Golf comes in many different guises, and though somewhat sceptical in the build-up, it was the special team environment that tipped PGA Cup week as Thornton’s career highlight.
“I have never played any team golf, not even as an amateur. I’d never experienced going into battle with your mate in foursomes or fourball. Obviously, I knew the PGA Cup was like a Ryder Cup format, but I was still thinking, this is just a bit of fun, a free week at the end of the season. I couldn’t have been more wrong, it completely opened my eyes,” explained Thornton, who at 45 made his debut for the Great Britain & Ireland team at Foxhills Country Club & Resort in Surrey in September.
“Putting my PGA hat on, players in our Region need to know how good the PGA Cup is, I don’t think many of them do. I still think some players perceive it as a bonus week rather than something special to aspire to. I know I did.
“I’m not for one second saying it’s like a Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup, but it could gain a lot more traction. It had the same feelings and emotions as a Ryder Cup for the players and everyone involved. You could feel the build-up and sense of occasion as the week progressed.
“As a week’s experience, it had it all.”
High praise indeed from Thornton, especially considering DJ Russell’s side lost 15.5-10.5 against Suzy Whaley’s American side, who recorded their first away win since 2009. That said, the Americans still hold sway in the biennial event with 19 wins against GB&I’s seven, as well as four ties since the inaugural match at Pinehurst in 1973 (the event was held annually until 1984).
The Tulfarris Touring Professional was one of the first three players (alongside Adam Keogh and Greig Hutcheon) to qualify for Russell’s team from the PGA Playoffs at Slieve Russell back in April. Fellow PGA Irish Region player David Higgins also made the team.
When the GB&I team was finalised in June, that’s when communications ramped up. “We had our first team meeting at Foxhills in July. We played some golf, had a few beers together and watched the Open from St Andrews,” explains Thornton, as the players also got sized up.
“Clothing, shirts, suit, trousers, waterproofs, golf shoes, cufflinks, ties, the full works. Wives and partners were kitted out too. The full shebang. And that’s when you realise something special was coming down the track.”
THORNTON’S PGA CUP WEEK – MONDAY
Flew into Heathrow with Ciara, picked up and transfer to Foxhills to check in. Played nine holes, women did what they liked. Meet later in team room for pre-dinner drinks and proper hello. DJ gives speech about what it means to play PGA Cup, wives present too. Relaxed start.
Even then, I probably still felt ‘yeah, it’s still not like playing on tour’. Still hadn’t appreciated what was to come.
Meet for breakfast. Ladies had a free day. Things changed a bit because of the Queen. Played 18 holes. Then same again, met in the evening for gala dinner. Suited and booted, ladies in cocktail dresses, all the trimmings.
By now you could feel it building. Ladies enjoyed a wine tasting trip. DJ’s approach was ‘just go and play, you will all get your games’. Probably more relaxed than the American approach where they were playing for their places.
Each day we were lifted and laid, caddies, team kit on. We were practicing on the course and you could see the Americans doing their thing, but you are not with them, we’re in our own bubble. At this point, I knew the week meant something, any scepticism had ebbed away.
Another dinner, players from each team sat in alternate seats. The Americans were great, and have to say, matches were played in great spirit all week. Went to the pub, another function, could have done without it, but looking back all those events and evening functions fed into the overall occasion.
Went to London, tried to get near Buckingham Palace. Like trying to tick off another one from the bucket list, strange bucket list mind you given it was all to do with the Queen’s funeral.
More practice in the afternoon then got ready for the opening ceremony on the front lawn – and it was just like a Ryder Cup! The Friday pairings were announced. Suited and booted again, national anthems, walking in with your wives and partners, standing up when your name is announced. All pretty cool I have to say. The waiting was almost over.
Fourball, foursomes, fourball, foursomes, then singles. Just like a Ryder Cup and it was starting to feel like one too. I was playing with Adam (Keogh). Good player from Woodhall Spa, got to know him over the years.
I decide to tee off first. We’re all dealing with first tee nerves, but I like that sort of stuff, thrive on it. When your name is announced, the cheers go up, heart rate most definitely goes up. But you quickly drop back into tournament mode, routine, process, pick your target and let it go. We both hit great opening tee shots.
I loved the fact your teammate was right there playing with you. That team environment is something I’ve never really experienced. Certainly not in matchplay. One exception perhaps is I played European Team Championships with David (Higgins) and Mark (Staunton), but that was strokeplay with two out of three scores to count. Not the same.
Adam played better than I did and we won well, 3&2. In the afternoon I played with D (Higgins) and we didn’t play great to be honest. Just didn’t hit the shots we needed to. Eventually lost 3&2.
One point out of two, grand. I’m off and running. Casual night in team room with dinner and a bit of darts and pool.
Played with Matthew Cort in the morning. We both played lovely, and I hit some great shots. Don’t think Matt has ever missed a fairway, good partner to have. Won quite handy, 3&2.
And here’s the crunch. Saturday afternoon was pinnacle of the whole week for me. Paired with Adam again and we decide he hits the first tee shot for foursomes as odd holes suit him better. Adam didn’t play his best stuff and I wasn’t lighting it up either. Scratching around but the Americans weren’t getting away from us. Although a team event you still think personally, and I was still hitting good shots.
Anyway, got to 16 and we’re two down. Other matches were finishing, lost two and won one. We needed something from our match to keep the singles alive. It’s my fourth match, but adrenalin has taken over. I was on a big high. We knew our match was key as everyone had gathered round, captains, players, spectators, plus radios and buggies were on the go. Crunch time!
The 16th is a 220-yard par three downhill, not a nice tee shot. They miss the green right. I hit a lovely rescue into six feet. They didn’t make par, back to one down.
We found trees off 17. I went for a narrow gap but came up short in the bunker. Americans are down the middle and on in regulation, 20 feet. Adam splashes out to 25 feet; they miss for birdie, and I need to hole to keep the match alive. Not being cocky, but I knew I was going to hole it. Sometimes in the heat of battle, you just know.
One down playing 18 but we knew a half point was massive. Everyone watching and I hit my worst tee shot of the season and find a short bunker, 230 out! All the good work and I do that. They hit good shot but find bunker 50 yards ahead. Still neck and neck. We both lay up, they have 120 left, I have 214 and hit a lovely four iron into six feet. Again, I just knew it was going to be good. You could feel the tension, but I was buzzing. We live for these moments.
They’re on the green but miss; Adam now has a six-footer to halve the match. Right edge and he boxes it! Americans lead 9.5-6-5 going into the singles.
It felt like winning two points, never mind a half. It was class, I loved every moment. Completely different to a tour event where everything you do is for yourself.
Not much to report unfortunately. Was totally flat after being on such a high from Saturday’s heroics. After Saturday’s match, Adam and I went to sit down and decompress. We said nothing, it was a moment. Adrenalin had carried us. You’re tired, emotional, but also on a high.
However, come Sunday, I had nothing. I didn’t sleep well, never got going. People came up to me and said they were some of the best shots they’d seen under pressure on the Saturday, but it didn’t matter a jot, Sunday was a new day, and I couldn’t get up for it. Truth be told, I missed my playing partners too.
It was a weird feeling, just flat. My opponent didn’t play great, but he didn’t have to. Maybe I was feeling my 45 years? Here’s the selfish rub. I was back playing for myself, but I wasn’t playing on a Sunday that might financially change my life like a tour event. Not sure, still don’t know why I was so flat on Sunday and lost 4&3.
Still had the party on Sunday night, then home tired Monday morning.
A LOOK BACK
All said and done, the goal is to get back on this team in two years’ time. I’ve never set a goal in my life. I’ve no idea why the PGA Cup wasn’t on my radar before now. Perhaps my focus was on playing for a living. When I came off tour, it was like I needed to find a different way of life, mix playing in the Region with home life. I always thought the PGA Cup was less than being on tour, but right now it wouldn’t matter if I never played another tour event again, but I’d love to play PGA Cup again.
And not just for me, if I get to the States in two years, then we all go, Ciara, the kids and we’ll make it a special time for all the family. I’d forgo all the tour starts for another go at the PGA Cup, which is mad for someone like me to say who has played for myself all these years!