‘It’s amazing a game can cause so much pain’

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and if that’s the case, Gary Hurley is well in the way to making himself utterly bulletproof.

he West Waterford talent emerged from an excellent amateur career in 2015 as a Walker Cup player — a star in waiting.

That he didn’t win his first event until last weekend, when he played his last four holes in four-under and closed with a five-under 67 to claim a four-stroke victory in the Alps de Andalucía on the third tier Alps Tour, says it all about his struggle.

All five Irishmen on that winning 2015 Walker Cup team – Jack Hume, Gavin Moynihan, Cormac Sharvin and Paul Dunne – have had their struggles.

Hume no longer plays golf, Moynihan and former British Masters winner Dunne are toiling on the Challenge Tour, while Sharvin is currently going through a slump on the DP World Tour.

They could write a book about it all and Hurley already has in the sense that the notes he writes about his feelings as he battles the mental demands of the professional game, run to thousands of words.

It was a huge struggle for him mentally until he slowly turned it all around with the help of Golf Ireland’s National Coach Neil Manchip and performance coach Ed Coughlan, a Senior Lecturer at Munster Technological University.

Coughlan works “developing and delivering sport specific skill acquisition programmes to elite athletes by incorporating decision-making, spatial awareness, visual acuity and anticipation skills that transfer to the performance arena.”

Hurley has had advice from fellow West Waterford man Séamus Power but there is far more to Hurley’s journey than some practice tips. In Hurley’s case, he’s had to re-programme his brain.

“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “My first three years were not what I was hoping for. I changed coach in 2017 and went down the wrong road for three years.

“I built up a lot of scar tissue and in 2019, every part of my game had left me. It was a really upsetting time I came back home and said I can’t do this anymore.

“I almost gave up. I didn’t touch a club for weeks. I needed to talk to someone about what was going on because I hated golf at the time.

“I didn’t want to see scores or anything. I had a lot of friends still playing golf and it hurt me watching them doing well, not because they were doing well but because of where I was at.

“It’s funny when I look back on it now. It’s hard to describe. People play golf to get away from the stresses of life. So it is amazing a game can also cause so much stress and pain in someone’s life and it was that for me for quite a long time.”

With the help of Manchip and Coughlan, he’s come back from the brink.

“I was so broken at the time,” he said. “I was a shell and I find it hard to even relate to it now. I was really in a bad place. I spoke with Ed for 90 minutes, not really sure if I wanted to play golf anymore. I was genuinely considering doing other things.

“Then we would work on the golf course and Ed would ask me simple questions, questioning my thoughts and it was so close to the surface, I could just break down on the course at Fota Island and we’d have to let groups through.  It was a tough time but we started to come out of it and I started to play some nice golf and started to test myself when you put a consequence on something. But that’s when the pain would come back.”

Covid allowed Hurley more time to learn new behaviours and after a few false starts, he finally saw light at the end of the tunnel last year and brought to fruition last week.

“My focus shifted away from scores,” he explained.

Of course, it’s far more complex than that. But in a game played on a six-inch course – the space between the ears – Hurley is finally learning to become a master.

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