, now two years shy of the big 5-0, expected by many to reunite with foes of old on the Staysure circuit. Only, where enthusiasm exists from those on the outside looking in, it’s obvious that McGrane’s currently less than enthused about the prospects of embarking on a second coming in golf.
I sat there flummoxed, perplexed as to why it didn’t light his fire, but then he reminded me of the mantra that dictated his entire career to that point and it all made sense again.
“I can scroll through the prize funds on the Main Tour and see that the winner gets €1.6 million and last cheque is €3.5 grand. But when I look at the Seniors, the winner gets €26k and the last cheque is €550 and straight away I say to myself, well that’s a complete waste of time,” McGrane said, bluntly.
“How can I give up my time – practice, concentrate, spend my money and commit to something that I believe is a waste of time? The European Tour has spoiled me. Can I be motivated by terrible money, because the money is my number one motivating factor?
“Some people want to play for glory, some people need the crystal trophy and others want the money. My mantra’s always money with golf. I only played golf because I was good at it and I could get paid for it, overpaid for it sometimes, but now I look at the prize money and it’s rubbish and I wonder how I can motivate myself?
“Then you’d say, why don’t you go to America…”
He took the words off the tip of my tongue!
“My whole career I wouldn’t go to America, I wouldn’t travel to America. I like playing in Europe. I like it plain and simple. I like being able to get home every week and that’s the way I played my whole European Tour career. It’s my life, it’s my decision and my decision is that I’m not going to play in America and that’s it! America’s not for me.”
All that being said, if you were to do the maths on what four quick wins would get you in the over-50’s club, those €26ks start to add up rapidly. So, does McGrane, who carded a brilliant second round 67 (-5) that largely contributed to his second PGA title, retain enough ability to enter the winner’s enclosure often enough to make the Staysure Tour worth his while?
“I definitely can compete,” he asserted. “I look at guys on the Tour and don’t forget, I played with most of them. Apart from the fact that we’re 10 years older and the odd duffed chip, we’re all still the same. I can get my game back into good shape, not my body – when I hit 50 I could be falling apart – but I still think I can get myself back into competition mode very easily.
“Nothing’s changed; my swing’s the same. Even my equipment, I left the Tour in ’15 and I’m still using the very same 14 clubs. It’s not important to me. I don’t need to upgrade my equipment. I could be using the same stuff at 50 when I left the Tour five years earlier because it’s all just about playing golf.”
But there’s the question; does he still want to play golf?
Day one of the Irish Senior Women’s Open happened to be just underway outside the clubhouse window at Carlow as war torn fairway warriors ambled on by with a spring in their step as if today was their first venture onto a golf course. Would McGrane feel the same way?
“Unfortunately, right now I’m treating it like I don’t want to go,” he said. “The break away from competitive golf – which I’m in the middle of now – I’m hoping someday to be like those ladies out there playing – every one of them is out there because they want to be out there. If I’m playing because I’m bored and I should do it, then I’m not going to compete very well and I’ll waste my time.
“The drug is the competition. I’m here in Carlow today and it’s a nice day and the golf course is fantastic but I wouldn’t dream of hitting one ball here today – not one. Some people in a better frame of mind would say, ‘look, I’ve an hour, I’m going to hit 30 balls up the range and 30 balls back, pick them up, and that’s my hour killed’. I’d rather sit and drink tea instead. The motivation to help myself is low but my desire to compete is there.”
Indeed, his competitive juices were on full display at Bunclody when even without a practice session under his belt, McGrane was able to put the field to the sword like he has done on the circuit so many times before.
“One of my colleagues told me that they backed me with PaddyPower at 3-1 to win the Irish PGA,” McGrane said.
“He was surprised I didn’t back myself! Now I don’t know anything about golf or betting shops but he couldn’t believe it. But the fact that PaddyPower had me as favourite to win, all I really did that week was what was expected of me. If somebody like PaddyPower thinks I’m the best player, all I did was reiterate that I am the best player, in this environment.
“That’s not to say I didn’t play well and I don’t want to be disrespectful to my fellow pros. I played great tee to green and I won, and I should’ve won. But I think I have a few extra shots in the tank and I’m glad I have. I said to Tim Rice in Bunclody that my two scores might’ve made the cut in a European Tour event, nevermind lead. It might’ve made the cut. I’m very clear as to where my standard is at. I wouldn’t dare kid myself saying, ‘wow, wasn’t that an incredible win, I played out of my skin to win’.
And perhaps, that’s most telling, and all the more reason for McGrane, even at the age of 48, to tap into the reserves and fulfil his potential on the Staysure Tour. It might seem ridiculous to say that about a man who’s experienced and achieved as much as Damien but if a person has the ability to better themselves, then it would be a shame if they didn’t try.
I couldn’t help but get an inkling that McGrane was far from done with playing golf. Even how he recalls the last hole at Bunclody before lifting the most prestigious trophy amongst pros in Ireland was for me, revealing.
“In Bunclody, I fell home making a five down the last,” he smiled. “That’s absolutely not who I am. I’m BANG, driver down the middle, hit a 4 iron onto the green, two putt and win in style. But I’m saying to myself in front of all the Carlow members, don’t make a bags of this now in front of these because they’ll never forgive me! Just hack your way down, make a five and go home with the trophy and that’s good enough. It wasn’t very complimentary to myself but I just had to win.”
The Senior circuit might just provide the stage for one last McGrane masterclass production that in a little under two years’ time, could prove too tempting to turn down. For now though, he’s content in a journey that’s come full circle, forever learning in his small pocket of golfing bliss at the picturesque Carlow Golf Club where he’s learned to appreciate the position of the club pro more than ever before.
“I’m working harder now than I’ve worked at any point in my life,” said McGrane. “That’s what this industry demands. It helps that Carlow is a very desirable place. It’s the best golf course in the Midlands by a long way. I appreciate what it has.
“But to all of my colleagues, the club pros in Ireland, I now understand the commitment and the enthusiasm that they show on a daily basis. They work extremely hard for an ordinary man’s wage. I realise that now.”