Kilkenny talent Luke Donnelly on thinking and training like a pro on his grand tour adventure
MAKING it in the big, bad world of professional golf isn’t just a physical challenge, it’s a mental test too. Just ask 21-year old Kilkenny tyro Luke Donnelly, who was thinking like a professional long before he took the plunge into the paid ranks last February.
When you think like a pro, train like a pro and practice like a pro, there’s a far better chance of succeeding as a pro, and in Donnelly’s case, it’s so far so good.
If you don’t believe us, ask anyone who teed it up at The Players Club in Bristol in the First Stage of the European Tour Qualifying School last week.
Donnelly didn’t just scrape through among the top 21 and ties but roar into November’s Second Stage in spectacular fashion, recovering from the kind of horrific start that would have crushed most youngsters – six over after four holes – to finish third on four-under-par after 72 gruelling holes on a 7,325yard championship course.
They key to it all was the otherworldly, 10-under par, course record 62 he fired in the third round that turned out to be the best score of the week by four full shots and the best of a wind-lashed day by five.
It won’t surprise Gaelic games aficionados to know that he’s closely related to Kilkenny’s famous Fennelly hurling dynasty on his mother’s side – the seven Fennelly brothers are his uncles and Michael and Colin his first cousins.
With genes like that, he’s not a player who’s going to throw in the towel any time soon, and while he’s now 10 rounds away from winning a European Tour card, he’s still thinking long term and sticking to the five-year plan he’s drawn up with the respected Kilkenny coach Eoin Gibbons.
“I’ve been working with Eoin for just over two years, and we have a five-year plan, and we have a good, professional and friendly relationship,” said Luke, who worked in the bar at Mount Juliet to fund his early forays to play on the Gecko Pro Tour as an amateur.
“We have worked hard together and come through the dark days of swinging it poorly. We always focus on the positive.”
He clearly made a good impression at Mount Juliet, who immediately stepped in to give him sponsorship and with former Republic of Ireland footballer Stephen Hunt managing his affairs he has a bag and clothing deal with Druids and a car deal with LSH Auto in Birmingham, where he is now based.
Hunt set him up in a house there to ease his travel burden. And with businessman Denis O’Brien also providing him with sponsorship this year, it’s clear that this is a player whose drive to succeed has already impressed many.
His talent became evident four years ago when he teamed up with the likes of Mark Power to help Kilkenny win the All Ireland Fred Daly Trophy.
Power is now a full Ireland international, poised to take up a golf scholarship at Wake Forest University next year.
But while Donnelly never got the call-up for the Irish Boys team, he’s happy to take a different route having decided five years ago that he wanted to make golf his life.
“I played Gecko Tour events when I was younger and then played the Alps Tour Q-School at 19 and got a card but didn’t feel I was ready to turn pro and just stayed amateur,” he said.
“I did my Leaving and just wanted to play golf. So I worked in Mount Juliet for over a year, just to fund myself and that’s how I ended up meeting Denis O’Brien and got sponsorship for the year.
“Without his help, I don’t know what would have happened. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to give it 100 per cent without it.”
Donnelly was working at a wedding at Mount Juliet, which O’Brien was attending, and while he didn’t know the businessman, he went home that night with a promise of sponsorship.
“I was one of the senior staff working at a member’s wedding and when I was serving one of the tables, one of the members asked me my plans,” he recounted.
“There was a man at one of the member’s tables who wasn’t saying much. When I went to get more wine, the general manager of Mount Juliet asked me if Denis was alright and I said, ‘Who’s Denis?’ I had no idea he was on my table.
“So later in the evening I served him at the bar and gave him his change, and he asked me how I was doing for sponsorship. I said not great, but I was looking. And he said, ‘Well, I’d like to sponsor you.’ So he gave me his PA’s number, and we
took it from there.”
Donnelly’s single-minded determination to make it is admirable, and it’s clear that his decision to make professional golf his life’s goal from an early age is starting to pay dividends.
“I played in a Gecko Pro Tour event at 15, two days before my 16th birthday. And then I went out to Spain for a month when I was in fifth year and again for another two months after I left school.
“It was a few months into working with Eoin that I told him I really wanted to be a pro. And he said we had to have a professional mindset and think like a pro, work like a pro and even look like a pro.
“So from there, we started thinking about what we had to do. I started getting up at six in the morning, going to the gym at 6:30, going to a physio and just going about my day like a pro. So when the time came to turn professional, I wasn’t too worried because I had done it for the previous 18 months. So far, it’s all worked out.”
As for that magical 62 last week – he made eight birdies and a holed out from 160 yards for an eagle two – it’s still the talk of the Europro Tour circuit and a clear example of his determination to keep going no matter how tough the going.
“I was five over after two and six over through four,” he recalled. “But it was a very tough day, and before I made a good 15 footer for bogey on the sixth, my caddie reminded me that I still had 67 holes to go.
“It was such a grind, but I was able to shoot a five over 77, which I wasn’t too upset about because I was one under for the last 14 holes.
“After the round, I made one video of my swing and compared it to my swing at East Sussex, where I’d played really well, and realised I wasn’t turning properly and the clubface was just shut as I was turning into the ball.
“But I played very well in the second round, shot 71 to move up and then in the third round, I shot 62. Guys were asking me how I did it because it was playing so tough, but I didn’t really notice.
“I was playing with a guy I knew from the Europro Tour, and we were having fun. He’d hit a good shot, and I’d try to get inside him.
“I putted very well, just 26 putts and missed just one green. I started on 10, and I was five under through nine and really confident. Then I went birdie, birdie, eagle from the second.
“On the fourth, I hit a six iron off the tee and left myself 160 yards downwind to a slopey green. My playing partner hit it to three feet, so I tried to get inside him again, and it took one hop, bounced and spun back into the hole. After that, I won’t lie, the 59 came into my head with a short par four and two par fives to come.
“I made just one more birdie and shot 10 under. It was the best feeling I ever had when I holed that last five-footer for par.
“There was a little crowd of players around the green because they’d heard there was a course record on the cards. It was a special moment. My dad, Sean, was there and he was probably happier than anyone.”
Donnelly knows one swallow never made a summer, but in a world where hundreds are trying to make the grade, it’s provided a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
“If I get through the Second Stage of Q-School that will be great but I have a long-term plan in place.”
Given the way he bounced back from his early troubles at Q-School, more glory days surely lie ahead.
Onwards and upwards: Luke’s professional mindset has paid off with sponsorship deals (left) and making it through to the Second Stage of Q-School