In golf, as in life, no two days are the same. Seemingly inconsequential incidents can add up to something significant. One encounter can rob you of another. Chance happenings can steer you down a path you didn’t set out on. The smallest thing can trigger a domino effect and so often, timing is everything. Just take John Murphy’s journey to this point.
The Kinsale man was a surprise package to many last season, announcing his arrival to the world with a top-10 finish at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October. At the Home of Golf, if it wasn’t for a ninth hole double-bogey during the final round, we could’ve feasibly been talking about Murphy as Ireland’s latest Main Tour member. Then again, if it wasn’t for a final hole eagle at the Emporda Challenge, Murphy, who finished one place inside the top-70 on the Road to Mallorca, thus ensuring his full Challenge Tour card for this year, might’ve come away with nothing.
“There’s so many different ways to look at,” Murphy says with the benefit of a full schedule to plan for this year.
“In this game, the more thinking you do sometimes, the more detrimental it can be. I could’ve easily had a full European Tour card and I could easily have had no status anywhere but to have the status now, I’m looking forward to trying to get myself inside that top-20 and onto the main tour as quick as I can.”
It’s not the first time in his short career that the fickle nature of golf hit home for Murphy. In 2019, a summer that promised so much on the fairway, blew up in his face. Missed cuts at The British Amateur, The St. Andrews Links Trophy, the European Am and the Brabazon left Murphy reeling, but not wholly disheartened.
He’d take the trip to Portrush for the North of Ireland Amateur eager to put some form in the book before flying back to college in Louisville. Possibly the only full-time amateur in the field, Murphy arrived believing he was the best player there but after missing the cut on the Dunluce Links, he left more confused than ever.
“I was probably the only full-time amateur in the field that week and I was just thinking, ‘if you can’t make the cut in the North of Ireland, what’s the point?”
On the long drive home with his Mam to Kinsale, Murphy considered if he could put himself through another year of disappointment.
Encouraged by coach Ian Stafford to take a week off before heading back to Louisville, Murphy did the opposite and rolled the dice for one last time that summer at the Mullingar Scratch Cup. It’s a testament to Murphy’s mental resolve that he chose to put himself through the wringer once more. It’s even more impressive that he managed to win.
Murphy returned to Louisville bolstered by renewed optimism, hitting the ground running with four top-10 finishes in his first five tournaments before firing a stunning 63 en route to his maiden collegiate victory at the Bearcat Invitational. In a Cardinals team brimming with talent, not least Matthias Schmid, last season’s Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award winner on the European Tour, Murphy didn’t just have someone to aspire to, but often he was setting the bar.
Walker Cup selection soon followed for Murphy; a starring role for GB&I in an admirable defeat to a typically packed Team USA at Seminole, and although that week didn’t end with the ‘W’ he craved, it was under the immense pressure of that contest that the seeds for this remarkable rookie run were planted.
“When I was growing up, all the time when I’d be watching guys on TV I’d be asking, ‘jeez, how do professional golfers do it – how do you tee up on a Sunday in the last group?” Murphy says.
“When you’re that nervous watching them, I’m wondering how they actually manage to perform under that level of pressure.
“It’s one thing I’ve noticed, and I first saw it at the Walker Cup with the nerves the night before and that first tee-shot , thinking ‘this is going to be very difficult to control yourself in these circumstances’. But it’s just the build-up that makes you nervous.
“Once I stood on the first tee box I found it’s as if I’m going out playing as a fifteen year old in Wednesday singles again. I just felt so comfortable and content in that environment which gave me a huge amount of confidence knowing that if I found myself in that situation again, I’d be able to deal with it.”
Nothing could’ve fully prepared Murphy ahead of teeing up in the final group at St. Andrews alongside former Masters champion, Danny Willett at the Dunhill. When it comes to that pressure cooker environment, mostly you’ve either got it or you don’t. People could point to Murphy’s errant drive on 9 as a nervous unravelling but the Cork man insists it wasn’t pressure that prompted a stray ball, just a bad swing that came down to technique more than temperament.
“Obviously things didn’t work out that day in St. Andrews but that had nothing to do with me crumbling under pressure because I felt as comfortable as I ever have on a golf course – it was simply a matter of hitting a couple of bad shots coming in,” he says. “That’s more a matter of me improving my game as opposed to how I handle those situations.”
Things mightn’t have worked out in the fairy-tale sense of a fast-tracked victory but the week remains a hugely significant one for Murphy. His tied-ninth finish earned him his biggest paycheque to date – €81,543 – more than enough to take the financial strain off the early stages of his career.
His birdie at the 72nd hole was further proof he can handle the pressure, a precious ‘3’ that prolonged his main tour opportunities with an invite to Scotland in the following week’s Spanish Open where he’d tie 25th. And even having the gumption to write to the Tour to secure the invite in the first place was impressive in its simplicity. A ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ approach that many would’ve overlooked, but one that provided Murphy with a golden ticket to test himself against some of the very best in the game.
“It’s a bit surreal when you’re in that environment because as much and all as you know that the differences between the best in the world and the people who don’t make a living off golf are so slim, it’s not as big as you think,” he says.
“I was still taken aback being in the same environment as some of the best players in the world but at the same time, I played in college with some people who are doing really well now – the likes of Collin Morikawa, Min Woo Lee and Viktor Hovland, it just shows the gaps are so small between the people who are playing Ryder Cups now and those who aren’t.”
Given the margins are so fine, it’s no surprise that Murphy has taken a ‘no-stone unturned’ approach to extracting the maximum from his game. Arguably Murphy’s greatest asset in a game of inches are the six resting between his ears and yet alongside sports psychologist Fergus Wallace, who was recommended to him by his management group, JMC Sport, Murphy has been able to reinforce a real strength of his game.
“It’s very easy to think you know everything and although I have always thought my mental approach to the game is relatively good, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” he says.
“It’s normally the small things – even shooting three-over that first round in Germany where I eventually finished 11th. I remember we talked in the morning of the second round and went out and made the cut on the number. It’s often just a quick fifteen minute conversation that I need to flip a switch.
“In this game it’s so easy to think about the bad shots but that’s just bringing negative energy into your game. Pretty much every conversation we have is very upbeat – positive conversation and positive thinking – reflecting on all the good shots. If you’re in a good mental space in this game, it makes things a lot easier.”
That philosophy has clearly translated to Murphy’s on-course performance with the 23-year old showing consistency across all statistics on the Challenge Tour with a standout rank of second in driving distance in 2021, averaging 321.25 yards off the tee. 40th in scoring average also bodes well for Murphy who achieved so much off limited starts last term, but beyond the numbers, it’s the scope for improvement that excites Murphy the most ahead of his first full campaign in paid company.
“I certainly feel like I’m a lot sharper now than I have been in the past. Every aspect of my all-round game is improving. There are some things that need work and that makes me excited but my game’s in a good place,” Murphy says.
“I think I have a very good idea of what I need to improve over the winter. Doing a bit of work trying to ingrain what I’ve been doing the last few months into my game even further will be a focus. I have seen improvements but not to the extent I would like.
“I’ll try to sharpen things up, not make any drastic changes, because I’m very much of the opinion that once you get to a certain level, it’s a matter of improving what you have as opposed to trying to adjust and change things.”
He’ll have his neighbour and life-long friend Shane O’Connell alongside him as caddie, too. Asked if he was tempted to turn to an experienced looper, not least after employing local caddie Stephen Nielson for his most successful week to date at the Dunhill, Murphy insists that was once-off as he looks ahead to this year with optimism knowing he can trust his right-hand-man.
“The only reason I got the local caddie at the Dunhill was because Shane and I when we go to events, we play a couple of practice rounds before it,” Murphy explains. “I always like to get to events on the Monday, so that’s two full practice rounds before I tee up on Thursday.
“At the Dunhill, I could only play one practice round per course so I wasn’t going to know the courses well enough to the point I could stand up on the first tee confident in myself and Shane’s ability to trust our lines, especially when you’re playing in winds like that and things can change.
“Stevie had been to the Dunhill multiple times, knew the courses well and that was literally the only reason for the adjustment that week. That tournament is obviously a once off – there’s no events like that on the Challenge Tour – and every year there are lots of new courses, a couple of events in South Africa and stuff like that so I think Shane and I know what we need to do to best prepare for events and I’m looking forward to continuing to do that with him this year.”
With Shane on the bag next to him, Murphy will benefit from a familiar ear to lean on, and a childhood friend to keep his feet firmly on the ground – though his pals back home in Cork are queuing up should he ever need a reminder.
“I said to my friends, if I was never to play golf again or no matter how I did in the game of golf, I don’t want anything to change,” Murphy says.
“Besides, they’re quite good at bringing me back down to earth anyway! When I sit around the table with them, they’re not afraid to give me a bit of abuse still which is great!”
There’s no fear of Murphy’s head getting lost in the clouds any time soon. When we last featured him in the magazine, we went with the headline ‘The Old Head from Kinsale’ and nothing has changed in that regard. Even after graduating college and banking his bumper cheque at the Dunhill, not only had he resisted a spending splurge but he also had the wherewithal to promote a long-time supporter.
“I paid a parking fine out in Madrid with the first pay cheque,” he laughs. “I will buy myself something nice – I’m not sure what yet. I don’t need a car because Finbarr Galvin in Bandon is obviously providing me with the best wheels around. I think I might buy myself a nice watch or something in the next couple of weeks.”
Whatever about his earning potential on the golf course, Murphy expressed his gratitude for management company JMC Sport for handling the numbers off it.
“Emma O’Driscoll my manager has been incredible,” Murphy says. “In terms of having everything put in front of me, she’s made life very easy for me this year. I didn’t realise how much of a difference it actually makes having a manager. It’s certainly not something I could’ve done myself.”
Whatever happens over the next couple of days at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Murphy has no shortage of opportunities to come this year, with another PGA Tour start on the horizon at the AT&T Byron Nelson and a full Challenge Tour schedule, with his first event likely to be the Bain’s Whisky Cape Town Open in South Africa on February 17. From all of us here at Irish Golfer, best of luck for the season.
A standout moment for caddie Shane O’Connell:
“What he did on the Sunday in Munich at the German Challenge was incredible. I’d heard on the Saturday that the top-96 on the Road to Mallorca would get you to Barcelona for the two events but on the 17th hole on the Sunday, pin was back right, he was 15 yards right of the green, and his position was in the balance.
“The rough was so thick, so juicy. He’d been getting up and down from ridiculous places all day but this was so clutch. He chipped it to about two feet and made a similar up and down on the last. He was projected low 80’s after that.
“That was the moment I realised he was within touching distance of getting the full card. Being the fan of John Murphy, I’ll always look back at Munich. He was three over through seven on Thursday. Made the cut on the number Friday, and eventually finished 11th. It was incredible to watch, both from a professional point of view, and as a friend. I’ll never forget it.”
Walker Cup teammate Mark Power on Murphy:
“I remember on the seventh hole in the foursomes against Pierceson Coody and John Pak – probably the USA’s strongest pairing – myself and John were 3UP early. They pegged a hole back to be 2 down on 7. I hit it into around 18 feet for birdie underneath the hole and they were just outside 20 feet above the hole.
“The greens at Seminole were so quick. They had a tricky downhill left to right putt and it looked like it was going to nestle up stone dead. It trickled up to the edge of the hole and looked like it was going to stop a couple of inches away so I just said “it’s good” and walked on, but when I picked my head up, the ball was still trickling and trickling before eventually stopping four-foot by.
“John Pak looks up to me and goes ‘did you say that was good?’ and John and I realised I did so we had to concede the putt.
“Luckily John still had his putt to win the hole. I obviously felt terrible about what I’d done but John just turned to me and said ‘I’m going to hole this’ and there wasn’t an inch of doubt in my mind that he wasn’t going to make it. Up he stepped and he rolled the thing right in the middle, smacked the back of the hole and went in and we just laughed walking off the green.
“I’ll never forget it and it says a lot about what John is. He just took what could’ve been an awkward situation and made the best of it. Stood up and made a big time putt.”