Top cat

Kilkenny tal­ent Luke Don­nelly on think­ing and train­ing like a pro on his grand tour ad­ven­ture

Irish Independent - - Tee To Green - BRIAN KEOGH

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

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