Browne struck a winning note in Kazakhstan
IMPROBABLE as it might seem, I find myself thinking here about the outrageous movie-making of Sasha Baron Cohen. And it’s all down to a quirky belief that his so-called mockumentary film about Kazakhstan, released in 2006, could have been enhanced by the remarkable golfing experiences there of Dubliner Stephen Browne.
A meeting with Browne seemed appropriate at this, an unusually lean time for Irish tournament practitioners, with the notable exception of Paul Dunne. Indeed the cyclical nature of their pursuit can be gleaned from the rich promise of the 2005 season which ended with Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley strengthening their grip as Ryder Cup players, while Graeme McDowell was in the winning, Seve Trophy team.
That was also when Rory McIlroy, at 16, was holder of the West of Ireland and Irish Close crowns and had shot a stunning 61 in the second round of qualifying for the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush. And as a cause for further optimism, Browne won the inaugural Kazakhstan Open.
“On getting my tour card, I had the usual hopes of European Tour victories and playing in the Ryder Cup,” Browne reflects. “The experience of winning in Kazakhstan, however, especially in the presence of my closest friends, became more special even than, say, finishing 20th on 40 occasions on the main tour.
“We were really a band of brothers in a very strange place. Even when I talk about it today, people are immediately interested. Winning the Kazakhstan Open was quite an experience!”
It’s not difficult to understand the fascination with Browne’s achievement. Golf, for instance, was first played in Kazakhstan only after it broke from the former Soviet Union to become an independent republic on December 16, 1991. As the world’s largest land-locked country, it is about 10 times the size of France and is bordered by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China.
Its first excursion into golf happened at Nurtau GC in the former capital, Altamy, where resident US oil men ensured a beautifully maintained lay-out. As the scene of the richest event on the European Challenge Tour, Browne liked it at first sight, not least for the way it reminded him of his beloved Hermitage, back in West Dublin.
By that stage, the 31-year-old Dubliner had been a professional since 2002, having joined paid ranks as a five-stroke winner of the European Amateur Individual Championship. And as the son of noted Irish tenor, Edmund Browne, he discovered that the pursuit of a tour card could be enhanced by his own training as a baritone, specifically in the area of rhythm and concentration.
He also made the brave decision to step down to the Challenge Tour, even after earning full tour status in November 2004. “I thought it might be nice for a couple of weeks, having found life on the main tour to be quite hard,” he admits. “Maybe a few events on the Challenge Tour would help restore my confidence. There was no grand plan. It would just be a break.”
In the event, Kazakhstan became quite an eye-opener, starting with his accommodation. In common with the other competitors, he travelled on an all-in package which involved a very odd hotel.
“In fact, part of the hotel turned out to be a mental institution,” he says. “Very strange. You had guys a little bit crazy walking around in dressing gowns. And it became especially off-putting if you happened to find yourself on the wrong floor.
“During the night, there could be a lot of screaming and shouting. Mind you, it seemed oddly appropriate to be staying in a mental institution while playing a golf tournament, given the scrambled state of my mind heading there.
“As for the food, it was the worst I’ve ever encountered on tour. I remember on the first night having a sort of Kazakhstan goulash which was dispensed from a big pot. It tasted positively disgusting. Even worse was that when we opened the bread rolls, we discovered they were full of ants.”
After that initial experience, Browne and fellow Irish competitor, David Higgins, decided to get a taxi into town for their evening sustenance. Which was another shock to the system. “A taxi ride meant you were taking your life in your hands,” recalls Browne.
“We were forced to conclude that a lot of the cars there didn’t appear to have brakes, having watched them come to a halt by bumping, as gently as possible, into the car in front of them. I remember at one particular set of traffic lights observing at least four, pretty significant collisions which we would consider to be crashes in Ireland. And the guys didn’t even get out of the car. That was driving in Kazakhstan.”
As for the tournament itself, the Dubliner recaptured the stroke-play skills which made him such a formidable competitor as an amateur. In a blanket finish after England’s Lee James had missed a two-footer to go level on the 71st, Browne edged one stroke clear of five players, including his friend Colm Moriarty, in a share of second.
The 18th at Nurtau is a tight dog-leg par four with out of bounds left, where Browne had taken the prudent option in previous rounds of a three-iron off the tee, followed by a six-iron approach. As the 72nd hole, however, he was so pumped up that after hitting the best three-iron of his golfing life up to that point, he had no more than a nine-iron to the green.
As it happened, the approach ended about 25 feet right of the flag from where he just missed the birdie putt. Sharing second place with James was Tom Whitehouse (England), along with Moriarty, Sweden’s Steven Jeppersen and the Spaniard, Carl Suneson.
“Top prize was €40,000 from which you would normally have to pay withholding tax in a foreign country. As a real bonus for me, however, no such arrangement applied in Kazakhstan and I took the full amount home.”
Prior to the presentation ceremony, there was the curious sight of a band, all in traditional Kazakh attire, playing numbers by The Beatles. Then Alain de Soultrait, director of the Challenge Tour, said a few words before Browne was introduced as the winner.
“I, too, was going to say something but knowing my ability to hold a tune and because very few people spoke English, Alain suggested it might be better to sing a song,” said Browne. “And that’s what I did. And I sang Danny Boy because that’s what I sang when I won the European Individual in Denmark, four years previously.
“I’m pleased to say that it was incredibly well received. At first, the crowd didn’t really know what was going on, but gradually, it became clear they loved it. And though singing unaccompanied, I could see the same reaction from the band.”
When Browne was making his way on tour, Fred Daly remained Ireland’s only Major winner. Ironically, Harrington had just secured three Major titles when the world’s economies were heading inexorably towards recession in the autumn of 2008. That was when Browne decided he had had enough.
He turned his back on what was effectively his raison d’etre and applied for reinstatement as an amateur, which was granted three years later. Having lived his dream, it was time to move on, which now sees him working in the financial services industry for Voyant and Davy Stockbrokers, while he continues to play quality golf off a plus-one handicap at Hermitage.
And what of Kazakhstan? “In 2015, the tournament’s 10th anniversary, they invited me back as part of their special celebrations,” he says.
“But with Elaine [his wife] and I expecting our third child, I explained that I couldn’t go.” Knowing all the while that nothing would ever compare with the memorable events of September 2005.
Fourteen months later, Cohen’s Borat movie would hit number-one at box-offices in the US on its opening weekend. Which would suggest that whatever the merit of Browne’s achievement, Kazakhstan had by then made its mark internationally without recourse to the royal and ancient game.
‘A taxi ride meant you were taking your life in your hands’
Stephen Browne: ‘I sang Danny Boy . . . I’m pleased to say that it was incredibly well received’