There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to put things in perspective. Frontline workers are being heralded as heroes where previously only celebrities would do. The little things are being appreciated like never before and human life has been prioritised above profit. Yet that doesn’t mean things like sport are suddenly unimportant. In fact, the lack of it in recent weeks has highlighted just how influential a role it plays in our daily lives.
For actual sportspeople, whose day-job like so many of us has been impacted severely by Covid-19, they’re understandably missing it. Playing schedules have been decimated, especially in Europe, and whether or not that particular plight is important to you, it’s important to someone and shouldn’t be dismissed.
But it puts people like James Sugrue in an awkward position when answering questions around this time. For his unforgettable win at the Amateur Championship in Portmarnock, the Mallow star, amongst other things, earned an invite to arguably the most famous tournament in golf, The Masters.
It is an envelope that every golfer dreams of receiving; a letter arriving prior to Christmas postmarked ‘Augusta, GA’. So, to have that potentially once in a lifetime opportunity slip from your grasp because of a pandemic outside your control, of course you’re allowed to feel something. You just don’t want to be accused as the person whose priorities are out of touch with the common man.
Thankfully for Sugrue, and all those who received the golden ticket to Augusta National this year, the Masters has been rescheduled to November and not canned completely. No wonder then that Sugrue sounded a relieved man that his trip down Magnolia Lane remains intact.
“I knew it was going to be cancelled or postponed after The Players got cancelled,” said Sugrue, who’d just finished a spot of painting for his Granny when we caught up with him.
“I’d never seen something like that happen before, it was very weird, and so I knew the Masters would be affected, I just hoped it would be postponed rather than cancelled so that was a great relief.”
“Most golfers have grown up watching the Masters from a very young age. I know people who even take the week off to watch it. It’s the biggest event of the year for the pro and it was definitely my biggest event this year. Fortunately, it still is!”
The experience of a November Masters will be a different one for the Corkonian, but any Masters experience would’ve been different for Sugrue. His family had everything booked, a house for ten people close to the course. He had even pencilled in one night in the famous Crow’s Nest where no doubt his feet would’ve been dangling off the edge of the legendary beds.
“It was more just to say that I’ve stayed there more than anything else,” he laughed. “I wouldn’t be a huge single bed man but it will be a great experience to be able to do it.”
Sugrue will attempt to make his Georgia surrounds as familiar as possible when the time does come to take flight. His great friend Conor Dowling, who carried his bag to that Amateur Championship victory in Dublin, will have the honour of donning a famous Masters bib come November too.
“I’m sure he’ll sneak in a few ol’ chips in a practice round!” Sugrue says. Not only that, he might yet be rubbing shoulders with some world class company for those trial runs too.
“I didn’t have anything set in stone but Neil [Manchip] was saying Shane [Lowry] would definitely play and maybe Rory [McIlroy]. If Neil were to ask, the two boys are so sound that I couldn’t see them saying no. I’m pretty comfortable around Shane so I’d love the chance to pick his brain and get a feel for the course.”
The week that moved the goalposts
There’s a reason Sugrue will be striving for familiarity when Augusta rolls round. It was on a foundation of such home comforts that his journey towards Magnolia Lane was forged. Few expected the 22-year old to add his name to a list of illustrious winners at the Amateur Championship in Portmarnock but the feelings in Dublin were sound all week with Sugrue surrounding himself with good company that created an atmosphere he was able to replicate on the old links.
“I was comfortable up there,” he explained. “I almost felt like I was playing in Mallow. I had Conor on the bag, three very good friends up with me for the week – Eoghan, Liam and Greg – and they followed me for the whole thing so it felt like the Senior Cup almost.
“Every day we had a great laugh. We’d finish up at the golf, go to Five Guys in Swords Pavilions for a feed. I was staying in my cousins house in Portmarnock and we went down to the beach every day, had a kick around, a puc around and went to bed early every night – just got into a really nice routine.”
Whether he let his mind wander to a juicy Five Guys making his way around the golf course, Sugrue didn’t say. But we’d doubt it, considering his winning formula was founded on an old cliché, “just take every shot at a time”.
“I didn’t think I could win it until I had two putts on the last green,” he says. “I said to myself, two putts here and I’m going to the Masters. There was no point trying to predict the future before that.”
Indeed, Sugrue’s mindset proved formidable for the week. The proud Mallow star carried home hopes into the 36-hole final and didn’t disappoint, overcoming Scotland’s Euan Walker by one hole.
Never once behind in the match, Sugrue epitomised calm despite the weight of expectation bearing down on him by all in attendance, coupled with the self-pressure of knowing all the doors that would open off the back of such a monumental win. For those who witnessed it, it was hard not to get enamoured by the way he went about things. He played aggressively, taking driver any time he could.
“I got a new driver at the start of the week and I just loved it,” he gushed.
“It had way less spin and it was ideal for the wind at Portmarnock that week. We have this shot that’s worked wonders for me. When I’m hitting drives not quite at 100%, we call it a Jimmy. It’s low, swinging at 80% and I’m just trying to Jimmy one down the fairway. It’s a fairway finder that’s so ideal for me.
“It’s for a tee shot you don’t fancy, like the first at Portrush for example. OB left and right, that’s pure Jimmy country there! Low, straight and chasing. It’s a shot I can fall back on – my stock shot I suppose – and it served me great at Portmarnock.”
Still, it was hard to accept that with so much on the line, Sugrue didn’t struggle with expectation. He raced five clear of Walker in the morning, a position that would see most mere mortals fall victim to counting the prize. The Open Championship on home soil the following month and the following year’s Masters and US Open tournaments would be enough to prey on anyone’s mind. He maintains it didn’t. Even after that 5UP lead dwindled away, Sugrue wasn’t for shaking.
“It’s not like I’m going home and my Mam and Dad aren’t going to be there anymore,” he said.
“I can still go home and nothing is going to change whatsoever. Even if I play bad, it doesn’t really matter. I have an attitude of, ‘I won’t take this with me for the rest of my days. It will be gone tomorrow, there will be something new.’
“That’s the attitude I try to have with golf. As competitive as I am and as much as I hate losing, I think in order for me to win, that’s the attitude I need to have. I’m not saying that’s the right way. I’m saying it’s the way that works for me.”
Still, as he cradled the massive trophy afterwards, Sugrue had to pinch himself to realise what he had achieved. Family and friends were delirious, celebrations already underway.
“It was unbelievable, everybody running and hugging,” he says. “The joy was immense. I could play golf for the rest of my life and never have a feeling like that again. I’ll never forget that day.”
If he ever did forget, Sugrue will always have his shiny medal to look at to remind him of what he managed to achieve in Dublin that day. However, much to his surprise at the time, a medal was all he would be going home with, the iconic trophy to remain under lock and key.
“It’s insured for a million pounds so I didn’t get to take it home,” he said with an audible sigh.
“That was one thing I found weird. You literally just get the medal, that’s it. You can’t fill a medal! I said to the fella at the R&A, that won’t go down to well where I’m from boy!”
The Mallow army made it home for midnight that night and the party continued long into the next morning. Unsurprisingly, it’s still the source of much excitement to this day, even bringing light to the daily grind where Sugrue still finds himself working part-time for the family furniture company.
“I was delivering a brand–new wardrobe only recently,” he says, “fresh out of the box, sparkling new. It was worth a few hundred quid anyway.
“It was heavy, just about made it to the room and I said, ‘that’s done for you now,’ expecting nothing more than a thank you.
“She says, ‘you’d never sign it for me would ya?’ I said, ‘are you for real?! On the back, or something?’
“What did I know. I signed it straight in across the front of it! It was gas!”
Sugrue’s new-found fame was only getting started after his heroics in Portmarnock. Next on the agenda was another historic occasion as the Open returned to Irish shores for the first time in 68 years. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Sugrue was to cut the red ribbon so to speak, out first on Thursday morning with home hero, Darren Clarke.
He was tasked with following veteran’s opening tee shot down the fairway and he duly obliged, finding the centre cut to get his tournament bid underway to boisterous scenes at the Dunluce Links.
Settled after an opening par, The Amateur champion got into his work soon after, picking up a shot at the par-5 second before trading three more gains with four dropped shots in a superbly composed opening round of level par 71, achieved despite the obvious nerves that come with lifting the curtain on one of sports most anticipated productions.
“I was definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been on the golf course this morning when I looked up at the grandstand and it was just packed,” smiled a visibly relieved Sugrue post-round that day.
“And Darren walked on in front of me and the roar was just unbelievable. I was very nervous for the first and the second. I birdied the second, it set me in a little bit. And just enjoyed it really from there on in.”
Such is golf, that high was short-lived after the most unlikely lost ball of his career on the Friday saw Sugrue miss out on the weekend rounds by a single stroke. As it turned out, he would also miss out on the chance to join Shane Lowry on Sunday’s winning stage. At Carnoustie in 2007, when Padraig Harrington sent Irish eyes smiling, he was joined by the low amateur that week at the prize giving, a certain silver medallist called Rory McIlroy. There was no escaping the anger Sugrue felt at the time being robbed of that chance.
“I was livid,” he recalled. “I never really get pissed off but that lost ball on 14 hurt. I never for one second thought that was a lost ball. It wasn’t like I stood up and winged one 100 yards right or sniped one 100 yards left. I just caught it a little bit ‘heely’ and it went dead straight where I was aiming and we went up there and couldn’t find it.
“That annoyed me so much. It could’ve been myself and Shane but such is life. We’ll just have to wait for Augusta and get the medal there!”
Whatever about the bitter end to the week up North, the Open gave Sugrue a sense of where this game could take him and proved he could compete with the world’s best on one of golf’s biggest stages. No wonder then that he was eager to ride the crest of the wave and seek out more Tour experience. Oman this year was an unlikely stop on the calendar but after excelling during the GUI’s trip to South Africa in February, the Mallow man dipped his toe in European Tour waters for the first time and liked what he saw.
“Oman is a good Tour event on a good course where there isn’t that many crowds so it was a nice little steppingstone,” he said of a missed cut at the Oman Open.
“It was my first European Tour event – relatively quiet, no huge names playing. It was an ice breaker if nothing else.”
But it was something else – it was another chance to witness first-hand what the pros do well and compare notes and it reinforced to Sugrue that he’s on the right track with his learning.
“I think every pro is the exact same,” he says. “They’re a lot tidier than the top amateurs. They think about the shots they’re hitting a bit more. I wouldn’t say they hit it miles, they don’t. They don’t do anything where you’re like, ‘oh my god, I couldn’t do that in a month of Sundays’. They just do everything very well.
“I mean, there’s no point being able to hit an unbelievable drive if you can’t then hit a wedge within five feet. Any good player you ever play with, before they hit a shot, you could almost just pick up their ball and place it where you know it’s going to be. That’s what the pros are like.”
It’s often said that there’s very little between the ball-striking capabilities of the majority of the game’s best players. How often do we hear that it’s the six inches between the ears that makes the difference? Having listened to James Sugrue for 40 minutes, you would be easily convinced that he’s set to flourish in that department too, whenever he does decide to turn to the paid ranks.
“Knowing this game isn’t the end of the world helps me relax on the golf course,” he says of a standout attitude that sets him in good stead for a long career in golf.
“It stops me getting too anxious, stops thoughts creeping in that will ultimately affect your swing. I just try to be positive and relax. If it goes in the hole, it goes in. There’s a big difference between that attitude and not caring. It’s not, not caring, it’s accepting. There’s a big difference there and it works great for me.”
Given the current state of global golf, depleted schedules and the unlikelihood of European Tour Q-School this year, there’s no sense in the world amateur number 20 even considering the pro circuit until 2021 at the earliest. He’ll still have ventures into the pro arena to look forward to, not least Major invites like the Masters and the US Open, two of golf’s big four. And there’s a certain prospect of adding an Irish Amateur title to The Amateur crown won last year. No shortage of motivation then for a man who always believed he had the talent to succeed, though he admits to losing that drive for a time in his short career.
“I always knew if I play well and trusted myself, I’d never be too far away,” he said.
“I always kept up with these guys from boys golf right through but I fell out of love with the game for a couple of years. I had a sore back and I just didn’t want to play because my back would be sore the next day. When I say a sore back, it was very, very sore. But I got the bug again, practiced mad and couldn’t get enough of it.”
A timely wake-up call arrived, or didn’t, as was the case at the North of Ireland Championship in 2017. Sugrue’s phone died in the middle of the night and his alarm didn’t go off. He was disqualified as a consequence but on the miserable drive from Portrush to Mallow, he gave himself a talking to.
“I gave myself a kick up the hole and said, ‘cop on and give this a real good shot. You might get on the Home Internationals team’. That was my goal,” he says.
That same summer, an opportunity at redemption presented itself at a track Sugrue’s always loved. For years he’d watched Mervyn Owens receive the acclaim of the members in Mallow for his emotional win at the 2003 South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch.
“It was like god had come down and blessed him – he was the man – so I suppose that was the one I always wanted to win.”
Win it he did, and he’s gone on to achieve plenty more since. After talking to him, it’s hard not to think he’s only getting started. God has blessed Sugrue with a rare gift. It will be exciting to see what he does with it.
Listen to the full podcast of this chat HERE