Mind games, with Conor Purcell 

John Craven
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Conor Purcell (Photo by Jonathan Di Maggio/R&A via Getty Images)

This article first appeared in April’s edition of Irish Golfer Magazine.

It’s no wonder Conor Purcell answers the phone content, mid-way through a three-week break back home after a one month stint in South Africa to start his Challenge Tour season. 

Having earned his full card off limited starts in 2022 via the tour’s Road to Mallorca standings, Purcell has wasted little time in knuckling down to work and making his presence felt amongst the membership. 

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Three events deep and a T7 finish in Capetown was backed up by a T6 result in Fancourt, and while a sharp missed cut followed at the SDC Open, despite being one-under par through 36-holes, Purcell has got some points on the board early with the top-20 on this season’s Order of Merit once again earning promotion to the DP World Tour. 

“It’s been very good,” Purcell says of his game. “You’re always unsure after a winter break as to how things are going to start back up.  

“I knew it was going to be a long year ahead so starting the season fresh was always the aim. I approached it with a clear mind and played some nice golf in there so it’s been enjoyable.” 

‘Nice golf’ is Purcell being modest. In his last five starts worldwide, the Portmarnock ace has shot the wrong side of par just once, boasting a scoring average of 69.83 as his transition to the pro ranks continues to be silky smooth. Since turning pro at the end of 2019, Purcell has grasped every opportunity he’s been given and while it’s been satisfying to produce his best stuff under the gun, he doesn’t feel like he is playing with anything to prove. 

“Golf’s funny,” he says. “If you do well you can get wrapped up in thinking that you’re proving a point – I’ve never looked at it that way.  

“To me, it’s always a case that every time I play I try to do the best I can. Thankfully I’ve strung together a few in a row but I don’t feel like I’ve anything to prove. I just feel like over time I’ll get to where I want to be.” 

If the Dubliner sounds laid back, that’s because he is. He waltzed to victory for his first ever professional ‘W’ at our very own Irish Golfer Shootout at the K Club in 2020, and the way he took everything in his stride back then was a sign of things to come. 

No occasion thus far has proved too great; not least the ISPS HANDA Australian Open that came about by chance last year. Purcell has long had an affinity for life Down Under, and it’s a place that brings out the best in him. Never was this more evident than when he became the first Irishman ever to win the Australian Amateur in 2019, so when a family wedding brought him to Melbourne last December coinciding with the DP World Tour event, the chance to Monday Qualify was too good to pass up.  

Sure enough, Purcell hit his stride, not just earning his start in the event with his brother, Gary, carrying the bag, but also claiming a best ever Main tour finish, rewarded, perhaps more pertinently, with a career-best cheque worth €28,418 that has enabled him to plan this year without sacrificing a beat. 

“It’s been lovely  – any time you cash a nice cheque it’s always nice,” he smiles.  

“Fortunately I’ve had good support since I’ve turned pro and I’ve – I wouldn’t say broken even – but I’ve been able to keep things ticking in the right direction.  

“It was great how that week worked out with all my family there and it does give you a bit of freedom to be able to do pretty much what you need to do for the year ahead.” 

One such luxury is hiring a full-time caddie, an investment that many up-and-coming pros across the world’s satellite tours simply can’t afford. As luck would have it, a local South African looper became available coinciding with Purcell’s opening stretch of the season, and the pair have clicked, so much so that their working relationship will recommence in India in March and hopefully long beyond it. 

“I got recommended a guy down in South Africa for the first stretch so I took him on board for the four weeks and he’s going to come to Europe now which is exciting,” Purcell says. 

“We’ve got on very well and he’s good for me so hopefully we can carry that forward through the year.  

“He’s caddied on the Sunshine Tour so he has quite a bit of experience. He’s had a knee injury the last couple of years so he’s only getting back into it but the timing worked out and we’ve clicked.” 

The caddie’s name is Gary. It’s not that he doesn’t have a second name, like Beyonce, Pelé or Bono, but Purcell laughs that he won’t attempt to pronounce the surname for fear of butchering it.  

He also stresses that he won’t attempt to befriend his new bagman, even to stave off any loneliness on tour. So often we see caddies become friends, and by consequence, professional relationships become complicated. It’s a kind of entanglement that Purcell hopes to avoid; a distinct separation between business and pleasure that should ensure he’s switched on any time Gary’s by his side.  

“I’ve had different types of caddies – I’ve had friends, people I know personally, but I’ve always wanted to explore the option of not really having a personal relationship with a caddie,” Purcell explains.  

“It means when you’re at the golf course, you’re in work mode, and we part ways when we leave the course then. He does his own thing, I do mine. I think things can be kept a lot fresher that way and we’ve managed to work well so long may it continue.” 

The likes of Shane Lowry has learned the hard way about what it’s like to have to relieve a good friend from bag duty. Purcell, though still just 25 and in the infancy of his career, seems to have an old head on young shoulders, thanks in part to the solid advice of his manager Shaun Webster from Wasserman. 

“Managers can be how you need them,” Purcell says. “I don’t tend to need much, I like to do my own thing, but it’s nice to have someone there. Especially someone like Shaun who can relate to a lot of things as he was a player himself so we can figure out a lot as we go.” 

A good chunk of their work together has already been complete with Purcell sitting down at the start of the year to compile his first ever full schedule as a professional free from the uncertainty of limited status. 

“I’d be one to plan the year as a whole and pick where I think breaks are needed and where I should play. I’ve never been one to enjoy playing too many weeks in a row,” Purcell says. 

“I was even hesitant to play four in a row to start the year. I’d probably cap it at three or four events in a row for the most part and go back to places where I’ve fond memories. I’ve played most of the courses now so I know which ones I enjoyed which is a great help.  

“The start of the year has been broken up nicely as it is but come the summer, it’s just going to take discipline from me to make sure I don’t feel like I need to play every week.  

“I think burnout is a common issue amongst players and it’s definitely something you want to avoid.” 

One spot sure to feature on Purcell’s 2023 itinerary is a July homecoming for the Irish Challenge which returns to Headfort Golf Club from July 27-30. Purcell recorded his joint-best week of the year last term with a top-5 finish at the K Club edition and he’s relishing the chance to return to another bold Irish parkland this summer. 

“Headfort’s always been a place I’ve enjoyed going to,” he says.  

“My sister lives there so I’ve spent a good bit of time down in Kells, and Dad [Joey] has a connection having been the Head Pro there for a while.  

“I’ve lots of family down that neck of the woods between Kells and Mullingar so it’s going to be nice going back to a familiar place, staying with my sister and hopefully having a bit of home support.” 

Home support has been lacking this season in so far as Ireland’s representation on the Challenge Tour has been depleted through the opening few events. With only Rosapenna’s Ruaidhri McGee for company, Purcell admits that life on the road was beginning to drag by the time his month was up in South Africa, but that’s something that should change as the tour returns to Europe. 

“It has its pros and cons,” Purcell says of tour life.  

“South Africa is quite a difficult trip to do. A month away at the start of the year having not really travelled much for golf over the winter is tricky, and the way things fell, I ended up spending a lot of the month on my own.  

“Four weeks does become long when you’re just going from golf course to hotel but during the summer there’ll be more Irish out on tour. We’ll be able to share Airbnb’s, and that’s what it was like for the most part last year which made for some really enjoyable weeks on and off the course.” 

That’s not to say such solitary experiences won’t stand to Purcell in the long run; the Dubliner more than content with his own thoughts for company, at least for a couple of weeks at a time. 

“South Africa was an eye opener in so far as, if I’m feeling the same way I did there after four weeks, you could probably cap it at three and get more out of yourself rather than playing four just because there’s four there. 

“I’ve always tended to like to do some things on my own, and with the way I’m wired, just a couple of weeks at a time seems to be how I get the best out of myself.” 

That certainly seemed to be the winning formula for his back-to-back top-10s in February where Purcell credited a hot flat-stick for transforming decent weeks into very good ones. 

“That was satisfying as it was a continuation of my winter work – I kept really on top of my putting,” he says. 

“I think if you can putt well, no matter how poor you hit it, you’ll be able to get it around. I took a lot from South Africa in that regard having not played my best a lot of the time and still signed for some good scores.” 

Not only did he sign for good scores but he played himself into victory contention; his best chance coming courtesy of a moving day 65 in Capetown that propelled him to within striking distance of a maiden tour title. A final round 70 resigned him to a finish three shots back of the lead but Purcell comes away from the experience with no doubt that should he put himself in such positions again, it’s only a matter of time before he converts. 

“It’s funny – I always think when an event finishes, it’s scary how small the margins are, especially on a weekend or over the course of a week. If I’ve finished in a top-10, how just two shots could make a difference,” he says. 

“Thankfully I’ve become so comfortable in those positions that I haven’t been getting consumed by what’s going on and different permutations, it’s just a matter of a sloppy bogey at the wrong time as opposed to any fear of winning. 

“I always think that when I’m in that environment of contention, I always feel like I’m ready to win. It’s just a case of keep doing what I’m doing and I feel it will happen.” 

Speaking of noise and possible permutations that could drag someone out of the moment, the turbulence atop men’s pro golf is not only shaking the foundations, but it’s reshaping the game forever. For someone like Purcell, so soon into his pro journey, getting mesmerised by the dangling carrots that could one day await him serves no purpose, but he keeps one eye on the goings on of the Promised Land internally driven to someday get there. 

“It’s definitely motivating but I think the more you get caught up too far down the line, the more you lose track of what you’re trying to do in the moment,” he says.  

“It’s one of the biggest things I’ve been working on – trying to focus on something as simple as taking every single day and just seeing what I have to do to get the most out of myself. If you can do that, then things further down the line start to take care of themselves. 

“If day-in, day-out you can do things to the best of your ability, then it’s surely going to put you in the right direction. Since Christmas I’ve put the head down, got myself into a good headspace and I feel that mentally, I’m in a really good place going into the year.  

“If you can stay sharp mentally, I think that’s almost better than being technically sharp half the time because as the year goes on, you get tired and make sloppy swings – everyone does – so being able to hang in there mentally and fight until the end will always be key.” 

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