SUMMER might be a time to relax for most people. Not Gary Walsh, who is getting ready to tackle his busiest season yet,writes Trevor Spillane.
While many people’s attentions turn to the beach, Walsh will be hoping to avoid as much sand and water as possible. The Kilkennyman, fresh out of qualifying school, has earned his golfing professional playing card and will spend the next few months tackling courses as part of the PGA EuroPro Tour.
It’s been a remarkable time for the 23-year-old of late. A long-time golf fanatic, injury forced off the fairways for a spell. After moving to Spain two years ago walsh decided to have take up the sport again. It was a decision which paid off, and how.
“I was hooked by the game from an early age,” he said. “When I was very young I’d be out in Castlecomer caddying for my father (Billy, a former captain at the ’Comer club). I’d get tired after a few holes so I used to take his lob wedge and start practising!
“As I got into the sport I used to say to myself that I wanted to be a professional golfer, but suffered an injury setback when I was 16 which meant I couldn’t play for a few years. When I went back to Spain I decided to have a go at it again - it’s certainly worked out for me so far.”
The change in his game has been remarkable.
“When I went to Spain I was playing off seven at the time,” Walsh recalled as we spoke in a rare break away from the course. “I worked hard with two Spanish coaches and went from seven to +2 in a year, which was quick progress. I came home and played in the Irish Championships after that. I did as well as I expected, getting some good scores in the South of Ireland.
“After that I went back to Spain and joined the Gecko Elite Golf Academy, “ he said. “I spoke with my coach there, who said it made sense to turn professional as I was too late to get on any Irish teams as an amateur. I’ve been there all Winter and had some good results in tournaments, scoring a few top 10s.
“The level over there is very high - you have a lot of former professionals and European professionals who play there over the Winter, to stay sharp - it makes sense from the climate point of view but the courses are tougher too, which helps keep you sharper. I spent the Winter there practising and playing in tournaments, working on my fitness and got ready for the EuroPro qualifying school.
“The climate was a big reason for picking up golf again in Spain, as were the courses,” he said. “It gave me a chance to break away from everything, to focus completely on the sport. There were no other distractions - it was golf, golf, golf from 7am to 7pm. I was based at the El Chaparral golf club in Malaga and then moved to the Academy which was in La Cala (a golf complex in Andalucia).
“The Academy had golfers from all over Europe and America. It’s part of a new tour that started two years ago, so the academy is based around the idea of getting you ready for that. It’s not like a normal academy where you go to improve your swing. This is more for shaving shots off your round and getting rid of technical flaws. It’s a unique academy in the sense that there is a professional tour attached to it.
“I played 16 events over there, scoring three top 10s and three top 15s,” he said. “I was happy with that, given the stage I was at, as there were a lot of very good players over there. It was a good Winter and helped to get me ready for the EuroPro qualifying which was my main goal.
“It’s the same in all stages in golf,” he said. “You have to take it step by step. Some people like Rory McIlroy were born to do it, but the rest of us have to work extremely hard at it.
“There were times when I struggled with my swing and shot some high scores,” he admitted. “The courses are a lot different over there when compared to Ireland. However, the coaches offered great support and with their help I always got through.”
Spain has been good to Walsh. His game has taken on a new dimension thanks to a change in location.
“The big difference would be that the courses are a lot tighter in Spain,” he said. “There’s not as much room for error over there as here - courses are firm and fast, whereas here you can get away with a lot more.
“You have to change your game when playing in Spain,” he said. “You have to adapt, which is standing to me now as I’m hitting the ball a lot straighter. Golf feels a lot easier here now - even from a weather point of view. People might think that Spain is always sunny, but if the wind blows over there it’s every bit as bad as it is here. I wouldn’t have been a good wind player when I went to Spain, but I learned how to play in the elements over there which has stood to me.”
All the time spent on the course was designed for one thing - to earn that EuroPro tour card. After four rounds it was mission accomplished for Walsh, but not before he had to come through some challenging moments.
“I went to Stoke by Nayland in Essex for the first phase of the qualifying school but I had injured my ribs before the first round of the first stage so I struggled a little,” he said.
“It was more like damage limitation the first day, but I felt good and confident before the second round - I woke up on the morning of the round feeling good so I was able to play a better round. The second round was broken up by bad weather, as golfers were delayed by snowfall. That meant that I didn’t start my round until 5.30pm and had to finish the last eight holes from 7.45am the next day. I had played well over the first 10 holes, so I knew that I kept playing solidly that I would get through.”
Walsh finished tied in 36th place, which saw him safely through. After that it was on to Oxford’s Frilford Heath Golf Club for the final stage. There were 240 golfers in the second part of the qualifying process, with just over half the field earning their tour card.
“The competition was intense,” he said. “You had to play steady golf to get through but I played well at Frilford. I knew going down the last hole that as long as I didn’t do anything silly that I’d secured my card.”
It’s only after Walsh explains just what the tour can lead on to that you realise why the card is so coveted.
“This is the first step on the golfing ladder,” he explained. “From here you can progress on to the Challenge Tour. The aim is to finish high up in the Order of Merit as the top five golfers will get a full Challenge Tour card for the following year, but with the EuroPro card I can play on Challenge events throughout the year.
“If I can make the top five of Irish nationals on the tour by July I’ll get to play in a Challenge tour event at Galgorm Castle in Ballymena,” he added. “It’s a very good opportunity to do my best on one of the biggest development tours in the world.”
Given that he only took up the game again two years ago, turning professional and earning the tour card has marked a quick transition.
“It’s all been moving so fast,” he said. “Now that I have the card I can slow things down a little, pick the tournaments I want to play in.
“That starts with the next tournament in Astbury Hall, Shropshire in May,” he said. There are tournaments every two weeks after that on the tour, but I won’t play them all as I want to prepare properly for the tournaments I am playing in. I can pick and choose where I play and what course suits me best to make sure I’m 100% ready. I’d hope to play to at least 15 events between now and the end of October before going back to Spain to play on the Gecko Tour.”
Walsh will be based in London for the Summer, where he will continue to work with his coach Paul Simpson towards his future goals.
“I want to have a solid year, but next year I’ll be pushing to earn my Challenge Tour card, which is the next step,” he said. “I’d love to get it this year, but I want to set realistic goals - to get a few good finishes and keep improving would be ideal.”
There is also plenty of off-course work to look after, not least on the sponsorship front. “We’re at the point where it comes down to money,” he said. “It’s tough getting sponsorship but my father Billy and mother Marian have been a great help.
“I’d be lost without them,” he added. “I’m very lucky.”
The PGA EuroPro Tour fund-raising classic will be held at Gowran Park GC on Wednesday, May 15. Entry fee for the competition, which has a team of four format (any combination) is E200 per team, including meal. Teebox sponsorship at E100 per hole is also available. Timesheet details are available from 086-0732163.