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Monday, September 21, 2020

The Old Head from Kinsale

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The 9-Hole Course is back in the limelight, and none more so in Ireland than Cruit Island, Mulranny, Castlegregory and Bushfoot

There was a moment last summer when John Murphy wondered if he wanted to continue playing golf at all. In the car with his mother on the long drive home to Kinsale after another missed cut, this time at the North of Ireland Amateur Championship, doubt had seeped under the skin of one of Ireland’s most exciting talents as a summer that promised so much threatened to pass him by.

“I think I’d missed the first four cuts of the summer and they were all high-profile events,” Murphy recalls.

“The British Amateur, The St. Andrews Links Trophy, the European Am and the Brabazon, and I was mentally drained after them. I’d been thinking so much about Walker Cup to that point. I had such high hopes after the year before and I went up to the North and I just thought, ‘let’s restart, refresh. You’re going up to a weak field’.

“In my mind I was going to be the best player there and I said, ‘look, just go and compete again, get yourself in contention, have a good run off the match play and win here and your whole summer changes’.”

Unfortunately, the best laid plans backfired and it wasn’t just another missed cut but the winding reality of the field he’d failed to produce against that proved particularly sobering for the Cork man.

“I was probably the only full-time amateur in the field that week and I was just thinking, ‘if you can’t make the cut in the North of Ireland, what’s the point? You’ve spent the last three years basically playing full-time golf and you can’t even make the cut at the North’.

“I felt a little bit… what’s the right word here… embarrassed, in one sense. It’s very demoralising to think that you’re playing golf five hours a day, five days a week and you’re losing to people who essentially have full-time jobs, maybe they got one week off work to play this tournament.”

“I was in a bad frame of mind playing golf – I wasn’t enjoying it which is pretty uncommon for me because I do love it – but I wasn’t having a good time. I had a chat to my Mam on the way home just wondering if I was able to go play golf for another year with that constant disappointment.”

John Murphy after winning the 2019 Sherry Fitzgerald Davitt & Davitt Mullingar Scratch Cup (Photo: Pat Cashman)

But then a little voice in the back of his mind intervened. Something Murphy has tried his utmost to live by is a motto bestowed upon him by an old assistant coach.

“He said, ‘it’s never as good as you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is’ and never was that more relevant than after the North. Yeah, you go to bed that night and you’re not feeling great the next day but you go to bed the next night and you get up and you’re like, ‘come on, who cares, you have to work hard and go about things the right way’.

“I decided after a few days of feeling sorry for myself that actually, I’m in control here. I have the power to get this thing back on track and if anything, the whole experience will give me a much better understanding of how to deal with situations like that into the future because it’s inevitable in golf.”

Thankfully, for the now 22-year old, the good days have heavily outweighed the bad thus far and no day was sweeter than this past May when Murphy received a call to confirm he had won this year’s Byron Nelson Award, one of the most prestigious honours in all of U.S. collegiate golf.

“I was at home with my parents when I got the call and I knew it was the American number that rang me when I got nominated,” Murphy said.

“When I answered I thought to myself, ‘OK, if they don’t say straight away that I‘m just ringing to congratulate you, then they’re probably calling to let me know I hadn’t won. So they said, ‘I’m just ringing with regards to the Byron Nelson award’,’ and immediately I thought ‘ah no, I guess I didn’t win’ and then in the next sentence he was like, ‘congratulations on being this year’s recipient’ and I was in a state of shock. I don’t remember the rest of the phone call after that but I went into Mam and Dad and they were delighted.”

The award, a rounded recognition as much to do with Murphy’s contributions off the golf course as on it, means a special PGA Tour date for the University of Louisville star at the AT&T Byron Nelson next year at TPC Craig Ranch.

“It’s still a bit surreal watching the golf the past few weeks and thinking I’ll be playing amongst them,” he says. “It’s a dream come true just getting to compete on the PGA Tour but I’m trying not to think about it because I don’t want to build up the whole year around one week.

“I still have a lot to do between now and then, hopefully fifteen or so tournaments before I play that. I know it’s going to be a great experience but I’m trying to take my mind off it as much as I can for now.”

It’s no wonder Murphy is trying his best to keep himself in the present. If you told the flame haired boy from West Cork at 16-years young that he’d be competing on the PGA Tour six years later, he probably would’ve laughed at you. At that stage Murphy wasn’t even making Munster panels. He was excelling more in the colours of Kinsale on the Gaelic field than on the golf course, but when he was approached by his coach, Ian Stafford with a programme to put some concentrated work into his game, improvement was almost instant.

Sure, the GAA still competed for Murphy’s affection. You’ll find him togging out with the junior hurlers during the summer to this day, but it was a knee injury suffered on the football pitch that may have been responsible for giving him his most telling push into golf.

“At the time, I was probably better at GAA than I was at golf but when the injury started to affect me a year or two down the road, it did creep into my mind, like, why did I continue to play for that long,” he admits.

“When I look back on it, I probably would’ve kept playing GAA but I guess thinking on it now, maybe it’s a bit stupid of me to go playing with the junior hurlers over summer when I’m 22 but look, it’s something I still love doing.

“I love going for a puck around or a kick of a ball with my friends. My life has been so much based around golf that I really enjoy having the chance to do other things. I don’t want to live my life out of fear at the same time but I can understand why other people would take a seat in other sports when they get to this stage. For me, I don’t want to look back on it when I’m 30/35 and think ‘aww Jesus, why didn’t I go on that night out or do all those things that my friends were doing’.

“There’s still been a lot of sacrifice. I’ve never been on a holiday with my friends. I didn’t go on my leaving cert holiday. There’s loads of things like that that I’m willing to pass up for the benefit of my golf but when I’m back in Kinsale, I want to be doing what my friends are doing and I won’t stop doing that when I have the chance.”

John Murphy at the 2018 World Amateur Teams Championship (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Murphy’s ability to compartmentalise his golf game from other aspects of his life is something that should stand him in good stead. His mindset is a healthy one and his body has been too having shown no ill-affects after taking the decision to go under the knife to fix his ailing knee in November of 2017.

He used the six-week recovery period after the surgery to recharge and reboot and though rehabilitation was tedious, he came back with a bang when, as a 400-1 outsider in June of 2018, Murphy rattled in a 25-footer for birdie in the sudden-death playoff to become the third Irish winner of the St. Andrews Links Trophy. It was undoubtedly the biggest result of his amateur career to that point but it was arguably usurped in importance one year later when a momentum changing win occurred much closer to home.

It was that summer of disappointment in 2019 when missed cuts at The British Amateur, The St. Andrews Links Trophy, the European Amateur, the Brabazon and perhaps most-painfully at the North had Murphy briefly questioning the merits of pursuing a life in golf at all. Back to the wall, he turned to his coach, Stafford, anxious that he was about to return to Louisville with nothing more than a summer of missed cuts to show for his efforts and identified the Mullingar Scratch Cup as the last tournament that could turn his fortunes around.

“I was debating with Ian whether to go or not,” he remembers. “I’d said the same thing to him all summer before each tournament, I was going – ‘yeah, I feel good about this one, I think I’ll go well here,’ and every time it didn’t work out.

“I think he was trying to convince me not to go at that stage and to take a week off before I went back to America so I could refresh but I just felt I couldn’t end the summer like that. I really wanted to prove myself again. It would’ve been very easy to say ‘no, I don’t want to play. I’ll take a bit of time off,’ but I really wanted to take a positive out of summer. I wanted to compete again and be in contention but thankfully the good feeling I had about it, this time clicked.

“I got into contention and once I was there, I was comfortable again. That’s where I want to be, that’s where I play my best golf and that’s where I feel I’m in my best frame of mind and thankfully I managed to get the win and it gave me a huge boost of confidence heading back to the college scene in America.”

The injection of energy was swiftly made evident upon landing on U.S. soil as Murphy recorded four top-10 finishes in his first five tournaments before firing a stunning 63 en route to his maiden collegiate victory at the Bearcat Invitational. He doubled down with win number two at the rain-affected Dorado Beach event in Puerto Rico in early March and the impact he’s made in Kentucky and beyond have since been honoured with that extra-special Byron Nelson recognition.

Just as well then, that Murphy, a self-confessed home bird, extracted himself from his comfort zone to try his luck in Louisville. Familiar faces in Devin Morley, Hugh O’Hare and Aaron O’Callaghan dispelled his worries about a harsh transition and he hasn’t looked back since.

Just like Arizona State’s Olivia Mehaffey and so many other Irish seniors who graduated during this most strange time of Covid-19, Murphy was expected to take the plunge into the pro game via Q-School this year before the world was turned on its head. Thankfully, the University of Louisville and others have since stepped in, offering players like Murphy the opportunity of a one-year extension to hone their craft and further their academic education.

With a Marketing degree in his back pocket, Murphy wasted little time in accepting the chance to take up an add-on in Sports Administration and at just 22, what better place for his talents to shine than back amongst one of the leading programmes in world golf for one more year.

“With Q-School unlikely to go ahead this year, it was certainly a huge bonus to get that opportunity to go back,” he says.

“If I didn’t go back, I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing now to be honest. It’s no time to be dipping your toe into the pro ranks. I doubt there’d be much opportunity for anybody out there right now. That was the initial plan but just as it was looking like I wouldn’t have too many options, thankfully the chance arrived to go back to college and it looks like everything is set to start back on time.

“Louisville has been the perfect fit for me. I mean, if you can’t get better over there then you can’t get better anywhere. I’m really looking forward to getting back over there. Hopefully we’ll get a run at the Championship without any health issues.”

Murphy’s return flight was booked to America for July 15th and although he was anxious about being allowed to re-enter Trump infested waters, one thing is certain, when Murphy does get the green light to resume his playing and chase more championships, the lessons learned from last year have stuck; humbled, grounded and forever grateful for a game that’s a privilege to play but a hoor to master.

“Mindset is everything,” he says. “Last year I learned that I put way too much expectation and pressure on myself to compete in those events because I wanted to play Walker Cup. I went into that summer thinking, ‘OK, if I finish top-20 this week, top-10 that week and contend that week, then I’ll have a good chance’. But like, what’s the point of that? It’s putting so many thoughts into your head before you even get started. So instead, as cliché as it sounds, you take one shot at a time and go from there and enjoy it.

“We don’t realise how privileged we are as full-time amateurs. We’re so lucky to have the GUI – they pay for us to go all over the world to these amazing tournaments. We get all the gear, play the best courses, get all of our meals paid for. We don’t realise how lucky we are so having that realisation and being able to enjoy your golf is really important and it’s an attitude that I hope will stick to me if I go down the pro route one day.”

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