Every competitor fears the day that they wake up and the hunger is gone, and when that day comes, David Higgins intends to walk away. But that day is a long way away and, as the three-time Irish PGA Champion gazes at a Trophy he first marvelled at 40 years previous, he knows that that fuel is still burning as intensely as ever.
Back in 1983, David Higgins would stare at the PGA Championship Trophy which took pride of place in the family trophy cabinet and think “wow, imagine winning this.” He would take it out, hold it, run his finger over the list of names engraved at the bottom and he would do what all 10-year-olds do, he would dream.
His father Liam had just beaten defending champion David Feherty by two strokes to win the ‘83 Irish PGA Championship at Woodbrook. These were the halcyon days of the Championship, with names like Christy O’Connor Snr, Feherty himself, Des Smyth, Philip Walton and Eamonn Darcy all immortalised either side of Higgins’ by the engraver’s hand.
40 years later, the trophy is back in the Higgins household, and it’s not its first visit back either. In 2012, David matched his father’s feat when he rolled in a birdie putt on the third playoff hole to defeat Gary Murphy and Noel Murray at Mount Juliet, joining Jimmy and James Martin as the only pan-generational winners.
A further nine years would follow before David would get his hands on the trophy again, but now it’s back for a third time, leaving only Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, Harry Bradshaw, Michael Moran, Smyth, Walton and O’Connor Snr who’ve won it more times.
And the cycle is repeating itself. Now 51, Higgins is father to a seven-year-old himself, who looks at the trophy in the same way that 10-year-old David did back in 1983. “My son, Daniel, he comes in now and he has his seven-year-old friend, and he says, ‘look what my dad won, he’s the best golfer in Ireland’,” Higgins laughs, “and I’m going ‘wait a second…’ But for him to be that proud. It makes me proud as well.”
Golf, particularly at the highest levels, is a game that’s changed massively over the course of Higgins’ career. The advances in golf ball and equipment technology, plus an increasing amount of newly constructed courses that are a ‘bomber’s paradise’ have taken some of the artistry out of the game, but the news that Carne Golf Links in Mayo was set to host the Irish PGA for three years running from 2021-2023 was like manna from heaven.
“I love Carne, it’s a very special place, a proper links course, a lot of shots like Waterville so I’m at home on the course,” Higgins explained. “When I see that three years in a row on the schedule, I know if I am ever going to get a second one, this is the time. Carne is a very special place to me.”
Known as one of the toughest links courses on the island on a rare calm day, Carne, situated in Mayo’s western reaches, generally gets the full force of the elements coming in off the Atlantic. ‘Next stop New York,’ is how the locals describe the location, and strong winds, often accompanied by driving rain, are to be expected. And on a somewhat masochistic level, that’s just the way Higgins likes it.
The proverb ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ may not be the most apt when talking about the Higgins’ two victories in three years in Belmullet, but he certainly made the most of an opportunity he described as being like “Christmas coming.” “When I go to Carne I just feel at home,” he says. “It’s hard to describe it but it’s almost easier. It’s a different style of play, it’s not just stand up and hit it as hard you can and go find it. It is easier for me.”
There’s an old saying that goes: ‘hard times make hard men, hard men make soft times, and soft times make soft men’. And though he’d be the first to cite his youthful experience of growing up in Waterville with his father as head pro as wonderful times, growing up in depression-era 1980s Ireland, hard times made Higgins a hard man. And Carne, particularly in the conditions that the 2023 Championship was played in, was definitely better suited to a hard man.
“I’ve always done well in bad weather throughout my career,” he reminisced. “I suppose I grind it out a bit more. As kids we did go out there in bad weather and they weren’t bringing you in back then, so I suppose I got used to it and I was always good at it. You just have to dig deep and keep going. The last two in Carne have been blustery and wild.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be at Waterville all my life and I just love it. I like using the wind – the windier the better – it fits my game so going to Carne, I am used to it.” It’s debatable whether anybody could ever get used to the sorts of conditions that the 2023 Championship threw up, however. Winds gusting at over 70km/h and biblical rain made the course unplayable at times, but it was on Friday, the toughest day that Higgins played his best, somehow grinding out a two-under-par round to take the clubhouse lead before play was suspended for six hours. Saturday’s final round was played in marginally better conditions, but only just.
“Every hole is a potential quadruple bogey,” Higgins said, and the fact that the conditions made the already sketchy West coast phone reception a forlorn hope, there was no chance of live scoring.
Playing with Simon Thornton in the final group, Higgins had no idea what anybody else was doing, but figured that the healthy lead the duo enjoyed after 36 holes would mean that beating Thornton and avoiding any calamitous mistakes would likely be enough to get the job done. And for 17 holes, he did just that. A blip on 18 wasn’t enough to derail him, but it wasn’t until he’d walked off the green that he learned for sure that he’d just completed his hat-trick and he eventually returned home to a fantastic reception in Waterville, just like he had in 2012 and 2021, and just like his father had received 40 years earlier.
“The drive home was so rewarding, you are just so happy because you don’t win the big one that often,” he remembers fondly. “The older I get the more I have learned to appreciate a win, it’s hard to describe it but it is just so, so special. “It was very frustrating waiting nine years since the first win. But you have to keep going because golf isn’t easy.” And keeping going is the only thing he knows. Evolution is one of life’s natural cycles, and those that can’t or won’t evolve are quickly left behind. The prototype of the modern pro is to be an athlete who can hit Driver well over 300 yards and in many ways, it’s an alien game to some of the older hands. Speed is something that must be learned and harnessed at a young age, but athleticism can always be improved.
“Fitness is a huge thing,” Higgins explains. “You see the young guys out here, they’re fit, strong lads and I’ve been working hard on my fitness for five years or so now. It’s something I’d never done previously. I supposed Tiger was the first one to bring it along, and I was a few years older than him, but it helps. Obviously, your body feels stronger, but it helps mentally as well. You feel tougher mentally and you feel better equipped to compete with the young lads.”
And competing is in his DNA. One thing that has remained constant in golf is that the lowest score still wins, and his success proves that he’s still as competitive as ever on that front.
“If I didn’t have competition, I don’t know what I’d do,” he says, and he means it. “I still get up every day and I go and hit balls. I love it. I always said as soon as that goes, I’m finished. I won’t do it anymore. It’s either 100 percent or nothing.”
The landscape of professional golf has shifted considerably over the past thirty years and more and more we’re seeing the rewards – particularly the financial ones – filtered to the very top, and this makes earning a living on regional tours a daunting task. Once upon a time, victory in the Irish PGA Championship would mean a place in the Irish Open and the European Open and places in the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth were also up for grabs, but through no fault of the Irish PGA, those days are gone and with them, the potential for a career-changing week.
“I remember in the Irish region there would have been 10-12 tour guys coming off the tour to come back and play in the region, especially the young lads, do well here and get in the Irish Open or the European Open,” he remembers.
“The West of Ireland tournament that we used to have; Sean Quinn used to give the winner of his Pro-Am a British Masters spot. Then you get the PGA Playoffs that could get you into three or four more events and then you have seven or eight Tour events. So, we were giving these Pro-Ams everything we had because we knew if we did well in this we could build and drive on. Sadly, that’s gone.”
The Irish PGA Regional Circuit is now primarily made up of Pro-Ams, with the opportunity to play with a professional and being willing to pay for the honour the main source of the prize money that the pros compete for. This brings its own challenges, and in some ways is a vicious circle. In essence, your amateur playing partners are your source of revenue, so ensuring they enjoy the experience is essential to the circuit’s survival, but most of the pros are still playing for their livelihood – or a considerable portion of it – so it can be a delicate balance.
As a result, Higgins’ approach is to do as much prep work as he can before taking to the course in the competitive rounds so that he can be as personable as possible, be able to help and guide his amateur playing partners while still being confident that he can give the best possible account of his own game.
“I don’t want to be like some of the young lads who are too intense,” he says. “Our job is to make sure people come to the Pro-Ams and have a good day. We need to focus on that and grow the whole thing and a huge part of that is getting to know the people.
“But I wouldn’t play unless I put the work in. I come up the day before, I walk the course. My whole career I have treated a Pro-Am like a main tour event. I will stop when the competition is gone but if I’m not going to do it properly, I’m not going to do it at all. I keep all the notes. If I’m playing a course, I will use an old yardage book from back in the day, it might save you a shot, or three shots but it will help you win.”
Winning is like a drug, each hit making you yearn for the next, and that winning mentality stays with a player, gives them the competitive edge and is something they can draw on at various stages and in various circumstances throughout their career. And winning under pressure is the greatest character builder of all.
“I remember going down to Spain on a trip with Dermot Desmond and JP McManus,” he recalled. “I was probably 21 and didn’t have £100 in my bank account. Those lads told me you’re playing the top local player for £500 today and I remember having a six-foot putt on the last green for the win. Sure enough, I holed it, but I was very nervous at the time. But these guys were testing you, they knew you didn’t have £500, but I’ll always remember holing that putt. It’s 30 years ago, but I still remember it.
“They knew what they were doing, and I now know what they were doing, but I didn’t at the time. They were testing you and getting you ready for pressure situations. You can’t replicate it. They were and still are great supporters of Irish players.”
Seven Irish PGA Order of Merit titles later – his four wins, including the Irish PGA Championship in 2023 helping him bag the latest – that desire to win hasn’t diminished. And turning 50 has presented another door that he’s been knocking on and is desperate to get through.
The Legends Tour – formerly the European Seniors Tour – has become the ultimate goal and is what is adding the most fuel to his fire. Despite winning three Challenge Tour events in 2000, a runner-up at the 2013 Italian Open was the closest he came to victory on the main circuit, but he knows that earning himself a Legends Tour card for 2024 would give him a great chance to get back in the touring winners’ circle once again.
“That’s my long-term goal,” he says, “That and qualifying for the Senior British Open. I played a couple this year and did okay, but I just need to get in full time. It’s not easy getting in just for one or two, you must get in and play all the events.”
Legends Tour Q-School in Turkey in mid-January is an event that has been firmly circled on Higgins’ calendar and if any additional motivation were required, watching England’s Peter Baker, someone Higgins is very familiar with, winning four times and capturing the Legends Tour Order of Merit title this year has surely provided it.
“I played with Peter for the last five or six winters in the Overseas Program,” Higgins recalls. “Pete’s a lovely player, but the year he’s having it’s all inspirational.” T
here is also the family legacy to consider. Liam Higgins played 13 full seasons on the Seniors Tour, winning three times across 1994 and 1995, a little more than a decade after 10-year-old David had been mesmerised by his dad’s Irish PGA Championship Trophy.
He’s emulated and exceeded his father’s success on the Irish circuit, now Legends Tour success is all that remains for the circle to be fully complete.