IT wasn’t a win but it was the closest he’s come to clinching an Irish major in amateur golf. What was even more amazing about Niall Gorey’s run to the final of this year’s West of Ireland championship was the fact that he’s become a father and moved house within the last two months.
At 32, the Kildare native was competing against golfers who weren’t even born when he first teed it up at Rosses Point in Co Sligo. His first taste of an Easter weekend at the West was in 1994 when, as a young boy from Rathangan, he flew the flag for Bodenstown GC. He was just 14 at the time and when he recounted the tale during this year’s championship, his playing partner looked at him in disbelief.
“No way,” said Gareth Lappin, a 17-year-old from Belvoir Park in Belfast, who has less years in his life than Gorey has in his amateur career. When Gorey went four-down after 11 holes in the first round of the matchplay stages – 64 players qualified after two strokeplay rounds – Lappin must have started at him in disbelief again when the pair ended up meeting in the last 16.
“I was pretty much dead and buried,” said Gorey of that first round match against Barry Daly from Edmonstown. “I won a couple of holes, 12 and 13, and I felt he was going to give me a couple of holes on the way back in because they were playing straight back into the wind. It actually worked out like that. He gifted me a couple of holes and I won on the 20th. It gave me a great confidence boost. I played great golf from there on.”
Gorey beat Lappin 2 and 1 to set up a quarter-final against his former Irish international foursomes partner, Gary McDermott. A titanic tussle went all the way to the 19th where Gorey finally clinched a semi-final spot. Once more the Kildare man had to do things the hard way to get past recently crowned Spanish Amateur Open champion Reeve Whitson.
“I was four down with five to play in the semi-final but I still felt calm. I won 14 and 15 with birdies and I knew he was going to give me a hole then. He gave me the 16th in a way, very poor tee-shot. I actually felt like the match was over. I said it to caddy: this guy is gone, I have him. I won at the 19th. I felt like I put the pressure on him when I needed to and it worked. It’s much easier to be hunter than the hunted. I chased my way home and won the match. I know it’s never over. It’s very difficult to close out a match at a high level.”
After four days of golf in Artic conditions, the sun came out for the final on Tuesday (2 April) but the benign weather wasn’t kind to Gorey. Headfort’s Rory McNamara took control at the ninth with a winning par to go one-up but it was the start of a disastrous run for Gorey, who lost the next three holes. Once more he was staring into the abyss, four down with to play, but this time he couldn’t conjure an escape act as McNamara sealed an emphatic win on the 14th.
“I didn’t get to put the pressure on in the final at crucial stages,” said Gorey. “I might have needed the conditions to be pretty poor to make me feel a little more comfortable in the situation because I hadn’t put in the hours in playing and practicing.”
It was remarkable that Gorey even made it through to the matchplay stages having spent the winter recovering from a back injury. His first serious shots of 2013 weren’t struck until St Patrick’s weekend, having worked with golf-fitness specialist, Robert Cannon.
“I did a lot of gym work and my back pain disappeared in weeks,” said Gorey. “Even though I hadn’t played any golf, I physically felt great. I played two rounds a day for three days in a row in tough matchplay (at the West) and I didn’t feel tired at any stage.”
Gorey first played golf at Bodenstown in Kildare and later represented Killeen in the All-Ireland Senior Cup. In 2006, aged 25, he relocated to Ballincollig in Cork, where he took over a driving range and joined nearby Muskerry golf club.
He holds the distinction of winning the senior inter-pro title with both Leinster and Munster, having transferred his provincial status when he moved from Kildare to Cork. A three-time winner of the Munster strokeplay championship, Gorey is still chasing that elusive Irish major having twice made the semis at the South of Ireland and once at the West before this year.
“If it was a case that I wasn’t competitive anymore, I wouldn’t have gone (to the West),” he said. “I’ve achieved everything in amateur golf apart from one of the amateur majors. The fire is still burning until I win one of the big ones.”
It’s been a hectic couple of months for Gorey and his wife, Valerie. Daughter Emma was born eight weeks ago just as her parents were moving back to Rathangan. Luckily for new-dad Niall, it’s been an easy transition.
“The baby is so good. She’s sleeping all night. She’s a laid-back little lady. She’s not keeping either of us awake.”
With his wife’s blessing, Niall headed off to the West but once the tournament ended it was back to reality and back to work with Nevada Bob’s golf store company on Wednesday morning at 9.30am. His pursuit of a major title will resume at the Irish Amateur Open in May.
“I always hope to contend, that’s the main aim.”
In the meantime, he’ll have plenty to occupy him.