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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Power Play – an interview with Kilkenny’s Mark Power

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When people talk of prodigious sporting talents hailing from County Kilkenny, the mind automatically conjures images of the likes of Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh letting a hurl rip at a sliotar in their famous black and gold stripes. Yet, in Mark Power’s case, a different club and ball game captured the imagination from an early age and although he played soccer seriously up to under-18 level and dabbled in hurling, there was only ever going to be one winner. 

Son of a literal golfing Power couple, his parents Eileen Rose and Eddie remain fine players too; Mam won three Irish Women’s Close titles and represented GB&I at the Curtis Cup while not to be outdone, Dad collected a hat-trick of Men’s Irish Close titles also. The influences were obvious, silverware proudly displayed on the mantlepiece as Mark grew and grew but he was never pushed down the golf route; he found that path all by himself and hasn’t looked back since. 

“I just naturally fell in love with the game,” Power says from the family living room – ‘The Fall’ paused in the background –  him halfway through 14-days quarantine after returning from two great weeks in England where he backed up a podium finish at the Brabazon Trophy with a semi-final result at The Amateur.  

“I had a bit of speed when I was younger and was able to hit the ball further than everybody else. I used to play the Wee Wonders events from the age of 7-11 and if you won the ones in Ireland, you got to go to St Andrews and I competed there three years in a row. I won the 9-10 category and I was Great Britain and Ireland champion so for a young lad, I thought I was the business!  

“I started winning in boys events then and I just loved golf so much, and my parents knew so much about it and were so supportive that it just snowballed from there.” 

The game came easy to Power and with each stepping-stone, success accompanied it, but even he couldn’t have predicted the leap to winning the Peter McAvoy Trophy in 2016. At just fifteen years young, he teed it up in under-18 competition at one of the most prestigious events on the calendar and became just the second Irish winner of the trophy since Gavin Moynihan in 2012. 

“It was my first trip away with the Boys’ team and I just thought it would be so great to make the cut,” he recalls. “I was five-under after two rounds and up there in the top-5 or six and obviously your expectations change but it just never fazed me.  

“I was only 15 and I think about it now and it’s kind of impressive how relaxed I did stay. When I was waiting around at the Brabazon Trophy last month for the play-off, I could feel natural raw nerves creep in but back then, everything just happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to get jittery.” 

The nervous energy that he experienced last month at the Brabazon where he bowed out on his shield in the sudden-death decider has been an anomaly in the fledgling career of one of the country’s most promising talents in recent times. The ease at which he felt when winning the Peter McAvoy Trophy has become a hallmark of his play thereafter and he proved his finishing capabilities again when romping to a maiden Irish Boys title at Castle golf club by six strokes in the summer of 2016. 

Still, even with confidence coursing through his veins, not even Power could’ve envisaged the manner in which he would successfully defend that title 12 months later at Castletroy, becoming the first player to do so since Paul Dunne. Tied at five-under par after a ding-dong battle with Jack Cope, the pair proved inseparable after two playoff holes before the Englishman seemingly took control, arrowing an approach to eight-feet to set up a birdie. Power still had to play.  

Cue a full-blooded 52 degree wedge from 129 yards – a shot he still regards as his best yet – flushed a little right of the pin before spinning back for an unthinkable eagle ‘2’ and the win. 

“It’s going to be very difficult to ever top that shot,” he laughs. “Given the circumstances, everything that was on the line, it was just such a battle all day. I remember he hit it close for birdie – I’d been 2UP after the first playoff hole, then let that slip so we were level playing the last – and I just thought, ‘you can’t let this slip after being 2UP,’ but for something like that to happen was just crazy. 

“I actually had similar tee times to Jack over the last few weeks at the Brazazon and The Amateur and we still speak about it today, nearly every time we see each other. It’s a little joke we have now but he took it well and he just won the English Men’s Close last month so he’s fine!” 

Sure enough, Power’s performances at under age level had caught the eye of senior selectors and prior to going back-to-back at the Boys, he earned his first senior call-up to the Carey Cup where, at just 16,  he helped Ireland retain the trophy over the Metropolitan Golf Association alongside the likes of Colm Campbell, Jonathan Yates and Conor O’Rourke.  

His maturing was fast-tracked trading stories with players very much his senior and his leadership qualities were recognised amongst his peers when he was selected to Captain the 2017 GB&I Jack Leglise side at Ballybunion at 17. That week he took on an unknown entity from Denmark named Rasmus Hojgaard and alongside his foursomes partner Ben Jones, the pair cruised to a 6UP lead through seven holes before closing out a no fuss 4&3 win. In August this year, Hojgaard became the second youngest two-time winner on the European Tour in just his 15th start. 

“That’s the mad thing about golf,” Power says. “You can be playing alongside a guy – obviously a great player – but there are so many great players and some just progress and progress whereas others hit a wall. That week, it was good golf from us, yeah, but the lads weren’t exactly ripping it up.  

“Rasmus wouldn’t have been even in the top two or three on that team. There was a guy from Germany, Falko Hanisch who won the British Boys and a Portuguese guy, Pedro Lencart who won the British Boys the next year. They were proper good players. I played against them both in singles and they played better golf than me but I haven’t heard much of them at all the last couple of years whereas Rasmus kept progressing – it’s phenomenal.  

“He turned pro pretty quickly and he’s already top-10 in the Race to Dubai. Hats off to him but it just reminds you that just because you’re a great player when you’re younger, it doesn’t mean you’ll go on to do great things. It’s the unpredictability of the game.” 

One thing Power could’ve put his house on was no shortage of interest when it came to college prospects post-Leaving Cert. Although Maynooth crossed his mind briefly, when heavyweight institutions from across the Atlantic came calling, the greater propositions in America soon swung Power’s aspirations to a stint overseas.  

It came down to Wake Forest versus Louisville, two iconic universities in their own right boasting world class golf programmes the likes of which this fair isle can only dream but when Power arrived on US soil, there was only going to be one winner. 

“Paul McBride was at Wake Forest at the time and he had text me on behalf of his coach saying, the school was interested, what are your thoughts?’” Power remembers.  

“That opened a conversation with Paul who sort of guided me along and when I went out and visited a few places in America, Wake Forest was hands down the place I wanted to go. The golf facilities are an absolute joke and best of all, they were right on campus.  

The first year dorms are 100 metres from the golf facility. I can come from class, leave my bag in the room and be on the range in two minutes which is a massive deal. Louisville’s facilities were 40 minutes or so away from the college so that was a big no no for me!” 

Cutting out a commute was one thing, but signing for the school of golf’s ‘King’, Arnold Palmer and to the Demon Deacons golf programme that boasts Major winner Webb Simpson amongst its more recent graduates was quite another. Still, what about his hopes of making such a competitive team? 

Where some graduates consider prospective playing time on their would-be team with paramount importance, Power was confident, particularly given the experience he’d enjoyed with the Senior Home International side boasting the likes of would-be pros in Robin Dawson, Conor O’Rourke, Conor Purcell and Jonathan Yates, that he wouldn’t be out of place no matter how good the team was. And so it proved.  

Arguably now the first name on the team sheet, Power’s taken to the US collegiate circuit much like he has to every level of the game so far, with a record reading four top-10s from 7 starts whilst also leading the team with a scoring average of 70.47. Yet, it was his maiden win at East Lake, home of the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship, captured by Golf Channel cameras, just two and a half months into his American Dream, that truly signalled the arrival of the Kilkenny man to the U.S. of A. 

“Suddenly everyone seemed to know who I was around campus,” Power confesses of the impact of his five-under par winning tally in Atlanta. “We had an event immediately after in the Bahamas so although texts were flooding in, by the time I got back to college it had calmed down a bit. It was a great one to win and a massive confidence boost but I wasn’t going to be going around big-headed or anything.” 

And that in itself is impressive, but perhaps his biggest accomplishment that day at East Lake was his ability to hold a straight face as he followed in the footsteps of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy on that great walk down 18 with a camera stuffed two feet from his face every step of the way. 

“It makes you appreciate how cool the pros are when the cameras are on them,” he laughs. “It’s such a strange feeling! I was still so in the zone that I was just trying to have tunnel vision and focus and it was so weird but a good one at the same because they’re the positions you want to put yourself in.” 

Had there been a day at GUI HQ as Power’s name began to appear more and more in the headlines that someone stepped in to advise him of what to say, and more importantly, what not to, in such scenarios? 

“Not yet,” he promises. “I’ve had a lot of practice now. Even last week at The Amateur, after pretty much every single round there was someone looking for an interview. It’s common sense, you just understand how to deal with interviews and cameras and the main thing is you just don’t say anything stupid! Obviously sometimes people can be overcome with emotions and say the wrong things but I think I’ve a fairly decent handle on that side of things – so far anyway!” 

It’s no wonder the media spotlight hovered over the 20-year old’s head most recently at The Amateur. After cruising through stroke play qualifying around the links at Royal Birkdale, Power progressed through the match play rounds in ominous fashion, looking more comfortable by the game as he looked to follow in the footsteps of James Sugrue and add another Irish name to one of golf’s most prestigious amateur trophies 

“I obviously came in in high spirits after playing so well at the Brabazon and my game still felt great,” Power says. “In the stroke play, it’s all about making the match play, it doesn’t really matter where you come. The leading qualifier lost first round and that happens a lot so once I was in the draw I was confident.” 

Sure enough, Power progressed to the quarter-finals, winning three matches on the bounce 2&1 before facing England’s Callan Barrow on Saturday morning for a place in that afternoon’s semi-final. He raced into a 4UP lead through 10 holes courtesy of five birdies before closing out a 3&1 win to set-up a last four encounter with another Englishman, Joe Harvey for a shot at the final. But all wasn’t as well as it seemed. 

“Something frustrated me there,” Power admits after coming out in the afternoon looking like a different player from that morning 

“I played really nicely through 10 holes against Callan but over the last few holes, I hit a few loose tee-shots that I hadn’t been doing at all really. 

“I wanted to go to the range after the round and hit a few drivers just to iron out whatever it was but I ended up waiting ages on a sandwich, had to rush out into the afternoon and didn’t get to hit any balls – I didn’t feel right going out at all.  

“I suppose I was getting a bit tired and something in my swing wasn’t really clicking. There were so many tee shots that day into cross winds and when there’s something not right in your swing and you’re hitting into cross winds every hole, it’s just not helpful.” 

Power only managed one birdie in the semi-final and it took 15 holes to find it as he went down to Harvey 3&2. We hear about the small margins where battles are won and lost in this game, but who knew the fate of The 125th Amateur Championship was potentially decided on a sandwich? 

“Honestly,” he laughs. “I said it to my parents, if they had made that sandwich a bit quicker, I would’ve won the feckin’ thing like! I just wanted to hit ten drivers. My ball position had got forward, I eventually figured it out, I was kind of hitting back on it and spinning it up in the air. It was just a plain ham sandwich, but look, it wasn’t meant to be! 

“Fair play to Joe, he was a rock that day, so steady, and when you end up forcing it, it’s only going to go one way.” 

There was still plenty of consolation to be found for Power upon his return to Ireland, even if he made the journey without a trophy having come so close on two occasions. His performances saw him burst inside the top-50 in the world amateur golf rankings while the standard of his golf no doubt caught the attention of Walker Cup selectors with a place in the famous biennial team competition a leading goal of Power’s before he expects to one day turn pro. 

For now though, he’s decided to stay put back home, taking online classes until January and although the immediate future remains very much uncertain, once his 14-days of quarantining is up, he’ll be back on the range finetuning his game to ensure he’s ready for whatever challenge comes next. 

“I was hoping more tournaments would have come up,” Power says. “I’m entered in the Connacht Stroke Play and entered in the Irish Close at the start of October. I’ve enquired about a spot in the Irish Open too which is a bit up in the air but that would obviously be great to get.  

I know they cancelled the European Am but hopefully they might reschedule that for October. I’ll just do my college work in the meantime and should a call come to play somewhere, I’ll make sure I’m ready.” 

* As luck would have it, Mark secured his invite to the Irish Open after we spoke. Here he is pictured at the Irish Open where he enjoyed all four days after picking up shots on three of his closing five holes on the Friday to ensure he made the weekend cut:

 

QUICKFIRE 9 QUESTIONS WITH MARK POWER  

  1. Favourite course in Ireland? 

Lahinch 

2. What club could you not live without in your bag? 

       My Driver 

 3. If you could pick a golfer in Ireland to hole a six-foot putt to save your life, who would it be and why? 

There are so many good putters… I want to get this one right… Caolan Rafferty. He’s a great putter. 

4. What’s your go to song to pump you up? 

    Probably Eminem, Lose Yourself 

 5. If you had the choice to lockdown anywhere on earth, where would it be? 

       The Bahamas 

6. Death-row meal? 

       Steak and Chips 

7. If you couldn’t be a golfer, what would it be? 

       A soccer player 

8. What are you binging on Netflix? 

       The Fall – I’ve just paused episode four of season two here. I’m hooked on it! 

9. If you could choose a celebrity, alive or dead to be your caddie, who would it be and why? 

That’s a good one now! I’d probably say Stevie Williams. That story with him and Tiger at Pebble Beach where he nearly ran out of golf balls is a classic. I’m sure he’d have plenty more to tell. 

 

 

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