Waterville’s David Higgins – The quiet man

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It’s been a long season for David Higgins, and with the last of the competitive golf behind him, the Waterville native can look back on 2017 as another successful year.

Starting with the Munster PGA in March, through a long PGA Irish Region season and finishing with the PGA Cup, David Higgins has lots of good memories from the 2017 season. Higgins recorded over a dozen wins in Ireland including the Irish Club Professional Tournament where he successfully defended his title and although he missed out on the top spot on the Irish Region Order of Merit, he took second place for the third successive year along with over €23,000 in official prize-money.

It’s not too often that an experienced European tour pro can have a new experience, especially in his mid-forties.  But with selection for the GB&I Team at the prestigious PGA Cup, Higgins managed to tick that particular box at Foxhills on the outskirts of London;
“It was one of the best golfing experiences I’ve had, it was definitely right up there with the best of them”, said David.  “It was one of the best because it was completely different to what I have been doing for the past 20 years.  The team atmosphere, the flag going up, there were some special moments that made you stop and realise the importance of the event.”

While Higgins’ regular form of golf is a pro-am team format, he’s also playing for himself every time he tees it up on the PGA Irish Region. And despite being on the Irish Region for most of the past decade, this was the first time he got to play for GB&I.  After winning the Irish Region Order of Merit in 2012, Higgins was selected to play in 2013.  However, by the time the tournament came around he was playing full time on the European Tour and didn’t take up his place.  (Coincidentally, he has few regrets about that missed opportunity as that same week he was competing at a European Tour event and ended up in second place at the Italian Open, winning €130k).
This year there were no distractions, and with the bulk of the events on the Irish Region completed, it was an opportunity that he wasn’t going to miss.  “I really wasn’t sure what to expect going over there but when we got there it was special. Once you put on the PGA Cup jumpers and you see everyone around you and realise how important it is to them.  The event had everything and it was very well run.  I was picked up in a Rolls Royce, it was a top-class event and you knew how important it was for the PGA.  That fed into the team, the captain was brilliant and it all came together.”

Higgins knew that GB&I were in a strong position with the team that captain Albert MacKenzie had selected.  “I knew all the players apart from two.  When we went over for the get together in August I knew we had eight good players.  And as it happened the two lads I didn’t know had seven birdies in the first round and had the best scores on the day so I knew then we had a great team.”
Higgins was paired with Chris Currie for the fourballs and the pair won both matches.  In the foursomes he partnered Ireland’s other representative on the team, Damien McGrane, and the pair recorded a half on the opening day and had a narrow loss on day two.  With just one point in it going into the final day singles, it was all to play for.  It was the two experienced Irish men that were given the most responsibility, McGrane led the team off at number one and Higgins anchored the team in the 10th match.  It was a bit of added responsibility and Higgins said, “There was pressure for sure. It does hit you that it could come down to your game and you ask yourself,  ‘Am I ready for it?’  But you have to be.  The Americans were good players and they are normally quite strong in singles.  You start to wonder how the lads will get on but then you have to focus on your own match.  I had my cousin Andy Daly caddying for me and we tried to focus on what we’d have to shoot to win if it was a pro-am.  So, we decided we’d need to be on four or five under to win it and we decided that we’d try not to play against an opponent, no matter what he was doing.”  Higgins got off to a flier and he was two under after four holes but more importantly he was three up.   Although he traded a few holes with his opponent Adam Rainaud in middle section of the round, he never lost the upper hand and closed out the match on the 16th.  GB&I at that stage had secured the overall win, with six wins and three halves and beat the Americans 6.5 – 2.5 on the final day.

Higgins’ form this season has been consistently good, and he continued that with the record books showing him taking 3.5 points from his five matches making him the second highest ranked golfer of the week.  “I actually played better in the PGA Cup than I had all season.  I don’t know what it was, I just played very well.  It’s not that you do it because you say to yourself ‘you’re going to play well this week’, but there was just something about it.  When it was so important you tend to raise your game and I was delighted I did.”
It had been a long time since Higgins last played in a representative team event, that was 1994 when he featured on the Irish home internationals team alongside Gary Murphy and Padraig Harrington.    “It was a different feeling, even though there was no prizemoney at stake.  There was a different kind of pressure there.  I knew I wasn’t going to let people down as I was playing well but you felt the importance of winning your match and getting your point up there.”  In addition, Higgins was also one of the senior players on the team and while he had to concentrate on his own performance, there was also a mentoring role to be played.  “We had to open up that week, and you don’t do that as a tournament player.  You keep your thoughts to yourself as you’re out to beat every other golfer out there.  You have your own team and that’s it, you don’t leave anyone else in.  This was different, you were there together and had to help the other guys.  I had to get the best out of the man playing with me otherwise we weren’t going to win.  I think that’s what made the week different and so special.”

Now 45, Higgins is enjoying the balance he has between his working and family life. Away from the Pro-Am circuit and practice he is busy teaching at Waterville. If he’s not on the practice greens or the course at the club in Waterville, you’ll probably find him over the road in Waterville House. There David has an ideal place to teach and practice at the immaculate academy with his dad and Brian. As well as teaching members, the academy is always busy with international guests getting ready for a links experience. Recently Waterville had a large group of wounded soldiers over from the USA arranged by one of the club directors, Jay Connolly. David, Liam and Brian are hands on trying to give guests from home and abroad the best service possible to improve their game.

 David with his dad Liam Higgins at Waterville 

Higgins is very much a product of his environment in south west Kerry.  Although Waterville had little in the way of reputation for producing golfers, David was part of a generation who had a great schooling in the game.  His father Liam moved to Waterville from Cork almost 50 years ago to take up the position of Club Professional following the redevelopment of the 80-year-old course at Waterville.  Owner John A. Mulcahy had worked with Eddie Hackett and Claude Harmon in the early 70’s to reconfigure the original nine holes on the eastern side and developed the impressive back nine that border the Atlantic on the western side.   Following the opening of the new course and clubhouse in 1973, John and Liam turned Waterville into a hugely popular destination for Irish and international golfers in the first 15 years.  And in that time they also built up a strong local membership including a very progressive junior section.

David Higgins was part of that group and that’s where he learned the game.  “We were one of the luckiest groups of golfers.  There were 12 or 14 of us as kids, and John A and my father would have us all out on the range practicing.  John A was a very good golfer himself and he was a very good teacher.  He was always very good to us, if any fellow needed a club or a pair of shoes he’s look after us, he wouldn’t go overboard but if you worked hard and showed an interest you got rewarded. He’d send us off to all the tournaments in a bus and he’d make sure we had a nice lunch, and accommodation if needed, and that we were all well turned out.  I was very lucky to grow up in Waterville and be able to play the great links.  It was great to see Tiger Woods, Duval, O’Meara and Stewart at the top of their games practicing at Waterville in preparation for their British Opens.”

One of David’s memories from those days was his first hole in one in Muskerry Golf Club during the Bruen Boys Trophy which he went on to win.  [Higgins proudly adds that it was on the par four 2nd hole, he hit a 3 wood…]   John A had provided the bus that day along with new golf balls, and David still has that Titleist LT100 as a memento of those exciting days.
From there David went on to have a great early amateur career, winning the South of Ireland and the Irish Close in 1994.  As it happens he beat Padraig Harrington in both finals, and after that he turned professional.  David spent the next 12 years on tour, moving between the main European Tour, the Challenge Tour and the Irish Region.  He earned over €1m on the main tour, and another €250k on the Challenge Tour along with three wins.  In 2012 he emulated his father’s achievement when he won the Irish PGA Championships at Mount Juliet.  He won a full tour card in Q School for 2013 and retained a full card for the 2014 season.  That marked his last full season on an international tour, a season of mixed results meant he was outside the top 115 and he went back to playing on the Irish Region.  Five years older now and with the European and Challenge Tours in the rearview, David is happy with the way the last three years have played out.  He’s competing and winning on the Irish Region and with a baby at home, being home every week has its advantages.
“Life is simpler now.  I’m in control of it – finally.  It’s easier because I know where I’m going and when I’m going.  I’m able to plan a lot better, I can get into the car in the mornings and drive home most evenings.  I have a great sponsor in MAC who I work with on several corporate days each year, and with the support from Waterville Links and some teaching I’m still making a living while playing competitive golf.  It’s a lot more manageable now.  When I was on tour I was chasing tour cards and events, I was chasing flights and not knowing if I was playing next week or heading back home.”

When we met in Waterville, it was immediately evident that David is well liked and well respected among the staff, members and guests.  It’s been another busy year for the Tom Fazio designed links, with an increase in the number of Irish and International visitors.  The first phase of work in the clubhouse has now been completed with phase two planned for the off season.  Guests are waving to say hello to David on the putting green, and David interrupts our conversation several times to have a few words with members and guests as they pass through the bar.  It’s obvious that the values that John A. Mulcahy instilled in the young golfers have stuck with David.  Although the popular Kerryman spends plenty of time away from Waterville, himself Liam, Brian and Lynda ensure that the Higgins name is synonymous with the course.
The Mulcahy era came to an end in 1987 when Waterville was purchased by a number of Irish Americans, and like their predecessors their interest in business was matched by their interest in golf.  Like John A, the new owners also had an interest in David’s progression as a professional, one that continues through to today.  “The current Waterville Directors are great supporters of my golf.  They’re also good players themselves and like it very much when they win the odd €5 off me when they are in town.  I played with John Merryweather (Waterville owner) a few weeks before the PGA Cup.  John is a member of Winged Foot in New York and we were discussing the American players.  He had heard about this young assistant pro that was supposed to be a great player.  That was Adam Rainaud who I was drawn against in the singles.  John was delighted to hear I had won our match. Waterville Links 1, Winged foot 0!”

Higgins has just turned 45 and while the European Seniors Tour is definitely on his radar, the PGA Irish Region will be his hunting ground for the next few years.  David is hoping that by that stage the Seniors will be back on par with the level it was at back in 2006.  Back then there was over 25 tournaments each year with decent prize money on offer   Until then, it’ll be a case of watch out on the Irish Region as Higgins will be out to finish on top over the next three years.
Part of the plan will no doubt be to maintain his off course commercial success.  David has developed a number of strong relationships with sponsors through the years on tour in Ireland and in Europe, and he’s acutely aware of the important role they play for Irish professional golfers.  He has been fortunate in this regard and is in his second year of sponsorship with MAC. David works closely with MAC, supporting their corporate golf days and events, and he also wears the Mac brand on his clothing.   “First of all, without sponsorship I couldn’t continue to do what I’m doing.  I’d have to stop playing, it just wouldn’t be possible.  I played with Paul McKenna from MAC at a pro-am a few years ago, and I ended up doing a beat the pro competition at their corporate day.  We hit it off from the start and MAC are now a great sponsor for me.”

Like any good Kerryman, David finishes our conversation with a story “My father tells a story about a day he and John A were in the practice bunker in the Vintage Country Club in Palm Springs.  The then US President, Gerald Ford, walks past and says, ‘Mr Mulcahy, I’m having trouble with my grip, I think it’s a little strong’.  John A’s reply was “Not now Mr President, can’t you see I’m working with Liam!”
And so, the golfing life and times of one of Kerry’s and Ireland’s favourite golfers rumbles on. What should we expect from David Higgins in 2018?  He’ll be competing in the Irish PGA Region again for certain and will no doubt be challenging for the Order of Merit. Of whatever else may come we are uncertain, but one thing is for sure, we can expect that it will be coupled with the quiet, gentlemanly demeanour that has become the trademark of the Higgins name and the teachings of John A Mulcahy will be evident for all to see. We wish you every success David!

This feature appeared in the December 2017 edition of Irish Golfer Magazine. Click cover below to launch digital edition.

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