Foley over Walker Cup heartache and ready to prove he is still Ireland’s number one

Ronan MacNamara

Hugh Foley by Octavio Passos/R&A via Getty Images)

Ronan MacNamara

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Hugh Foley will be hoping 2024 is a year of redemption when he tees it up at the Connolly Motors West of Ireland Championship in Co. Sligo Golf Club on Friday morning with a point to prove that he is still Ireland’s top gun.

After a disappointing 2023 that saw him go winless, lose his place on the Irish team and miss out on a Walker Cup place, the four-time major winner has wintered well after spending the offseason abroad and is hellbent on reaching the summit of the amateur game in Ireland again.

“That would be great yeah,” chuckles Foley who has put plans to turn professional on the back burner for now. “It was a disappointing year and sometimes you see that in sport I guess. But looking at it I was going up a level as well I played the US Amateur and Western Amateur, you’re playing at the highest level you can in amateur sport so it will obviously be more difficult and just gaining more experience. 

“First time playing in these kind of events it’s not always easy to transfer your golf from the range, going around your nine holes at home thinking you’re a superhero, to playing against the best amateurs in the world, some of whom are now on tour.

“It was great, it was an eye opener and hopefully I can get back to bringing the game I had in 2022 to the course next year and it can lead to more success.

“I’m definitely hungry for playing well and trying to win and I will piece together the season, play a few more Irish championships. The goal this year is to put a season together and really just get better and with that hopefully comes chances to win some Irish events. I would love to win again.”

Foley is looking to conquer the West for a second time after an emotional win in 2021 where broke down in tears on the 18th at a rain soaked Rosses Point and dedicated the victory to his late father, David, who passed away earlier that year.

“I spent the whole day fighting the emotions and by the end I was just so tired and the weather was terrible and I had family there supporting me and I tapped the ball in and felt ok. Shook hands with the hands and then my uncle was in tears when he came on and then it all just hit me,” he recalls.

“I had nothing left it was hard to speak afterward. It’s a victory but when the person you want to share it with the most isn’t there that would hit anyone. It definitely hit me hard after winning it.

“I dedicate everything I have and the life I have and the reason I play golf to my dad so you know when you lose such a big figure you dedicate everything to his memory so I would nearly go as far asto say I dedicate every day of my practice to him.“

Twelve months ago, the path seemed clear for the Royal Dublin star who was the heavy Irish favourite to make the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team after a trophy-laden 2022 season.

Foley had just become the first man since Darren Clarke in 1990 to win both the North and South of Ireland titles in one season and he seemed to be at the peak of his powers with the 49th Walker Cup in St Andrews looking like the ideal scenario to bow out of amateur golf and enter the pro ranks.

But golf doesn’t work like that and even the best can be brought back down to earth. After a promising spring, things unravelled for Foley during a disappointing summer where he lost his place on the Irish team and his Walker Cup dream went up in smoke. 

Last year, Foley showed flashes of his brilliant best, he couldn’t play himself into a groove compared to 2022 when golf came to him automatically.

“The goal was to turn pro after the Walker Cup so that didn’t happen so you have to adapt and change your plans rather than continue having not ticked some of the boxes,” the 26-year-old explains.

“It was really small margins and my best game peaked its head out at times. I went through a vein of form where I was in the top-2 five events in a row and at the time you don’t think, you just do and when it’s not happening all you do is think and not do.

“I was fourth at the Lytham Trophy then the European Amateur was a great one for me putting four low rounds together for the first time getting to -18 and I was close to the playoff. I hadn’t made the cut at the European AM before, then came fourth so parts of the year was good, I had 63s and 64s.

“Overall it’s generally between the ears when you play at a high level, you are always battling on the course and battling the pressure of making the Walker Cup team then you go up a level in the events you play and you can’t really slip. I think I have improved as a golfer so I am hoping to show that next year even though this year was disappointing.”

Foley admits he struggled to handle the pressure of trying to make a Walker Cup team during his time spent away from the golf course. He sought the advice of three-time Walker Cupper and three-time major champion Pádraig Harrington, who knows a thing or two about triumphing and failing under pressure.

“People were talking to me saying don’t think about it or forget it but it’s the old psychological trick of the pink elephant, don’t think about it. The Mid-Am was a great example of it even only for a day. One of the American journalists asked me about the Masters and US Open if I would think about it and it is impossible not to. 

“The trick was to live with the pressure. I met Harrington last year and he made three Walker Cups and I asked him how he coped with the pressure of having to make the team and he looked at me and said if you want to play golf for a living you better get used to the pressure.

“People were picking their own teams week in week out. I was fourth at Lytham and getting texts off people saying that’s you on the Walker Cup team and it’s four months away which is ridiculous.

“Playing golf I was fine but it was off the course where I would think about it and I fixated on it and planning my way onto the Walker Cup team rather than planning my way to get better. Every year has been about getting better and avoiding results but this year was about getting the results to get on the team.”

Even at the peak of his powers, the Dubliner has been on the end of a couple of harsh phonecalls during his career.

When he won the Bridgestone Order of Merit in 2022 he had been a glaring omission from Ireland’s Eisenhower team before being left out of the Euro Nations side at the beginning of the season.

This time, however, when he picked up the phone to GB&I Walker Cup captain Stuart Wilson, Foley had long known he hadn’t done enough to make the team.

“I know I have had a couple of phonecalls that I haven’t agreed with that weren’t Walker Cup related but I would be realistic and I knew by the time I got the call I wasn’t on the team. I needed to make the cut at the US Amateur and Western AM to have a chance really. I wasn’t playing well enough during the big weeks. 

“It stung because I had worked so hard for it and it had been on the back of my mind for a couple of years but you have to take it and move on, that’s sport. I hope I can swallow the disappointment and say how can I get better rather than let it defeat me.

“Thinking back on the Mid-Am in 2022 had I won that and played the Masters, the US Open, made the Walker Cup and achieved what I wanted would I have been complacent thinking I had made it but I have the bitterness of having missed out on all that narrowly, including the Open Championship I missed out on that by a shot so I have had a lot of pain in the last year.”

The Clontarf man laments not being able to string a run of form together but he was also dealt an untimely kick in the teeth when he was not selected for the Ireland side travelling to the European Team Championships, a tournament that was seen by many as a huge opportunity to impress Walker Cup selectors and one that Alex Maguire feels tipped the scales in his favour.

Ironically, Foley felt like he was getting back to playing his best golf again having finished fourth at the European Amateur Championship with an eighteen-under total, including twenty four birdies. 

That proved the final nail in the coffin as he went a couple of weeks without competitive action before an unsuccessful stint in America.

“The short answer is yes,” he laughs sheepishly. “The six-man team is an important one if you want to be on a Walker Cup team, ten of the best GB&I players and you aren’t in the top six in your country.

“I had a good week that week had I won it I probably would have been on the Walker Cup team and not on the six man team. But it was a chance gone, I was spurred on by not being selected for Ireland though. I missed the Open by a shot in the final qualifying then I had nothing to play in because the European Teams were on. The timing wasn’t ideal because I had nothing left to play in until I got to America.

“I was hitting my peak then had nothing to play in for a couple of weeks which was disappointing.”

2024 promises to be an exciting year for Irish amateur golf as a whole with the Amateur Championship coming to Ballyliffin, the Women’s Amateur Championship coming to Portmarnock and Foley will be back in Sligo in May for the Irish Amateur Open.

“If ever I would like to win something it is this one. It would be amazing to win your national open,” the North, South, West and Irish Close winner claims.

The Palmer Cup is being played at Lahinch in preparation for the 2026 Walker Cup which could mean illustrious fields coming to Lahinch for the next editions of the South.

Foley is delighted to see the quality of Irish golf courses being recognised by hosting such prestigious events with world class international fields expected at every turn.

“The courses are brilliant and to play them on a schedule we are so lucky compared to the lads in Scotland and England,” he admits. “It just attracts a field straight away so to have all our events on great courses it’s brilliant. The lads are always keen to come over just from chatting to them and telling them how good our courses are, they’re all great.

“Rosses Point is a beast, it’s well over 7000 yards, it’s a proper test. When I heard the Amateur Championship was coming to Ballyliffin I was kicking myself because I was going to turn pro and miss it so I’m looking forward to that it’s a proper beast in the summer with the rough up.

“It’s brilliant to have the Amateur Open in Donegal, a brilliant county. It was one of the first championships I ever played in 2017 and I shot millions which TJ Ford still reminds me of! It will get an amazing field from Europe, Asia and America. It’s brilliant for Ballyliffin, Donegal and Ireland.

“The history of some of our courses is amazing. Lahinch will get a great field for the South. The Palmer Cup will be there and then the Walker Cup in 2026. The 2025 and 26 South’s could be brilliant fields and deservedly so. It’s brilliant to have golfing history and Ireland is brilliant for that and hopefully we can keep promoting Irish golfers to succeed.”

Foley still has intentions of turning professional in the near future but realises he needs to get back to the level he was at in 2022 and then some. He knows the reality is that he needs to be beating his fellow amateurs regularly to entertain the idea of entering the paid ranks. 

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