At first, there was absolutely no danger that Keith Nolan would disappear. One of the most promising young amateur golfers of the 1990s, he returned during holidays from East Tennessee to twice win the Irish Amateur Open championship, and then he was selected for the Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team which plays the USA in a prestigious biennial match.
Within a couple of months of his Walker Cup appearance, Nolan had come through the grueling PGA Tour qualifying school to earn himself a precious tour card. Life was good, life was pretty easy, and going into 1998, he was ready to make his fame and fortune on the golf world’s most lucrative schedule.
But he promptly lost his card banking a mere $17,000 that year, and when he battled to win back his playing privileges for 2000, he lost it again failing to break into the top-200 on the money list.
That marked the start of the lean times. Nolan found his way into a few events, and had one unsuccessful season on the Nationwide Tour, but he was a tournament golfer without portfolio. Homeless, stateless, and Ireland forgot about him.
“I probably got spoiled early,” he said. “It’s not to say I regret getting a full tour card, but maybe I needed to serve an apprenticeship, to play on the Nationwide Tour for a couple of years. I never thought when I turned pro it would’ve been this tough for me.”
He took a part-time job with Starbucks near his home in Knoxville, Tenn., and for a while he considered branching out into the golf industry. But that would’ve been an acceptance of defeat, that the competitive fire had been extinguished.
However, last year he decided not to take another tilt at the Qualifying School. It wasn’t because he was playing badly, or because he couldn’t face the agony of one of the most highly-pressurized examinations in golf, it was a cash-flow problem. At the time, the $4,250 entrance fee was an extravagance.
In the season just finished, he played in about 20 Monday qualifying events on the Nationwide Tour. With up to 100 players going for just a handful of places in the tournament, Monday qualifying is an unedifying scramble.
On four occasions in a row during the summer when the road took him through Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, he missed coming through qualifying by one stroke. He and his wife Yolanda would pack their three young kids into the car, and move on to the next tournament.
“I’ve had low points in my time,” said 33-year-old Nolan who hails from Bray, Co. Wicklow, “but last summer was very tough. Not only on me, but on the family as well. I’ve had one or two moments over the years when I’ve asked myself what I was doing, and that was one of them.”
This time though, he entered for the Qualifying School, and came through the first stage, the second stage, and then travelled to La Quinta in California for the final stage. Having experienced the brutal intensity of what he calls a six-round job interview before, he had a strategy he hoped would help him defy the odds.
“I tried to lock myself away from the pressure. I didn’t look at leaderboards, I didn’t read newspapers, I didn’t look at the internet, and I was turning down requests for interviews,” he recalled. “I honestly didn’t have a clue where I was starting out in the final round. That’s the way I had to do it.”
If he tantalizingly missed out on a PGA Tour card by just three shots, he secured his place on next year’s Nationwide Tour which will offer a total prize fund of $18 million. “I don’t regret the opportunities I had in the past on the main tour,” he said, “but just two months after the Walker Cup, I had a card in my hand. You’d have to wonder if that was the right thing to happen. Now I have a perfect opportunity to get back on track.”
Keith Nolan has travelled a hard road, but his dream of winning a professional tournament is undimmed. In 2007, he has a chance to turn that dream into a reality.
GAA suspends rules
The International Rules series has generated publicity, attracted big crowds as well as goodly TV audiences, but there is one element of the annual clashes between some of Ireland’s best amateur Gaelic footballers and professional Aussie Rules’ players which has been both the selling point and the problem at the heart of the matches.
Like it or not, violence has underpinned almost every aspect of the series. There is invariably a curiosity aspect regarding how certain players from each country will perform in what is a hybrid game, however, thousands of spectators who have bought tickets or who have watched at home have done so in the expectation of witnessing some class of a brawl.
Problem is that for the promoters of the contests, the episodes of fighting haven’t been a relatively harmless ritual of players throwing more shapes than punches, they have descended into serious violence.
The unedifying scenes during the second tests both this autumn and in 2005 are still fresh in the memory. The disgraceful antics of Australia’s Chris Johnson a year ago, and the sight of a poleaxed Graham Geraghty being stretchered off at Croke Park more recently, have now forced the GAA to act.
Following a meeting of the association’s Central Council last weekend, it was decided to suspend the matches which were scheduled for Australia in 2007. Ireland’s current manager, Sean Boylan, as well as a significant number of the players who were involved in the most recent series, were in favor of keeping the show on the road, but once GAA president, Nickey Brennan, recommended that next year’s games be postponed, that was effectively that.
Brennan told the meeting that the Australians had agreed that the survival of the series would depend on the outcome of a root and branch review by the GAA which is likely to come up with several rule changes. There was a need to “ensure that any future series is conducted to the accepted norms of sportsmanship,” Brennan added.
Yet, as vastly experienced correspondents such as Martin Breheny of the Irish Independent have regularly pointed out, it is well and good for the GAA to bemoan the attitude of the Australians to International Rules at a time when indiscipline and violence are far too prevalent at many levels of the association’s own games.
“It’s easy to lecture the Australians about their approach to fair play, but isn’t that somewhat hypocritical given what we’ve seen on GAA fields this year?” wrote Breheny last week.
The GAA is probably correct to take the heat out of the International Rules series for a year, and to attempt to come up with a new formula which be competitive but devoid of blatant thuggery.
However, as Irish games are riven by violence, and as referees face intimidation on a weekly basis, there is a serious, and more important, problem closer to home which needs to be addressed.
O’Gara hits peak, as time catches up with Humphreys
Last weekend’s action in rugby’s European Cup was a tale of Ireland’s two best out-halves. For Munster playmaker, Ronan O’Gara, it was a further validation of his new-found status as one of the world’s best number 10s, but for David Humphreys, it could be that time has finally caught up with the 35-year-old.
As Munster recorded a third victory in a row in the competition with a 22-12 result in Cardiff, Wales, it was once again O’Gara who directed the holders’ operations with six kicks from six attempts and a total of 17 points.
Where once he was Humphreys’ understudy in the Ireland set-up, and where once he appeared to suffer from a lack of confidence, O’Gara has emerged to fulfil his immense promise. A key player in Munster’s European triumph last season, highly influential in the autumn internationals, and now the leading out-half in Europe.
In recent months, it had been suggested that Ireland’s coach would have to coax Humphreys out of international retirement for next year’s World Cup so critical was the shortage of out-halves. However, Paddy Wallace made his mark in the November game against the Pacific Islands, and on the evidence of Ulster’s defeat at London Irish last weekend, Humphreys would be surplus to requirements.
Uncharacteristically, he missed a couple of vital kicks, and also was responsible for one of London Irish’s tries as Ulster were yet again found wanting away from home. Humphreys is too good, and too experienced a player to let a poor performance like that color what is probably his final season at the top level.
But for once he looked his years, while O’Gara is now close to his peak.