Golf: Coughlan carries US tour card with pride

NEW FACES FOR '98 RICHIE COUGHLAN

It is not unusual for a star of college golf to turn professional and immediately join the US tour. But, as Andy Farrell reports, for one young Irishman to gain playing rights for his rookie season in both America and Europe is unique.

Last month in Florida, the Swede Joakim Haeggman decided to follow the Jesper Parnevik route to success but did not earn a full card at US Qualifying School in Florida. Richie Coughlan did, finishing ninth at Grenelefe, although the 23-year-old Irishman had only held his European tour card for less than two weeks.

Coughlan is thought to be unique in passing every stage of both the US and European qualifying schools without having played as a professional in any other tournament. Whether that is strictly true or not, it is a tremendous feat that induces jet-lag just thinking about.

"It was just adrenaline that got me through," Coughlan said. "I was probably more fatigued than I thought, but what better motivation is there than trying to get a tour card?"

Though he secured the 33rd card on offer at the rain-ruined European school - he played four rounds in 11 days but spent the rest of the time sleeping - his main aim was to get his place on the US tour.

"Even though I had my European card, it didn't matter to me," he said. "The pluses are so much better over there. You see it on TV and it just looks great; the organisation and the courses, and the money is much better. I went over there with a definite goal."

Coughlan may hail from Birr, Co Offaly, but after five years at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he graduated with a degree in communications and psychology, America has become home. He plans to make his base near the college since his friends remain in the area, he is welcomed to all the local courses and it is only two hours from Atlanta airport.

"Nothing against over here, but you get used to it out there," Coughlan said. "If you play golf seriously, it is a great place to be. Most of the courses are manicured perfectly and it is target golf, which is the fairest golf. If it's 155 yards and an eight-iron, you are not going to get this poxy bounce or anything.

"You have the same speed greens, which is good for your confidence instead of playing on different greens every week and wondering what the ball is going to do. Being at college over there has taught me discipline. It made you realise how hard you have to practice, but you look back over your scores and see them getting better."

A record of one win and six top-10 finishes in 11 events was good enough for the Great Britain & Ireland selectors to pick Coughlan for the Walker Cup at Quaker Ridge. The result was a trouncing for the visitors but that did not reflect the way Coughlan played, nor affected his confidence as he set off on his transatlantic adventure.

He failed to get through the first European Pre-Qualifying at East Sussex National, but after that he was an accumulative 39 under par for 24 rounds. And this is meant to be the most pressurised golf gets. While the ability to shoot a low round always provided a cushion, that he never scored worse than a 73 is even more impressive.

He breezed through the first stage of the US tour school at Savannah, Georgia, then won the European PQ2 section at Emporada with a last-round 65. The second stage of the US school was at a course in Florence, South Carolina, he knew well and Coughlan opened with a 64. After surviving the European finals, the last phase of the American school meant a trip back to Florida.

Having got into position over the first four rounds, the last two of the 108-hole marathon revealed Coughlan's quick grasping of vital qualities of being a professional golfer. "I wasn't swinging as well as I wanted to, but I didn't hit any destructive shots. The fifth round was not a pretty thing, just a pure grind, and the last round was adrenaline.

"I was playing with two guys but [they] were four or five over, while I was one under. I felt so bad for those two guys to see it all waste away for them. I had 24 putts in the last round, which was a saviour. It is always nice when you putt well under pressure, but if all rounds of golf felt like the last round there, I wouldn't play."

Coughlan, a long but straight hitter in the modern trend, has the necessary attributes to succeed on the US tour. Getting into contention to win would not phase him, but he knows what his first objective must be. "To retain my card," he said. "There would be nothing worse than struggling and then having to go through the same thing again. It was hell on earth."

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