A new chapter in the relatively short but already impressive golfing career of Conor Purcell opened with a trip Down Under this week.
Purcell, 21, who marked his debut in senior golf in 2016 with a South of Ireland Championship victory and success with Leinster and the Irish international team, has the broad outline of his 2019 campaign sketched out.
First and foremost is a full time focus on golf, hence playing the Australian Men’s Master of the Amateurs championship at Royal Melbourne this week followed by the Australian Men’s amateur championship at Woodlands GC, also in Melbourne (January 13-20).
This fast start to the campaign is possible because of Purcell’s decision to opt out of college at the University of North Carolina after two years on a golf scholarship.
Conor, son of former Portmarnock professional Joey Purcell, played a total of 65 rounds for the “Charlotte 49ers” team including 17 sub-par rounds in 2017-18. His 72.38 stroke average was the second in the 49ers all-time list.
This coming year, however, offers opportunities that helped sway the Malahide native to stay at home and devote all his energy to golf.
The prospect of challenging for a place on the Walker Cup team to play the USA at Hoylake in September, and the staging of The Amateur Championship at Portmarnock next June were big factors in the decision.
“The more I pondered on it, I felt that every time I came home in summer that my golf game would obviously be really good. I just felt if I could put all my effort into golf with no other distractions…because over in the States there’s a big emphasis on academics. You’ve to keep your grades really good.
“I just think if I was to do each thing separate I’d be better off. Like, maybe in five years time I could go back to school. School can always be there but if you’re playing decent golf jump on the chance if you have it,” said Purcell.
Last summer’s highlights included six top-10 finishes in premier tournaments, with a semi-final place in The Amateur Championship an indication of his ability to mix it with the best players in the amateur game.
Ironically, his good friend and fellow Irishman Robin Dawson got the better of Purcell in that semi-final before losing to eventual champion Jovan Rebula of South Africa.
The two GUI internationals were joined by John Murphy of Kinsale in the World Amateur Championships held at Carton House in September.
A 10th place finish was a disappointment for the home players but the atmosphere and the home crowd support left the trio with happy memories.
“I think the three of us kind of relished the opportunity, even though it felt disappointing after that third round.
“We never look back on the week as a bad week. It was the best week in my career so far in terms of just the atmosphere and how we did, and how it was run. It was really good to have home crowds following you,” said Purcell.
October was marked by Portmarnock’s Senior Cup Cup victory, defeating Galway in the semi-final and Royal Portrush in the final. The team from the world renowned North County Dublin links thus claimed the club’s first Senior Cup win since 2011.
“A good year. A busy summer,” was his summing up of the 2018 season. “If someone had told me at the start of the year that I would have finished as well as I did in so many events I would have been unsure, because anything can happen.
“But to have it last for the guts of the whole summer was nice. And then obviously I finished it off nicely with the All Irelands in Senior Cup with Portmarnock. It was amazing how we hadn’t won it in seven years, so to cap the summer off with that was good.
“We’ve a great bunch of lads. We’ve a lot of depth. Hopefully it springboards us because there’s no reason why we can’t contend every year.”
Following the Senior Cup, Purcell went to Melbourne in Australia for five weeks for some warm weather practice and to meet up with his brother Gary, who is an International Tennis Federation Development Officer for Oceania.
“My brother lives in Fiji, but goes back and forth to Melbourne a little bit so I got see him and spent some time playing golf down there. It was nothing formal, just a chance to do some practice.
“I was lucky to get a form of temporary membership at Royal Melbourne for the time I was there, so it was good. It’s kind of like links but with good weather, if that makes sense. It’s a windy place as well which I found out over the few weeks,” said Purcell.
John Murphy, Purcell’s international team mate, is also Down Under, so the two Irish players were competing in the Master of the Amateurs event and the Australian Amateur later this week, on an individual basis.
After that the Portmarnock man hopes to feature in the GUI contingent for South Africa in February and looks ahead to the new season in Europe.
Purcell is an engaging personality, very level-headed on and off the course. He has no illusions about the dedication required to make the grade at the top level in professional sport.
His commitment to sporting endeavor was honed in Tennis as a youngster, under the tutelage of big brother Gary at Malahide Tennis club.
Purcell also does fitness work with Stephen Wyman of Performance Therapy Ireland with whom he has trained for over ten years.
He finds inspiration in role models such as Tiger Woods not just for the titles they have won, but also for their example of enduring commitment to excellence.
“Obviously when you look at the best, it was Tiger back in the day and he’s still the best, but I kind of look at top sports athletes around the world.
“They have a similar mindset in how they train, how they’re dedicated to their own craft. But on a smaller scale, my older brother Gary has been kind of a mentor for me because he was my tennis coach growing up.
“He taught me a lot of things that I keep with me to this day – just about how to carry yourself, and how to focus on your craft when there’s obviously other distractions.
“It’s a hard thing to do when you’re young to train when all your friends are going to parties and whatever, but when you see the likes of Molinari or McIlroy or whoever it may be, it inspires you to go and chase that.
“There’s obviously great rewards, but I think it comes with a lot of things that people don’t see on the flip side. There’s a fine balance. There’s a lot of travel involved. It’s tough. It’s not an easy lifestyle.
“It’s a job at the end of the day when you get out there. But if you can do something you love, it’s always a huge benefit,” he said.
Loving golf, loving competition is fine, but Purcell can see through the superficial glamour of a globe-trotting lifestyle, even on the amateur golf circuit.
“I find it funny when I chat with friends and they say ‘oh, you live the life.’ There’s no doubt that my life is great at the moment, but what they don’t see is every country we go to, when I get off the plane, it’s go to the hotel, go to the golf course, and that’s all we see.
“It does get repetitive when the season’s in full flow and you’re just going from airport to hotel, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything right now because the opportunity we have is huge,” he said.
The career pathway for an ambitious Irish golfer is GUI elite competitor, followed by, ideally, a Walker Cup team place, and then entry to the professional ranks via Q-School.
There is no easy progression or guarantee of Tour status, but Gavin Moynihan’s recent success at the Qualifying School finals offers encouragement to his peers.
“I was following the final round of Q-School very closely. Obviously Gavin was in contention and Cormac (Sharvin) was chasing up there.
“I’d be friendly with Gavin. I just played with him a few weeks ago. “It’s good to see him make it and I’d be thinking I can play against him and not feel out of depth.
“If he can make the European Tour, it kind of means that I feel I can make it at some stage. I’m delighted for Gavin because it was a tough start to the year that he had, and he’s had a really good second half to the year. Yeah, it’s good for him,” said Purcell.
That said, Purcell is not making any rash decisions about turning pro, and reserves for himself the right to decide if and when to make that decision.
“I feel I’d know myself if I’m good enough for the pro ranks or not. I don’t feel I’m one to turn professional just for the sake of turning pro because obviously we know it’s a tough lifestyle and to play on the mini-Tours is really hard.
“I get that you’ve to do it at some point in your career, but if you feel you’re going on it just to make up the numbers, there’s no point.
“We’ll try and make Walker Cup next year and see where that takes us,” he said.
From his amateur perspective, it’s a case of “so far, so good” given that he plays off plus-5 handicap and has the advantage of dad Joey as his
There can, of course, be pros and cons about having your father giving instruction, but the Purcells have made it work, particularly as
Conor appreciates that Joey never made learning a hugely technical or burdensome exercise.
“There can be two sides to it. Obviously he’s taught me since I’ve been growing up. He’d laugh at this, but I listen to a lot of what he says.
“We do have the odd argument, but I think that just comes with a player-coach relationship, even if it is your own dad. But thankfully when I’m back now, he’s able to play in Portmarnock and we get to play nine holes here and there.
“That’s more how he would teach me. We wouldn’t really stand on a range at this time of year because it’s just too cold. So you learn a lot out on the golf course. Just subtle things he’d tell me.
“It’s actually a strange one. I’d imagine the first time I was playing golf I was just mimicking what I saw from him. It was never ‘Conor I think you should get the club here at this point’ or whatever. And then as the years went on, if we were having a lesson, he’d hit a shot and I’d try and copy it. It would never be ‘look, I think you need to be more laid off.’
“Obviously now that I’m older it gets to that point, but at the start it was more seeing him and copying that. It was never complicated,” said Purcell.
Ask him to assess his strongest attribute and he answers: “I’d say ball striking is just a part that I’ve had naturally. If I don’t play for a week and come back, I feel I can hit the ball well.
Putting has been a big thing that’s gotten a lot better in the last year. “When I putt well I can be up there in contention. I’ve worked hard and I feel I’m getting a good routine that I can practice with and repeat the process every day.
“Putting is obviously a feel thing and an individual part of the game. Sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it can be mental and it’s just about keeping positive when you’re not actually putting well and knowing that you have the skill.
“If I’ve putted well six months ago it’s not as if I’ve lost the skill. It’s just a loss of form. Once you know it’s there, it’s easier to be positive about it,” said Purcell.
We wish him the very nest for the season ahead!