Leinster Leader: The Big Interview

Naas professional golfer Conor O'Rourke in conversation

Former top Amateur, now awaiting the start-up for his third season on the professional circuit

Tommy Callaghan

Reporter:

Tommy Callaghan

Email:

tommy.callaghan@leinsterleader.ie

Naas professional golfer Conor O'Rourke in conversation

Naas man, Conor O'Rourke

In many ways Naas professional golfer Conor O'Rourke is quiet unique.
There are few out there who represented their country at the European Team Championships prior to representing their country at underage level.
Step forward Conor O'Rourke.
The Naas native, a keen footballer and hurler, while dabbling with golf at the same time at his local club in Kerdiffstown, but once he was awarded a golf scholarship to Maynooth University, there was only going to be one winner, and that was golf.
Up to that this talented lad, who was originally introduced to golf by his uncle Pauric (Clince) had been under the tutelage of a lady who was responsible for putting many young golfers on the road, Monica O'Connor.
A near legend at Naas Golf Club, the late Monica, was, according to Conor, a strict disciplinarian.
There was a great crop of young golfers in Naas at that time; great atmosphere around the club, as there still is, and a lot of work was put into the Junior section, coaching and teaching the basics; it is still the same today, Conor told the Leinster Leader last week.
Like all golfers (up to last week) Conor has been away from the fairways due to the coronavirus but looking back at his early days he has great time for those who thought him the basics at a young age.
“Monica O'Connor was more than a tutor, strict on lads, but brilliant; you wouldn't want to be messing around when Monica was there but she gained great respect from everyone; she brought us everywhere and really taught us the rudiments of the game.
“Former Kildare football star, and senior county manager, Eamonn O'Donoghue was also hugely involved as well; between Monica and Eamonn they brought us on as a group, both individually and collectively; they put in a lot of time for us and indeed for the Naas Club in general; through Junior Golf; up into the Youth Section and into senior status; incredible people really.”
So was it a mix of football, hurling and golf at a young age?
“I was focusing as much on the GAA as I was on the golf; all the way up from U14, U16, Féile and Minors and at that stage it was kind of 50-50 between both sports but when I was awarded a golf scholarship to Maynooth it was at that stage I began to concentrate more on the golf.
“It was practically all golf at that stage but I did go back to the GAA for one more year, at U21 level, we won the U21 hurling championship (probably the best game I ever played) but that was my last game of hurling as I totally concentrated on the golf from that time on.”
Like a lot of the golfers in Naas at that time Conor later came under the influence of Gavin Lunny and he remained his main mentor apart from Neil Manchip “who I got to knew, firstly at Maynooth but later on as he was head coach with the Ireland amateur teams.”
It was around 2015 when Conor made his first break through when playing in the Irish Amateur Championship in Royal Dublin and as said previously not having played for Ireland at underage level, he had a lot of lads in front of him on the pecking order but one round in Royal Dublin shot him up the ladder, a 65 (-6) that saw his hat firmly in the mix, he was selected to play at foursomes along with his fellow Naas club man, Jack Hume.
Having played in the Europeans (only four players selected) Conor was next selected for the Home Internationals, a team of ten, so he certainly was doing things in reverse order.
Conor played once again in the Europenas the following year, for the second year in a row.
And his greatest feat as an amateur golfer?
Did not take too long with an instant reply being his win at St Andrew's Trophy.
The St Andrews Links Trophy is an international amateur golf tournament contested on the St Andrews Links in Scotland. It has been played annually since 1989.
Played over three days, the top forty players play the final round on the Old Course at St Andrews and it was back in 2016 when the Naas man came out on top to capture this very prestigious amateur tournament.
That same year Conor won the Nassau Invitational in New York, leading qualifier at that, he clinched that title with a birdie on the final hole.
While admitting that the St Andrew's Trophy win was his most memorable Conor also takes great pride when winning the Home International series with his fellow Ireland golfers.
“You miss out the feeling of winning team sports, just a very special feeling when representing your country as a group, I would have missed that; it’s so different, the team game, the camaraderie, it’s great; just look at the Ryder Cup, it’s so different from playing constantly as an individual to then return to what is really a team sport, it’s an entirely different buzz; it just gets the juices going.”
Conor readily admits that he would be regarded as a somewhat later comer to the ranks of professional golf.
“It would in regards a lot of lads would want to do it earlier; for me I never really through of it as an age thing; wait until you are good enough is the right time as far as I was concerned; I was really more interested in trying to improve my game as an amateur as opposed to turning pro and possibly struggling.
“I wanted to try really hard to make the Walker Cup and that is what I spent the two years as an aim prior to turning pro and while I did not make that team, it was one hell of an experience; I was close but that was a huge learning curve for me and I feel it stood to me” adding “I don't really believe there is a perfect time (to turn pro) or indeed a perfect age, really it is when you are mature enough and when you are ready.”
The difference from amateur to professional must really be a huge jump, not only playing-wise but in the set-up, backing, finance and all that entails?
“When you are in the system (amateur) it feels like it is the only thing in the world that is important; it's amazing really, well for me anyway, spending a couple of years trying to get to the top as an amateur and suddenly when you do everything is done for you.
“Absolutely everything is done for you as an amateur, all you have to do is to get to that airport and then you are told where to go; all your gear is checked in, it is all so very easy from that point of view.
“Really amateur golfers at that level are completely and totally spoiled; don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing it is simply the way the GUI look after their amateur golfers so well, but their is definitely a massive change when you turn professional, in many ways it can be a bit of a culture shock, the change that is; suddenly you have to do everything for yourself.
“You are on your own for most of the time as regards getting yourself organised and all that entails but having said that I have the support of Team Ireland, along with two other Ireland players, it is a government scheme; the three of us try to travel together, play in the same tournaments but in many respects it's different and once we arrive at a particular destination you are on your own but to be fair that Team Ireland support is a massive help and very much appreciated; it has been a huge support for me allowing me to do certain things that I would not be in a position to do if I had not got that support.”
Conor finally turned pro in 2017 and ironically enough his first tournament in the Challenge Tour was at Mount Wolsley a few months after turning.
“I did not go into that tournament playing particularly well but at the same time it was nice just to get it under my belt, that was before Christmas and in the New Year I headed off to Egypt for a few months and did well enough.
“Got on a bit of a run; overall it was a good first year then last year was somewhat tricky being out for the best part of three months injured, a wrist, hand and arm injury that was finally put right with plenty of rest and some cortisone injections but thankfully I did not need surgery so that was a blessing.”
So now you arrive into 2020, your third year, give-or-take, on the circuit and the coronavirus arrives, how have you been managing during the lockdown?
“Really I try and take the positives out of this and the one thing I will say when we do get back, and I don't know when that will be, but it will be the guys who have put the work in that will be highlighted.
“These last two months or so I have never ever done as much physical training in my entire life so I will definitely come out of it a lot fitter and that is where my entire focus has been; there was not a huge amount of golf I could have done but I just want to make sure than I come back fitter and healthier more than I ever have been.
“You need to be so fit these days; the way golf is gone, you just have to hit the ball as long as you can, I have been trying to focus on my physical well-being and as I said return fitter and in the best shape than I have ever been.”
Conor also took a major decision back in September 2019 when deciding, after 11 or 12 years, to split with his long time coach Gavin Lunny and while it was not an easy decision it was a decision, he feels, he needed to do at the time.
“I felt I had got as good as I could under Gavin and really just needed a change; I am now coached by a guy in the UK, named, Dale Scotland, he was on the European Tour up to a few years ago; I started working with him in September 2019, I have to say the improvements he has made are absolutely huge, straight away to be honest, I was with him before the Q School last year and I just turned things around immediately; I shot 1 under and 9 under in two competitive rounds; so I really saw some huge improvement very fast.”
My time with Gavin, added Conor, “simply ran its course ; I felt I was not improving a huge amount, and that is not saying that he (Gavin) was to blame but really I just wanted to freshen things up; go a different direction and I have to say it has been absolutely brilliant; as I say still very good friends with Gavin but this I felt was just something I needed to do myself just to improve and carry on the direction I wanted to go myself.”
So how would you look back now on the short time since you turned pro.
“I have really enjoyed it; have learned a huge amount but professional golf is definitely not a career for a lot of people and I feel before a young lad makes the big decision there are criteria you have to make; you have to be the best in your club; you have to be on your national team(s) and if you are looking at it in simple terms of handicap you need to be really very low; again no golden rule but you would need to be well into the plus figures to have any kind of chance I would imagine.
“Ian Poulter would be the exception who turned pro when he was off 2 or 3 and has gone on to have a phenomenal career but the law of averages you need to be very, very low.
“A lot of young kids want to be a professional golfer but it is something you have to make sure that the life is definitely for you; don't want to turn kids off it but it is a very different world than many aspiring young players might think. So much stuff away from the actual game of golf; getting everything organised, sponsorship; finances in check; but then once you are playing good golf, have a good week, there is nothing like it in the world.”
Apart from the support you receive from Tour Ireland no doubt you need other supports to help you along the way?
“I have signed with a new management company, Underpin Sports, a UK company; between what they have done for me and what I have done with my new coach it has been brilliant; so I am really excited and looking forward to getting back, even it will be 2021.”
A Naas man, Ronan Houlihan, and a member of Naas Golf Club, has been a huge asset for Conor and one he really appreciates along with Ray Sinnott of Cyntek, another company that has backed him big time, as has Peter O'Reilly of Low.ie a mortgage insurance company.
Conor explains that with a cost of in or around €1,000 per week when away from home the support all his backers and sponsors give him is absolute paramount.
Conor O'Rourke of course is not the only golfer in the family household, not by a long shot.
His dad, John, a former Kildare footballer, Conor assures me, is a mean 10 handicapper while his mam, Louise, is no stranger to the weekly golf results of the Leinster Leader, playing off 20, Conor says is “handy enough.”
But there is another up-and-coming golfer in the O'Rourke family that Conor tells us to keep an eye on, younger brother James.
Just 14 years of age, James plays off a rapidly reducing handicap of 7 and has, according to Connor, a game of huge potential.”
And just to add to the mix, Conor's girlfriend, Wexford native Amanda, is also getting into the swing of things and with a big camogie background has no problem with her hand to eye co-ordination “we just have to tidy up the technique a little bit” he adds.
So between John, Louise, young James and now Amanda, not a team you would want to be coming up against in the next Classic at Naas Golf Club.
But for now all Conor can do is really keep doing what he has been doing, working extremely hard and now that golf has just reopened he will no doubt be back on the fairways getting himself in readiness for the opening of the professional circuit, hopefully sooner rather than later.
We wish him all the best!