Maynooth University: A proven option for golf’s future stars

by | Mar 26, 2022 | 0 comments

Ronan Mullarney (foreground), Shannon Burke and TJ Ford. Design by Ed Moynihan.

John Craven

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There’s a perception among young amateur golfers plotting their paths to the Promised Land of professional golf that it’s America or bust for their dreams. The continued success of Maynooth University on a global scale proves such notions simply aren’t true. John Craven chats to three programme graduates, Ronan Mullarney, Shannon Burke and TJ Ford about why Maynooth was their perfect fit.

When it comes to golf, there’s no doubt that America presents young boys and girls with a fantastic opportunity to further their life skills and advance their games, but starting a new life thousands of miles from home isn’t for everyone, and with the ongoing success of the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarship at Maynooth University, it doesn’t have to be.

Overseen meticulously by passionate Programme Manager, Barry Fennelly, a graduate of the system, Maynooth has put together an all-encompassing golf programme, ensuring any student wishing to better their golf whilst continuing their education in Ireland has all the means to do so.

With access to world class coaches in Noel Fox, Johnny Foster and Donal Scott, as well as leading nutritionist, Kate McDaid, psychologist Anne Marie Kennedy and Nils Conway’s Strength and Conditioning Golf Fit programme, Maynooth has bridged the gap between the opportunities across the Atlantic and those at home, and with an ever-increasing tournament schedule courtesy of the thriving R&A Student Series, competitive game-time has never been more plentiful for players choosing Maynooth to forge their futures.

Forever earning representation across the world’s leading amateur tournaments, from Walker Cup caps to Arnold Palmer Cup appearances and plenty in between, the Paddy Harrington scholars have been mainstays of the upper echelons of the World Amateur Golf Rankings, reaping rewards at home and abroad.

“I knew I wasn’t ready to go to the States so I went to chat to Barry [Fennelly] in Maynooth and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” says programme graduate Ronan Mullarney, a current EuroPro Tour member.

“People have this romanticised view of what college golf in America will be like, and the college experience as a whole, and although I’m sure there’s really good parts to it, Maynooth is such a strong option.

“When I was playing amateur golf, I wanted to compete at the highest level I could. You consider what courses you’re going to be playing, where the biggest events are, and 99% of them are going to be on tough links courses.

“If you want to prepare yourself for those top amateur events, I don’t think going to the States is the best way to go about it. We only get a small taste of it but I went to Arizona to play the Patriot All-America event and it struck me how different the style of golf was.

“You didn’t have to work the ball, control flights and develop shot-making like you’d have to do on links. There’s a lot to be said for staying at home to allow yourself to compete in the best events that you know are coming up.”

The events Mullarney alludes to are the likes of the Irish Amateur, the British Amateur, the St. Andrews Links Trophy and European Amateur, all major amateur events that Maynooth’s programme earmarks each year and endeavours to best prepare their students to be able to compete.

And the results have proved that to be a fruitful process, with Mullarney just one of a multitude of serial winners to have come through the programme having collected intervarsity titles at the R&A Scholars tournament in St. Andrews, the Irish Students, twice at the Sterling Invitational before winning a precious first Major title on home soil at the AIG Irish Close Championship at Ballybunion.

“The structure Barry puts in place was a real eye opener to me,” Mullarney says, name-checking the likes of Walker Cupper Gary Hurley, Stuart Grehan, Sean Flanagan, Jack Walsh, Kyle McCarron, Robin Dawson, Jake Whelan and Shannon Burke amongst those he sparred with on campus.

“When I first went there, I had no problem playing golf, no problem practicing, you could leave me out on the golf course all day, but seeing a psychologist once a week, taking up yoga, gym sessions three times a week, a nutritionist talking to us, a Strength and Conditioning coach. It was all new to me.

“The access to coaching was unrivalled. Noel Fox, Johnny Foster, Donal Scott – all at the top of their game. And there was always something to do, always a plan in place. Access to incredible facilities at Carton House, the National Academy and Portmarnock Links.

“You couldn’t but improve being part of it.”

For those who opt for supposedly greener pastures Stateside with the lure of year-round golf, Mullarney, who was an accomplished Irish international, admits an off-season was often a welcome one such was the variety of options at his disposal to remain competitive year-round if he wished.

“If you’re on an Irish panel, it’s a humungous advantage to stay at home because you’re available for all these trips,” Mullarney explains.

“There’s trips to South Africa, Argentina, Spain, I went to Chile, over to the UK for the Lytham event, the St. Andrews Trophy, Stirling Invitational, all these different events that if you’re in the States, unless the event falls in the summertime, you’re not available for any of them. It’s a big benefit to be under the eye of certain selectors if you want to make teams.

“Plus, the R&A have put in place a very serious Student Series that’s plugging these gaps in the calendar and promoting an even greater competitive environment.

“There’s a huge amount of effort going into the calendar and on top of all that, you have the guys you’re competing with in Maynooth itself, and that’s always a strong talent pool. There’s lots of ways to keep competing throughout the year if you want to.”

When Shannon Burke arrived in Maynooth in 2014, the R&A Student Series didn’t exist. A two-handicap golfer from Ballinrobe, Burke had played in an Irish Girls’ Home Internationals team, but by her own admission was “a long way off playing international women’s golf”.

With access to a top coaching system, Burke’s game quickly improved. She captured an Irish Intervarsity title in 2015 and a European Intervarsity Championship in 2017 before completing a Masters in Psychology and moving to Belfast where she’s in the final year of a PhD at Ulster University.

There, the ever-competitive Burke, who left Maynooth a plus-handicap golfer and earned women’s international caps at the Home Internationals and European teams, has seen first-hand how the level of competition has increased with the crucial introduction of the Student Series.

“That was probably the one thing we were missing four or five years ago,” Burke says. “I played the Carton House event last year and you’re definitely not going to want to turn up to those tournaments with an average game.

“I rocked up not knowing what to expect but now players staying at home definitely have the opportunity to compete in really high-level, intervarsity events that is a major addition to the programme.

“That would’ve been one of the major selling points of universities in the States in years past but now Maynooth ticks all those boxes as well. I just think it comes down to people being made aware of what Maynooth has to offer.”

Like so many student athletes harbouring hopes of the big stage, although Burke never ruled out playing golf professionally, a big part of Maynooth’s appeal was the focus on education that could get lost elsewhere.

“Obviously we all want to get better at golf and win as many tournaments as we can but the degree side of it was very important for me,” Burke says.

“Coming towards my last year, I was thinking maybe professional golf or a career in golf wasn’t exactly for me and at that point I was just glad that I had a strong education behind me.

“I actually think it’s one of the unique things that the golf programme at Maynooth has to offer. Barry definitely takes on more of a holistic approach.

“Obviously Barry and the team want us to get as much out of the programme in terms of our development and performance on the golf course but he also recognises that we’re there to get our degrees as well, and that’s such an important aspect of the programme, and maybe not something you’d get everywhere.

“That awareness that yeah, we’re athletes, but we’re students too.”

Just ask Co. Sligo’s TJ Ford, last year’s South of Ireland Champion and runner-up at the Mullingar Scratch Cup. Like Burke, Ford never had dreams of turning pro (and still doesn’t) despite picking Maynooth for college.

Ford was promoted to the programme and graduated with a degree he’s actively using working with golf marketing company, The Revenue Club. Enjoying the best of both worlds, he also cultivated a golf game in Maynooth that’s elevated him to an international standard; reaching a level of play he previously thought impossible.

“I went to Maynooth playing off 3, not sniffing a scholarship, nowhere near it,” Ford recalls, crediting Maynooth’s infectiously positive environment for spurring his game to new heights.

“That was the big thing for me –  just being surrounded by so many players who were way better than me. Literally lads who I would’ve been nearly idolising. I knew Sean [Flanagan] really well from Sligo and he introduced me to all the lads.

“Robin Dawson and Stuart Grehan were there at the peak of their powers in the amateur game at that stage. Ronan Mullarney, Eugene Smith, Jordan Hood. There were so many lads who were really, really good golfers and just playing chipping matches for a fiver against those lads, you don’t really have a choice but to get better.”

Ford has been a revelation, evolving up the ranks of the programme through development panels to be now competing and winning at the country’s most prestigious amateur events.

After earning his first International cap and tasting victory at last year’s Home Internationals, it’s only now that Ford, who works full-time around his amateur career, can appreciate just how conducive the environment at Maynooth was to improving his game.

“When I got the development scholarship in second year and got use of Carton House and got a block of pre-booked lessons with Kenny Fahy at the Academy, things started to snowball,” Ford says.

“In my final year when I got picked on the next scholarship up, you got to work with Donal Scott, Johnny Foster and Noel Fox– they’re three of the best coaches in the country and they’re at Carton House every second Friday waiting for you, and are completely at your disposal.

“They’re over with you in Portugal for warm-weather training. Donal’s going through stats with you. Anne-Marie Kennedy the Psychologist is in with the Dublin footballers, the Irish cyclists, swim teams and cricketers one minute and then she’s educating us, and she’s the best at what she does. It’s incredible exposure.”

All the while supplementing this culture of learning and progression was the competitive heartbeat of life on campus for Maynooth’s golfers, another key ingredient that Ford treasures perhaps more than ever now that it’s gone.

“Even the smallest things – putting competitions in the hall for who had to make the tea that evening – it was just really good,” he laughs recalling it.

“It’s not stuff you’d really notice at the time but looking back at it, it was such a special environment to learn in. It’s only now that I’m taken out of it, back in Sligo living at home and there’s not really anyone around here.

“A lot of the lads are working and it’s really hard to get that competition that was everywhere in Maynooth. It’s all there in front of you in college so there’s no excuses. Like with anything, it’s all about what you make of it. You’re handed everything, so it’s up to you.”

Underpinning the success of the programme is the tireless work of Fennelly who becomes a father-figure and mentor to those passing through Maynooth.

“Barry’s the man,” Ford agrees.

“You’re chatting to Barry on a daily basis. He’s at the gym sessions, the yoga sessions. He’s in the training camps on a Friday afternoon. He’s always there if you need to rearrange lectures, or time off for tournaments, or a letter for this and that.

“He’s full hands-on and the great thing about Barry is that he’s come through the programme. When he was there, it didn’t compare to how it is now. It’s taken off with him in charge.

“He’s raised a bit more money and he’s turned it into one of the only places you can go to in Ireland if you want to play better golf. Yeah, there are other places, but nowhere compares to Maynooth.”

Mullarney, who lived with Ford during the Sligo man’s final year, might’ve graduated with his Masters in 2019 but he remains in constant touch with Maynooth. Far from your ordinary college programme where students graduate and are soon forgotten, Mullarney has developed a relationship with Maynooth that sees his fledgling professional journey backed by the college’s alumni programme.

“I’ve Maynooth on my clothing now,” Mullarney reveals. “They’ve sponsored me the last couple of years and I’m so grateful for that. There’s an alumni programme that if you meet certain criteria, you have that to look forward to as well.”

“Noel Fox, Johnny Foster, Donal Scott remain so supportive, I still talk to all three of those guys today. And it’s the same with Barry. I talk to him once a month at least. He’s such a help.

“When you’re going through the programme, he’s constantly there for you. If he calls you into his office, it’s not like the principal calling you into his office. He just wants the best for you.”

In 2022, Ireland’s conveyor belt of talent keeps churning out golfers capable of going all the way in the game, but when you’re in your mid-teens weighing up the pros and cons of seemingly life-altering decisions, be it upping sticks or staying put, it’s reassuring to know that so many players who’ve achieved all there is to achieve in amateur golf, and have gone on to try to establish themselves in the pro game, have done so from a foundation built in Maynooth.

“Maynooth is great,” Mullarney says, who’s seen much of his pro ambitions somewhat derailed by Covid since turning pro.

“The town itself is constantly growing so there’s a great balance to be had. The Student Union is super. I think there’s 15,000 students there now. The campus is just getting bigger and bigger.

“It has so much going for it. A great night life if you want to blow off steam and it was honestly just a brilliant all-round college experience – so much so I stayed to do a Masters!”

As Burke mentioned, Fennelly’s holistic approach is a unique one that breeds success on and off the course. More importantly, it treats students as individuals. You’d think that last sentence would be a given, but it’s amazing just how often it’s overlooked.

“Barry recognises that everybody on the programme isn’t going to go on to play professional golf,” Burke says.

“I’m not sure you get that everywhere, but I can only speak for Maynooth. But even just looking at myself, Ronan and TJ, we all came through Maynooth. We all loved our time there. We all had that same experience on the programme and yet we’re on three different career paths.

“Maynooth gave us the chance to choose the right path for us. It’s a time in our lives none of us will ever forget.

To find out more about the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarship programme, visit https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/study-maynooth/undergraduate-studies/scholarships/sport-scholarships  

Applications for the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarship programme must be submitted online by April 1st 2022 for enrolment in September 2022 at https://v2.pac.ie/institute/18  

GOLFING EXCELLENCE OVER THE YEARS AT MAYNOOTH:

  • Established by Dr. Bob Joyce in 2006 
  • Over 100 graduates  
  • 10 x Tour Professionals / 11 x PGA Teaching Pros 
  • 5 x Top 50 in World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR) 
  • 5 x Arnold Palmer Cup players (USA V International)  
  • 2 x Walker Cup players / 1 x Curtis Cup player (GB&I V USA) 
  • Over 40 Irish Internationals (World, EU & Home Nations) 
  • Over 10 medals at World & European University Golf Ch’ships & Student Games  
  • Medalists – The Amateur Championship / European Individual Amateur  
  • Over 35 Irish Championship victories  
  • Over 20 Collegiate victories (World, EU, R&A, GB&I)  
  • 4 x British University Team Titles  
  • 2 x Irish National Club Titles (Senior Cup & Barton Shield) 
  • 10 x Irish University Team Titles  

 World Amateur Golf RankingsHigh 5 for Maynooth graduates breaking WAGR Top-50 

  • Caolan Rafferty – WAGR No 14 (2019) 
  • Ronan Mullarney – WAGR No 44 (2019) 
  • Robin Dawson – WAGR No 6 (2018) 
  • Stuart Grehan – WAGR No 35(2017)  
  • Gary Hurley – WAGR No 26 (2015) 

International Representation – Harrington Golf Scholars have been represented on the following International & National teams / events:  

  • 2 x Walker Cup players / 1 x Curtis Cup player (GB&I V USA) 
  • Caolan Rafferty (2019) 
  • Gary Hurley (2015)  
  • 1 x Curtis Cup player (GB&I V USA) 
  • Danielle McVeigh (2010)  
  • 5 x Arnold Palmer Cup players (USA V International)  
  • Allan Hill (2021) 
  • Caolan Rafferty (2020) 
  • Ronan Mullarney (2018) 
  • Stuart Grehan (2017 & 2016) 
  • Gary Hurley (2015 & 2013) 

Note: MU has been represented at seven of the last nine staging’s of the Arnold Palmer Cup, an achievement not matched by any institution based outside of the United States   

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