THE Saturday night before the biggest round of his golf career John Murphy walked into The Jigger Inn, an iconic pub right next to the 17th hole of the old course at St Andrews, for a bite to eat.
It was quiet enough, but there were a few instantly recognisable faces dotted around. Former Masters champion Danny Willet was there. So too was Irish golfer Shane Lowry, as well as England’s Tyrell Hatton; this duo had been competing for Europe in the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin the previous weekend.
All three were nicely positioned inside the top ten heading into the final round of last October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship that carried a prize fund of €5 million.
Kinsale man Murphy was right in the mix, too. Playing off a a sponsor’s invite, the 23 year old was, incredibly, in a tie for second place, alongside his countryman Lowry on 11 under par – as were Hatton and Richard Bland – and three shots behind the leader, Willet.
‘I was in The Jigger Inn that night thinking this is cool, this is the stuff that you dream of, getting to be in this company and compete at this level, and it certainly makes me motivated to get back for more,’ Murphy says.
He was in The Jigger Inn with his coach Ian Stafford and manager Emma O’Driscoll. Murphy ordered the chicken risotto for the third night in a row. Kudos to the chef, but Murphy didn’t wait around for dessert. On the Saturday night of the Alfred Dunhill there’s a fireworks display that lights up the St Andrews night sky. It’s an annual event. A crowd favourite. But Murphy went back to his accommodation, to get some headspace and to relax before the biggest round of his career.
He had only turned pro a few months earlier, in June, and was a newbie on the Challenge Tour, an apprentice learning his trade – but here he was, on the first Saturday night in October, right in the hunt for a fairytale victory in only his third-ever European Tour event.
The eve of the final round, after he learned he was in the final group with Danny Willet, was surreal. Nerves. Excitement. Anticipation. Murphy had shot 69, 69 and 67, and was playing near flawless golf – but the pressure was cranking up. He knew a top-three finish would earn him a European Tour card ahead of schedule. But even with so many variables – including prize money, potential Tour card and potential career-changing win – swirling around, Murphy remained calm in the storm.
‘Once I was out there it was as comfortable as I have ever been on a golf course. It was as much as I ever enjoyed a round of golf and that gives me a lot of confidence going forward,’ he explains.
‘I always would have looked at those high-intensity situations and wonder how do golfers handle themselves under that pressure when you have that many ranking points and money on the line. How is it possible to conduct yourself with all that going on? But the one thing I learned is that when you are out there, it’s as comfortable as I have ever been, and I’m glad that was I able to feel that way.’
Murphy’s final round started well. At one stage he had second place all to himself. Still, he stayed grounded. In a game of inches, there’s a fine line between success and failure. A double bogey on the par-four ninth dashed his dreams of glory and even threatened his top-ten finish. The Kinsale man is a fighter. Competitive whether he is playing for €10 or €100,000. His response to the setback on the ninth is another positive he took from the weekend.
‘It’s easy to feel comfortable when you are going well but what I was happiest with was how I felt when I started to struggle and how I was able to get back. I think I did a good job of not getting ahead of myself, not thinking that it would be cool if I finished here, here or there. I never thought that, what would come if I finish wherever, and that’s what I was happiest with with,’ he explains.
‘Coming down the 17th and 18th, I hadn’t seen a scoreboard all day and I didn’t know where I stood. The first place I saw a scoreboard was on the 17th. My ball was in a horrible position, over the back of the green and I looked at the scoreboard and saw that was I was tied 12th – and I knew that I needed to finish par, birdie to get me into the top ten that got me into the Spanish Open the week after. On the European Tour, if you come top ten, you are into the next week. I was standing on the road, hit a great chip to about eight feet and made the putt. Then I made a nice birdie on the last.’
Murphy’s final-round 71 saw him finish tied for ninth place and earned him a cheque for €81,543 as well as an entry into the following week’s Spanish Open. There, at Club de Campo Villa de Madrid, the West Cork man held his own as well. Three three-under 68s pushed him to a tie for 24th on -11. To not get momentum going and still finish where he did is another positive indicator. Not long after, and in mid October, he secured his full European Challenge Tour card for 2022. Given he only turned pro in the summer, that’s an achievement.
‘You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run,’ Murphy says.
‘I know it happened to Rory McIlroy when he finished second or third in the Dunhill and got his Tour Card but it is very rare that you turn professional and you have your European Tour card within a few months.
‘Certainly, to have a status on the Challenge Tour next year is huge, given that no-one can earn it through Q School as that was cancelled (in 2021). To have a status and full schedule to play next year is great. Then the top 20 in the Challenge Tour will progress to the European Tour so that is something I am very happy with. It wasn’t easy as I only turned pro in the middle of the year and I was living off limited invites, but I managed to get myself a full tour card and schedule to play.’
Murphy has a wise head on young shoulders. He is ranked inside the top 500 golfers in the world, but he has his sights set a lot higher than that.
‘I will try to sharpen my game up in every way I can. I think when you get to a certain level you have your swing built and you have your way of playing, you just need to learn how to improve it and just shave off that one per cent every year. It is all about those fine margins from here on in so I need to find the way to be a little bit better every day.’
And ahead of 2022 and its possibilities he can take confidence from how he has handled himself so far, especially at the Alfred Dunhill. Another step in the right direction.