Tullamore Golf Clubs Stuart Grehan has declared he will travel to Q School stage one next week at Frilford Heath Golf Club as a professional.
Grehan may not have grown up dreaming of becoming a professional golfer, but over time dreams can change.
By modern terms he was a late bloomer, armed with just an eight iron given to him by his father at the age of fourteen in Tullamore, the game, a foe to so many, came easy to Grehan. What started out as a bit of fun between family and friends quickly developed into a feasible career opportunity, and with scholarships to the States on the table upon finishing secondary school, Grehan’s intentions became clear; One day he was going to turn pro.
He followed in the footsteps of many great players before him in 2013 by seeking the American Dream to realise that ambition, but his stint at Eastern Michigan University ended prematurely. Four years became one as Grehan struggled to settle, a decision made easier with Maynooth’s golf programme waiting in the wings.
“I loved Maynooth. It was my original choice of college anyway and the last three years have been great. Barry Fennelly, the Golf Development Officer there, has done great work with the programme and it’s gone from strength to strength and produced some serious players. I mean, the American colleges are unbelievable in terms of the golf. They stage so many events and you’re playing against some of the best players in the world, but in saying that, Maynooth are starting to bridge the gap.”
A student of Entrepreneurship with a wise head on young shoulders, Grehan never felt the pressure to turn pro prior to graduating. A degree is an insurance policy if things don’t work out, and this year in particular he got an unfortunate reminder of just how fragile the game of golf can be. Starting the year as Ireland’s top ranked amateur, and in his final year at University, the stage was set for Grehan to leave an everlasting mark on the amateur game. Then injury struck.
“It was on study break with the lads in college and we went out playing some football tennis – so not the most physical game! I went up to head the ball but missed. So in frustration I kicked the net. Naturally I wasn’t looking at my feet, I was looking at where the ball was landing. But as I was walking back, my left foot got caught over my right. Turns out there was a hole in the net, I fell back, landed on my left elbow and straight away I knew there was something wrong. An hour later I tried to put on my clothes and I couldn’t even straighten the arm. The pain was so much that I was nearly in tears. I knew it was bad.”
Having already missed the Irish Amateur because of exams, Grehan was now destined to miss the Brabazon Trophy, the Scottish Amateur and the Palmer Cup with a fractured arm, a season that should’ve topped them all, helplessly unravelling before him. “My head was all over the place, I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. It was incredibly frustrating. Luckily my physio got me back to Tullamore and after about a week he started doing needling on it to reduce the swelling, which was the main issue, and not the break. He got that sorted after about three weeks which was a miracle really.”
Still, having practiced so hard to become Ireland’s number one, the timing of the accident couldn’t have come much worse. There were shades of Rory McIlroy’s infamous five-a-side ankle injury that ruled him out of the 2015 British Open at St Andrews. Grehan’s season goal had long been to make a first Walker Cup team but with time against him, he knew he needed something special. A glimmer of hope; expected to miss the event entirely, he made the Palmer Cup team and played quite solid. A one point haul from four, he laughs, doesn’t tell the whole story.
“I was still in an ok position to make the team but I felt I had to play really, really well because I’d missed so much. I was putting that extra pressure on myself which unfortunately kept niggling away at me and ultimately I wasn’t picked.” Grehan discovered his fate when the team was announced online, but admits he held little hope as selection approached due to the performances of himself and others. With time to reflect on such a disappointment, it seemed cruel to ask if he had any regrets.
“I wish I never went out to play that football, it goes without saying, but you can’t live like a hermit either.” I had asked Stuart if he was actively discouraged from playing other sports that could jeopardise his golf game. “I’m not discouraged – I won’t be playing football on the tarmac again. But I love playing basketball, football. I’m not going to be keen on a game of rugby a month out from a tournament but it’s all about balance. You have to enjoy doing these things with friends. It was just a freak injury and that’s the way it is.”
One implication for not making the Walker Cup panel will be the number of invites Stuart will miss out on now, though he’s convinced it won’t have as big an impact as some fear. “It would’ve been great to make Walker Cup and get extra invites but I’d be going to Q School regardless. I’ve a pretty decent profile built up over the last few years so hopefully I can get some good invites as well.”
Indeed that reputation shot to the fore when Grehan backed up his East of Ireland win in 2015 with victory at the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch weeks later, becoming the first Irishman since Jim Carville to win the two trophies in the one year. A career highlight at the time, it would’ve been remiss not to ask why players of Grehan’s ilk have become names less featured in Ireland’s major amateur championships of late, but for Stuart, the answer was a simple one.
“Over the last year the scheduling with the Irish events hasn’t been ideal. They’ve always been on when the bigger international events are on. Everyone keeps talking about world ranking points, getting your ranking up. That’s what I’ve been firmly focused on but in saying that, if there’s a home event on and nothing else clashing, of course I’ll play.”
But is it always that straightforward? Golf may be an individual sport but there’s a whole host of influencers that would love to choose a player’s schedule. Does he ever feel torn? “Look, at the end of the day it’s the player’s decision. You’re asking how we pick our schedules and why we play, it’s down to world ranking points. But as Paul McGinley said a few weeks ago at the champion’s dinner in Lahinch, if you finish eighth in a Brabazon or win a home event, it’s a lot more beneficial winning the home event. He’s dead right with that too.”
So what was it about the words of McGinley that inspired Grehan’s Mullingar Scratch Cup entry? Expected to skip the event ahead of his US Amateur preparations in August, Grehan was a surprise inclusion in the field and what a decision it turned out to be. “It was the way he phrased it. The whole winning thing, that domination factor. It was just phenomenal. If you can’t do it here as an amateur, then you’re not going to know the feeling of winning when you get out on Tour. I wanted to learn how to win when I could so I had a chat with my coach, Eamonn O’Flanagan, and we decided to play.”
Grehan went into the tournament expecting to play well and duly blew the field away to go seven clear starting the final day. He got his score to eighteen under par with two holes to play, one ahead of Shane Lowry’s -17 tournament record set in 2008. And he knew it too, as Stuart, looking back in embarrassment, laughs his way through what transpired on his 71st and 72nd holes:
“I knew starting the round that I had a chance to break it, then I got to 18 under with two to play. I suppose it’s the only negative of the week. I hit a bad second shot into 17 and then knifed my bunker shot after that so at that stage I knew it was over. I kind of hacked up 18 again and just about limped over the line. Luckily enough I’d built a big enough lead.”
Grehan with the Mullingar Scratch Trophy. Image by Pat Cashman
A four shot win was the sort of form that Grehan’s reputation had been built upon and with the US Amateur Championship next on the agenda, what a time to rediscover it. His motivation to compete at the oldest USGA championship was obvious: “It’s just different, it feels different. Only the top 50 get in, exemptions, and after that it’s just qualifiers. You’re playing the best individual amateur event in the world against the top American guys. Of course you’re going to be motivated.”
Which begs the question, why play jetlagged? Grehan didn’t arrive until late Thursday night and taking into account an eight hour time difference, soon realised he’d left his A game at home in Ireland. “I’d put that down to a little bit of inexperience when traveling. I was a bit jetlagged even until I was coming home so that was annoying. Hindsight’s a great thing but I would’ve flown out the Tuesday if I had the opportunity again. Normally my ball striking would be quite strong but I don’t think I’ve ever hit the ball as poorly as I did for those 36 holes. I’m not trying to give myself any excuses for playing badly but I really felt like I was out of sorts over there.”
However a missed cut couldn’t take away from the mind-blowing beauty of Riviera Country Club, where Stuart told me not a blade of grass stands out of place. Thankfully, in the company of his peers, Grehan didn’t feel out of place either. “Anyone over this side of the pond who’s a good player can easily compete against those guys. The Americans are generally really confident people, a bit louder. Maybe we don’t like to show it as much. But whoever plays the best golf on the day is going to win so I wouldn’t be intimidated by those guys at all.”
Grehan can look back on a coveted amateur career to draw confidence, but reflecting on just how far he’s come, he acknowledges that it wasn’t always smooth sailing. He split from coach, Eamonn O’Flanagan after a spell of indifferent form when he was nineteen, and soon learned that the grass isn’t always greener when over a year later he took him back. “It’s a hard one leaving a coach at any time. He’s the only one I’ve ever really had so it made sense to go back to him and it worked out in the end. The following year I won the East and the South and made my first Men’s Home International team so ever since then we just got on great together.”
Though his time spent under the Golfing Union of Ireland banner was a fleeting one compared to most, Grehan holds fond memories of his time spent at GUI headquarters in Carton House.
“I wasn’t a very good boys’ golfer so I didn’t get to experience any of the Leinster or the Irish teams when I was underage but I started into the GUI when I was 20/21 and to be honest they’ve been great. Neil Manchip is doing a super job. He’s really helped me make the transition into men’s golf and the international scene. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen some places that I never thought I’d see in my life. The set-up that they have is first class. The performance programmes – Robbie Cannon’s doing a great job. I’ve to thank them a lot.”
The victorious 2016 Ireland Home international team
Grehan made his final appearance in the green of Ireland at this year’s European Team Championships, and although he confesses that’s “pretty sad”, he has nothing but proud recollections from the first time he donned the shirt to the last. “I always wanted to put on the Irish jersey so it was definitely nerve racking. I didn’t know what to expect coming into a national environment. But once I got to meet the guys, got to know them a little better, it’s like anything. You settle in.”
“The teams were great. They might not be the biggest week on the calendar but going away with a bunch of lads all trying to win a championship was brilliant. Even this year I was refreshing the tournament website every three minutes to see if we’d won the four-in-a-row. We did”, he laughs, speaking of Ireland’s historic Home Internationals win in August. In fact his enthusiasm jumped down the phone as he recalled victory over England at the Home Internationals last year.
“It was probably one of the best weeks I’ve ever had on a golf course. To beat England by a half a point to win, playing with such great lads. That was the best ever. We didn’t look like we were going to win all week against any team. Against Scotland I think we had to win nine of the singles just to take the match, so to go on to win it was just amazing.”
When pushed on individual triumphs, he points to his Irish Youths title in 2012 as his most precious accolade. “I know I won the East and South but when you’re just floating about, not knowing if you’re going to be good enough and you get your first win, it’s probably the one I look back on that makes me most proud.”
His attention now turns to the paid ranks and specifically progressing through European Tour Q School stage one next week. Grehan rates his chances “as good as anyone’s”, adding, “I feel like my game’s coming around again. I’m doing the right things. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t go there, do really well and achieve some sort of status on any tour. I’m excited for it.”
I got a sense from our chat that not much will faze him making the transition. He’s incredibly Irish – un-fussed and genuine, quite like another famous golfer from Offaly who has paved the way for lads like Stuart to follow.
This article appears in the November 2017 edition of Irish Golfer Magazine. Click the below cover to launch