Denis O’Sullivan – A true lifetime achiever

Ivan Morris

Denis O'Sullivan, recipient of the Irish Golf Writers' Association's Lifetime Achievement award (Photo: Niall O'Shea, Cork Golf News)

Ivan Morris

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Cork golfer Denis O’Sullivan was a popular and sterling performer on the Irish amateur circuit for thirty years before turning pro at the ripe, young age of age of 49. As an amateur, Denis won the Irish Close Championship at Westport in 1985 and the East of Ireland in 1990, not to mention 56 scratch cups and being leading qualifier in the Close Championship twice. He gave stout service to his native Cork Golf Club too, helping to win the senior cup in 1975 and 1989 and the Barton Shield in 1973 and 1990, as well as winning 39-caps for Ireland.

On reaching the age of 49 in 1997, against the advice of many sceptics, Denis turned professional by taking an extra week’s holiday from his safe and secure job with the Leasing Company of Ireland before tackling the European Senior Tour Q-School in Spain, later saying: “It was purely an experiment to measure myself against professional competition.”

To his mild surprise, and the sceptics’ major surprise, he finished eighth and won a conditional card that gave him automatic access to 13 out of 26 events. Now he had a problem. He didn’t want to give up his pensionable job, but he also wanted to give playing golf as a professional ‘a go’. He was fortunate to have a hugely supportive boss in Paul Dinan who was “incredibly good” to him. A flexible work schedule was worked out, allowing Denis to keep his job while playing as a part-timer for the first three years until he won the Dan Technology Tournament at the Buckinghamshire at the end of 2000.

That vital first win came about in fraught circumstances. He takes up the story: “There were only 25 cards ‘up for grabs’ in 2001, I was lying 23rd in the order of merit and ‘under pressure’ to hold my place in the last tournament of 2000. With 9-holes to go it looked grim. The two guys directly behind me on the list were now ahead of me. My future was under threat.

“With three holes to go I knew I needed three birdies to win. I birdied the 16th alright, the 17th was a short driveable par-4 with water and other ‘dangers’ near the green. On our way to the tee, I told my caddy, Charlie Andrews, that I was going all out for an eagle. Suddenly, he raced ahead of me to the tee where he left my 3-wood before ‘disappearing’ up the side of the fairway. Charlie had said he wanted me to lay up and didn’t want any arguments about it. I was raging for a split second, but I knuckled down, laid up and got my birdie. The 18th was a comfortable par-5, and I made my third birdie easily enough. Charlie was vindicated and I was thrilled.

“No longer had I to race home to be at my desk the morning after finishing a tournament. I have never met a pro with a similar work arrangement as the one I had. I was so lucky and grateful.”

The win changed everything. Denis now felt like he was ‘proper pro’, one who had the respect of his fellow professionals.

“I wasn’t sure where I stood until I won,” he said. “Apart from Eddie Polland, nobody had made me feel welcome.”

O’Sullivan’s achievements mark him down as a rare character. One who deserves more recognition than he’d gotten outside his native Cork. The Irish Golf Writer’s Association realised this and they acknowledged him with their prestigious annual Lifetime Achievement Award in 2023.

Denis O’Sullivan with Ivan Morris, Batt Murphy and Fergus Moriarty (Photo Niall O’Shea, Cork Golf News)

Denis was both surprised and delighted to receive the recognition. “All I ever did was do what I most love doing, playing golf. I love nothing better than to play friendly games with my (still amateur) pals at home in Cork or at Lahinch. I particularly enjoy going on holiday to Spain with my partner, Paula, and playing at Lo Romero in Murcia. What a great golf course that is. I suppose I am still an amateur in the true sense of the word.”

Back at the beginning, Denis would have been as surprised as anybody if told he would be the winner of seven pro tournaments.

“I started golf at 18, far too late. Before that I played soccer, rugby, hurling, handball and a little pitch and putt, but nothing too serious. When I joined Monkstown Golf Club, my first handicap was seven. By the time I was 22 I was a two-handicap, but I had learned the game the wrong way and as a result my progress was impeded. It wasn’t until the Monkstown pro, Batt Murphy, took me under his wing that I got down to scratch.”

Having been an amateur for majority of his golfing life how did Denis adjust to playing golf to pay the bills?

“I never think about money,” he explains. “Partly because I never had all that much of it. On Tour, I concentrated on playing the game and enjoying myself. The golf course is where I am happiest. I play golf because I love it. The money never entered my head until the tournament was over and I was handed a cheque. If I was close to winning and didn’t, I might have kicked myself a little bit for missing a shot somewhere.

“Tournament golf revolves around trying to get into a winning position. I always played better when there was a chance of winning. Down the field? I’m bored. I won a lot as an amateur which gave me confidence when chances came in the pro game. Winning is winning. The feeling of satisfaction is the same for everybody, pro or high handicapper. Too many golfers get upset over silly things they cannot control. I never allow golf to get me down. All that upsets me is not being able to play due to injury or weather. I laugh and smile my way around the golf course. It does not mean that I am not breaking my backside trying to win.”

In the 20 years Denis spent on Tour, he found the main differences between playing for a living and playing for pride and glory was that the focus was truly on the players.

“On the Tour, it is the players that count not the hangers-on,” he said. “Everything revolves around the players. We played on superbly prepared courses, and there was no nonsense from officialdom. Because I was playing in better company and on better-maintained golf courses, my attitude and ball-striking improved. I became more consistent. Pro golf is all about consistency and covering your weekly expenses. In amateur golf, if you play well at the right time for a week or two, you are made. Amateur selectors do not pay enough respect to consistency. Putting is the only part of my game that did not improve as a pro. I don’t know why. Maybe because I began questioning myself, and I even went to the long putter for a while – big mistake! On reflection, my thinking improved most. I didn’t do stupid things or waste shots. I was being pulled along by the competition without realising it. As soon as I won as a pro everything changed. I became a better golfer just because I thought I was.

“Pro golf is a marathon not a sprint. It is about survival, not glory. As an amateur my tendency was to have a go at everything because finishing tenth meant nothing. As a pro it is different. Every shot counts. 10th pays better than 11th, obviously, but more Order of Merit points might mean ‘employment’ for another year.”

These days, in retirement, Denis’s favourite golfing partner is the very same Batt Murphy who was his mentor and coach over 50 years ago.

Denis in action (Photo: Niall O’Shea, Cork Golf News)

“We try to play regularly with Batt taking up his usual “Harvey Penick spot” by standing right behind me to set me up on target and guide me around,” he fondly divulges. “When Batt is with me, I rarely go above par. He has an incredible eye for golf swings. I hope we will both be fit to keep doing it for many years to come because we both love the game so much. My son Jamie, who is the club pro at Rosslare, is an excellent player and coach too. We play together whenever we can. I am very grateful for all that golf has given me.”

Finally, when asked how he would advise an amateur thinking of turning pro, Denis, despite being told something similar by the sceptics more than a quarter-century ago, urges caution.

“Unless you are a very dominant amateur, in the habit of winning don’t do it,” he says. “Play as much amateur tournament golf as possible to find out if you can be a consistent performer. One or two good weeks per season won’t cut it in the pro ranks. You must be good every week or you are going backwards and losing a lot of money. That was something I couldn’t afford. I never had a single Team Ireland grant or penny that I did not generate myself. Looking back, it did me no harm”. 

It certainly didn’t, but then again, they don’t make them like Denis O’Sullivan anymore.

Denis O’Sullivan’s wins on the European Seniors Tour

2000 Dan Technology Senior Tournament of Champions – 11-under
O’Sullivan finishes with three straight birdies – each putt from inside 10 feet – to edge out Maurice Bembridge, Nick Job and Ross Metherell by the minimum.
2000 Abu Dhabi European Seniors Tour Championship – 14-under
A week after his maiden victory, O’Sullivan struck again, shooting a final-round 65 for victory, again taking the win by a single stroke with Brazilian Piscillo Diniz taking second.
2001 Palmerston Trophy Berlin – 4-under
“I think that’s probably the best I have ever played for a whole tournament,” said O’Sullivan after closing with a 69 on the brand-new Nick Faldo course to be the only man in red figures at the week’s end.
2001 STC Scandinavian International – 8-under
Three weeks after a rare four-stroke win in Berlin, O’Sullivan shot a final-round, six-under 65 to come from four back and pip six-time European Tour winner Bembridge by a single stroke once again.
2002 Tunisian Seniors Open – 14-under
O’Sullivan began his final nine holes two shots behind, but four birdies in his final six holes saw him overtake John Morgan to make it win number five, this time with a shot to spare.
2005 DGM Barbados Open – 10-under
A near three-year winless drought came to an end at the first event of the 2005 season when he eased to a three-stroke victory over American and three-time Seniors Tour winner, John Grace.

The above feature appeared in the 2024-2 edition or Irish Golfer. To view the full edition click below

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One response to “Denis O’Sullivan – A true lifetime achiever”

  1. Liam O’Donovan avatar
    Liam O’Donovan

    Great to see the article about Denis. A true gent and generous colleague in the bank. Delighted for his success on tour, richly deserved.

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