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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Rugby Golfers
Dermot Gilleece on great Irish golfers who just so happen to play Rugby too!
Posted Mar 23, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece
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Two are natural leaders, on either side of the rugby scrum, while the third is a former Ireland captain who seemed to ease naturally into a pundit's role with the BBC. And the shared exhilaration of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Keith Wood at Ireland's historic grand slam triumph at the weekend, often finds expression in a more gentle pursuit.
The fact is that these gifted sportsmen are very useful golfers away from activities with the oval ball. Indeed O'Connell also excelled as a swimmer and represented Munster at boys' level before turning his attention to the royal and ancient game. And though rugby now dominates his life, he has drawn inspiration from the achievements of leading golfers.
"I remember watching Padraig Harrington losing to David Higgins in the final of the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch in 1994," O'Connell recalled. "Look at him now. A guy that can talk about his mistakes when he does something wrong, is a guy who knows what he's doing. If you're weak, you always feel you have to defend yourself. But when you're supremely confident, you can put your hand up and admit, 'Yes, I made a mess of that, but I'm determined not to let it happen again'."
Though early, faltering steps in golf were taken without proper tuition, O'Connell had clearly a natural aptitude for the game. "For some reason, I used to play with my feet together," he said. "I think that helped me a lot. In fact when I got lessons later on, that was one of the things they taught me. My natural inclination would be to move a lot, so it quietened you down a bit, while promoting hand action.
"In my mid-teens, golf was the only thing I thought about. All my money went on clubs and things. If you asked me when I was 15, I knew every brand of club there was. I worked in the pro shop at Limerick GC and had a different putter every other week. Always tinkering with clubs. Reading all the magazines."
He went on: "I got down to five handicap when I was 16 and played in the boys' provincial championships. The best weekends ever. Then, when I was studying for the Leaving Cert I kind of hit a wall with golf. I remember getting a dose of the shanks and that nearly broke me. And I was playing a bit of rugby at the time and made the Irish Schools team when I was 18. So I suppose that didn't help, either. I remember doing a lot of weights that summer and golf took a back seat. That would have been after rugby had gone professional. Between one thing and another, during the four years from the time I was 18 until I was 22, I probably played no more than 10 rounds of golf."
As a native of Clontarf on the north suburbs of Dublin City, it comes as no surprise that O'Driscoll is a member of Royal Dublin, though he is also attached to the Seafield Club in Co Wexford. Recalling the player's early years at golf, Alan O'Sullivan, an assistant professional at Royal Dublin, said: "Brian never competed as much as the rest of us, but you could tell he could play the game. I was a few years younger than him and I remember being amazed by how broad and strong he was."
So, how good could O'Driscoll become at golf, if he really applied himself to the game? Struggling club handicappers would be sickened by how easily he adapted to the game. The demands of rugby, however, have dictated that his lowest handicap has been seven, which he played to as a 17-year-old. With the sort of candour one tends to find in gifted sportspeople, he said of his golfing potential: "I believe I have the ability and the confidence to play off scratch, if I did pretty much nothing else. I certainly feel that if I went out and played every day for about six months, I would be very close to playing scratch golf."
According to himself, his great strength is off the tee, where he is capable of hitting average drives of 270 to 280 yards, and up to 310 "when I really catch one." "My driving is always good," he added. "Even after a six-month lay-off from golf, I could go out and hit 12 out of 14 fairways. First cut of rough, at worst. If I get into a rhythm, it's probably the one thing I can rely on. If it ever deserted me, I'd be in serious trouble."
Away from the pressures of his public relations business in London, Wood, who was World (rugby) Player of the Year for 2001, has played golf with O'Connell and former Ireland stalwart, Anthony Foley, at Sunningdale, where he is a member. "I've played an awful lot of golf with Anthony, who's very consistent off 12 or 13 and can play to better than that," said the former Ireland and Lions hooker, who plays off seven. "From my limited knowledge he's fairly sound, technically. Paul, of course, is a lovely golfer. Always has been, with all the elements of play which I don't have. I would describe him as a proper golfer. A proper seven-handicapper."
Wood went on: "I believe anybody can get down to as low a handicap as they want to, provided they're prepared to put in the work. As a physically big, ex-sportsman, I have decent length off the tee and there are certain courses, suited to my game, where I can shoot low scores."
And rugby? Borrowing a familiar phrase from Popeye, he said: "I am what I am. I played rugby at a high level for a long time and I enjoyed it. Physically, however, it was incredibly hard and I no longer have the buzz for that physical challenge. I love watching rugby and the longer I'm away from the game, the more I love watching it."
In between matches, there's nothing he enjoys more than the crack of golf club on ball and the priceless calm and ease of fairway, green and sky. A joy shared by O'Driscoll and O'Connell.