Brian O’Donovan from Bandon is facing a busy couple of months after earning his tour card for PGA Tour China. DENIS HURLEY caught up with him to chat about the golf scene in China and life as a pro at Mission Hills, Shenzhen
BANDON golfer Brian O’Donovan is gearing up for the start of the PGA Tour China this month, having secured his tour card a fortnight ago.
O’Donovan, based at Mission Hills Shenzhen, finished in the top 15 at qualifying school, adding the next step to what has been an impressive journey since moving in 2013. After helping Bandon to win the Irish Senior Cup in 2010 – his father Donie was also on the team – O’Donovan qualified as a PGA pro working under Stephen Hayes at Douglas GC.
He hasn’t looked back since he took the decision to go to China – on or off the course, having become engaged to Li Ru Lin.
‘I started thinking about it in around 2012,’ he says.
‘Later that year, I started really looking it more and speaking to people in the PGA, they put me in touch with Matt Davies, he was out here, developing the PGA brand in China.
‘I flew over to the Belfry for a day-long seminar with him, there were maybe ten of us there, I was the only Irish guy.
‘We had a conference call with the guys in Mission Hills, I stayed in touch with Matt and he put me in contact with the guys here and it snowballed from there, really.
‘I had a couple of Skype interviews and spoke to lads and they offered me the job.’
While he acknowledges that it was a quite a cultural change, it’s one he has embraced.
‘It was alright,’ he says, ‘obviously it was going to be a big move but I think it was probably harder for my parents than for me.
‘The way I looked at it, if I went out and hated it, I could jump on a flight back home and I’ve only lost the price of a flight.
‘At the time, things weren’t great in Ireland, I was coming out as an assistant and there weren’t really any head jobs going.If there was one, more than likely I’d be going up the country somewhere. I thought that if I was going to be in Dublin or Galway or somewhere, I may as well be somewhere with good weather!
‘That was kind of the run of it, I didn’t fancy the whole thing of running a shop all the time either, I wanted to develop my teaching and develop my career a bit more.’
Golf is still a growing game in China, which means the approach of a teaching pro has to be tailored. ‘It’s getting there, it’s becoming more and more popular each year,’ O’Donovan says, ‘but it’s still very exclusive.
‘It’s still a very expensive game to play here, you need to have money to get access to any golf course.
‘I’ve yet to come across a public or municipal course, they’re all private members’ clubs. You can walk in and pay a green fee, but for a fourball that could be up to €350 per person.
‘The reality is that if you’re not a member anywhere, then you’re just not playing golf.
‘It’s certainly getting better. There has been a lot of talk in western media about hundreds of courses being shut down but I think 17 were closed – and they were ones that had been built in places they shouldn’t have been built, like nature reserves or where water supplies were needed.
‘Accessibility is the big thing. You see more driving ranges popping up and they’re a good starting point, a fella might come along with one club and progress from there.’
The lot of a pro can be something of a dichotomy, with time divided between playing tournaments and then trying to teach those who are far inferior. Does that get frustrating?
‘It does and it doesn’t, you kind of deal with it,’ O’Donovan says, ‘guys back home would probably say something similar.
‘The majority of players wouldn’t be quite as good as the average player back home, they don’t have history with it or the etiquette and things like that, it’s a new game here.
‘More so with the younger guys, it’s about teaching them the concept behind it, and once they understand that, they’re actually alright.
‘It’s the guys who have been playing ten or 12 years you’ll have difficult with because they’ll have read books and watched YouTube, they’ve ideas of what the golf swing should be like, they don’t understand that the objective is to get from point A to point B in as few shots as possible.
‘You can ingrain that into the younger guys, they’re not as worried about how their swing looks.
‘There’s no perfect way of doing it, it’s about whatever works for you. The frustrating part is with guys who are very well off, they might have built up from nothing and they’re not used to hearing that what they’re doing is flat-out wrong.
‘As I’ve become more well-known, I’ve got stricter with them, either they do it my way, go to someone else or stick with what they’re currently doing.’
To that end, the balance isn’t necessarily 50-50 between playing and teaching.
‘All along, it was about 95 percent teaching,’ he says.
‘I might go to the odd Monday qualifier for an event that’s close by. If I got in, I’d cancel all lessons until Friday evening, then I’d see how Thursday went, if it was bad I’d start booking people in for the weekend.
‘It’s messy, it’s unorganised, you’re kind of winging it, to be honest. It’s not a good situation to be in.’
He’ll have to look at tweaking the scheduled a bit more now that he’s on the tour, with the top five on the order of merit qualifying for the Web.com Tour, the second tier in the USA, below the PGA Tour.
Knowing that he had a job to come back to meant that O’Donovan wasn’t stressed as about qualifying school, and the good start helped to relax him even more.
‘I played in qualifying last year for CGA Tour as the PGA Tour didn’t run,’ he says.
‘I was doing alright, I was in the mix until the last day but I played badly last day, I shot 77 and I missed out by a couple on a conditional card. I played another event in January and I did horrendously but I came back and worked on a few things, I sharpened up on the short game a little bit.
‘I had a new contract with Titleist and I had a full new set of clubs in play, things like that just make a little bit of a difference, the confidence comes back.
‘I open with a 68 on Thursday, I wouldn’t say it give me a cushion but I knew could afford a 73 or 74 and wouldn’t put myself out.
‘Q-School is good, but it’s a strange week. It’s not like a normal tournament, you’ll say “Good shot” to fellas but you don’t really mean it, you know if he makes a birdie then you have to too.
‘It’s a strange atmosphere, I didn’t have that much expectation riding on it, which helped me quite a lot.
‘I knew if I did have a bad round, I’d have a day job to go back to, it was no loss to me.’
First up in the PGA Tour China is the Chengdu Championship, another experience to look forward to and learn from for this well-travelled Bandon man.