It was a year that so nearly ended with full European Tour status but nevertheless, the 2020/21 season was undoubtedly Niall Kearney’s most successful as a pro and he’s more determined than ever to build on the momentum into 2022 and beyond.
The Royal Dublin professional went into last season expecting to split his time across the Challenge Tour and Main circuit but with Covid travel restrictions hampering players getting to events, Kearney’s Category 22 membership delivered 15 Main Tour starts. In that time, he pocketed €166,364, finishing just 12 places outside the top-121 who earned full cards for this season.
Although a lack of game-time saw him fall short of his ultimate aim, Kearney still improved his status to Category 18 and after over a decade of struggles across various satellite tours, 2021 proved a profitable one in a career of few for the now 33-year old, providing relief and a potential springboard to even brighter days ahead.
“I turned pro back in ’09 after Walker Cup and you could say I haven’t had a really lucrative year since,” Kearney said of the significance of this year. “I’ve been grinding the whole time, whether it’s on Challenge Tour, Asian Tour or EuroPro, I’ve played all over, so this year was obviously great to get those Main tour starts, get some decent cheques and give myself a little bit of comfort going into the new season.
“I’m actually still searching for sponsorship and guys to come on board. It’s massively expensive from a travel point of view. Taking on a caddie possibly next year. Staying in decent hotels. Coaching. There’s an awful lot that goes into it. “Obviously I had massive help from family and external support which has been crucial. If we’re being honest, lots of guys have to stop playing simply because they run out of money. That’s the unfortunate reality of it.
“I was blessed to have the opportunity to keep going, but also I loved doing what I was doing, even though I wasn’t making great waves. I just felt as though my game was getting better each year and that there was a chance I could break through, and it’s starting to happen now which is great.”
Of course there were doubts along the way. A disastrous finish with the victory line in sight at the PREM Group Irish Masters at Tulfarris in 2018 was a particular low point. Leading the tournament by a shot having found the fairway on the final hole, Kearney pulled his approach left, chipped to twenty feet and three-putted, a double-bogey that came with a double blow as he also missed out on the playoff.
“There’s been lots of that over the last 10 or 15 years,” Kearney concedes. “It’s hard to say if it was the pressure of the occasion or the overall space I was in at the time. I was on the EuroPro Tour. I didn’t necessarily want to be there. I was trying so hard to get off it and possibly trying too hard.”
Given such setbacks, Kearney would’ve been forgiven for considering pulling the plug on his dreams, not least after almost ten years of trying. And maybe in the moment, such thoughts briefly entered his head but each time the dust settled, one thing remained that meant quitting was never an option – his unextinguishable grá for the game. “No matter what, when I get to bed and wake up the next day, all I want to do is get out practicing again,” he explains. “I don’t know why that happens but it’s just in me, so even though it’s a massively difficult time – not just for me but also my family that are trying so hard for me as well – you just get up the next day, back to the practice area and drive on.”
Fast-forward three years and Kearney’s persistence and hard work is finally seeing the results he’s long craved. In a season of so many highlights, it was a final round 61 at the Canary Islands Championship back in May that not only produced a career-best tied-fourth finish on the European Tour, but also illustrated just how far Niall Kearney the golfer has come since turning pro in ‘09.
“I couldn’t always do that,” Kearney says. “There were times, particularly early in my career, where I’d get to three or four-under and I struggled to go any deeper. I just wasn’t comfortable going there. “Playing Challenge Tour mainly for five years starting out, you suddenly realise ‘well Jesus, I have to get to 20-under par here to have a decent week’. That breaks down the barrier over time where you say you’ve got to take off the shackles and keep going.
“Shooting that 61 was like a 10-year training process in order to make that happen. Just to have the free will to keep going and taking on the shots rather than having the fear of slipping back. “I didn’t have the low scoring mindset early in my career. I didn’t have the comfort with it. But it’s not all mental, obviously you need the physical capabilities to do it as well and my swing was in a great place. “My coach Eddie Doyle at The Heritage has been so good for me. He’s put in so much work and so many hours so lots of what has happened this year is due to him.”
Kearney’s stat file:
- OWGR end of 2020 – 1264 / Current ranking – 443
- Lowest round – 61 Canary Island Championship (T4)
- Best stat last season – Ranked 8th in Stroke Average (69.65)
- Season earnings 2020/21 – €166,364
- Management Company – Frontier Sports