Browne struck a win­ning note in Kaza­khstan

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RACING / GOLF - DER­MOT GILLEECE

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’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.