Waterford TD John Deasy says the increased funding just announced for up-and-coming Irish golfers is both a vote of confidence in them and an acknowledgement of the sport’s spin-off potential.
At the end of March, Sport Ireland, whose CEO is John Treacy, announced a €200,000 commitment to support Team Ireland Golf (TIG) in the current year. It includes €130,000 in grants for a dozen budding tour professionals — West Waterford’s Gary Hurley among them.
Deputy Deasy recently obtained exchequer funding figures for golfer development over the past decade from his Fine Gael colleague, sports minister Brendan Griffin. In confirming the latest funding round, he emphasised golf’s value to the tourism economy in areas like Dungarvan, which has three 18-hole courses in close proximity.
TIG funding from 2008–17 amounted to €1.538m, spread between 51 players. This is half the number supported since the TGI framework was introduced in 1999 to assist the progress of selected early-stage pros on the main tours; thereby promoting Ireland as a golf-tourism destination.
John Deasy says: “The Government’s new ‘Global Ireland’ promotional campaign was launched in Washington recently and the importance of golf to the Irish brand in America and worldwide shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It might be seen by some as a luxury item but supporting young golfing talent is an investment not just in sport but also tourism. For a small country, what we’ve already achieved in terms of profile on the back of major wins, Ryder Cups and the overall rankings is amazing when you think about it.”
Under the Team Ireland Golf initiative, led by Des Smyth, all players in receipt of assistance can avail of the world-class facilities at the GUI’s National Golf Academy at Carton House.
This includes free access to a network of physiologists, sports psychologists, bio-mechanists, physiotherapists and doctors — all coordinated by the Sport Ireland Institute.
A winter coaching base has also been established at Quinta do Lago in Portugal through Smyth, a former European Tour veteran and Ryder Cup player/vice-captain.
Crucially, TIG players are guaranteed a number of starts in European Challenge Tour events: Irish invitations to which are to increase significantly this year. This is thanks to a significant investment in the home-based Irish Challenge Tour event over the past four seasons. Aglish’s Gary Hurley (25) has been given three Challenge Tour starts as well as grant support this year.
Golfer-funding levels peaked in 2009 when 19 players benefitted to the tune of €0.25m (including Shane Lowry, winner of that year’s Irish Open as an amateur, after which he immediately turned pro). But the overall figure had reduced gradually since, with 11 players sharing €90,000 in 2017.
Previous beneficiaries include West Waterford’s Seamus Power. The 31-year-old Ballinamult man turned pro in 2011, receiving funding over an eight-year period up to and including 2016 when he represented Ireland at the Olympics. He finished a creditable joint-15th at the Rio Games, after putting himself in contention for a podium placing.
However, the margins are very tight. Having only just secured his 2018 Tour card in October, Power, like Wicklow’s Paul Dunne, scored his highest PGA finish to-date last month. Both tied for fifth at the Corales Championship in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017 an earnings cap was introduced for the first time, meaning players who won over €250,000 in prizemoney in the previous season can only apply for non-financial TIG support.
Noting Des Smyth’s point that, though no guarantee, “the grants are important” because “it frees up more of your time to focus on your golf”, John Deasy says: “It can take many emerging pros several years to figure on the top tours and they need that early funding to sustain their careers, and meet their considerable expenses when prize-money is hard to come by. It can be a very difficult and stressful existence and the competition to make the cut internationally has never been tougher.”
He and John Treacy, who is a member of both Dungarvan and West Waterford Golf Clubs, have discussed the need to continue financial backing “to help Ireland’s top amateurs transition into the professional game... we now have a strong system in place which will ensure Ireland continues to produce world-class golfers long into the future,” the Villierstown athletics great says.
Deputy Deasy adds: “Some €3.825m has been invested in Team Ireland Golf since it was set up nearly 20 years ago, but when you look at the players who’ve come through the system — Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne, Damien McGrane, Peter Lawrie and Michael Hoey — no-one can say that hasn’t been money well spent. You couldn’t buy that sort of advertising for Ireland abroad.”
Flying the flag for West Waterford: US PGA Tour pro Seamus Power and the European Challenge Tour’s Gary Hurley