European success story another step on right road for golfers with disability
LEADING an Irish team to European Championship glory last weekend was a proud moment for Gareth McNeilly – but the recognition golfers with disability are now receiving off the course in Ireland is as much a cause for celebration.
The Masserene man captained an Ireland team that included Dundalk's world number one Brendan Lawlor, Ballinasloe's Aidan Grenham, Sligo's Alan Gaynor and Carton House's Conor Stone as they went all the way in Belgium.
The three-day event took place at Koksjide Golf Ter Hille, with Ireland pitted against seasoned competitors from 13 other European countries.
After edging into a one shot lead on the first day, some clever greensome pairings selected by McNeilly and Neil Manchip, Shane Lowry's coach, resulted in an unassailable 16 shot lead heading into the final day.
“It was really a consolidation job at that stage but, fair play to them, there were world ranking points at stake so they kept their foot on the pedal,” said McNeilly.
“I was very relaxed about it. I knew we were going with a strong team, on the second day we paired a big hitter with a guy with a good short game and it worked beautifully. Brendan and Aidan shot 64, which is just unbelievable, and the other two lads shot 68 – those were the two best scores.
“After that, there was never a sweat. It was the easiest captaincy you could have had, but an amazing experience from start to finish.”
Most significantly, though, this was the first year Ireland has ever sent a team to the championship – and that came about as a result of lobbying by McNeilly and others to Golf Ireland at the beginning of the year.
Back in 2020, McNeilly – who had been in contention for a place on the team – spoke of his frustration at the relative lack of support Irish golfers with disability received in comparison to other nations.
Now, two years down the line, things have changed for the better.
At the start of this year Golf Ireland produced a 2022-2026 strategic plan which included a high performance strategy for golfers with disability, creating a pathway to represent Ireland on the international stage.
As a result, by the end of February, nine Irish players held a world ranking, leading to trials taking place at Carton House as part of the selection process for the European Championships.
“Golf Ireland have committed to disability golf as a key pillar of what they want to do going forward. It's exciting times,” said McNeilly, who is back in action at the English Disabled Open in Chester next week.
“Before the Europeans, going to Carton House to pick up the kit, Irish gear that you've earned the right to wear… it's just an amazing feeling, and last weekend was a real honour.”
The profile of the disability game has grown in that time, aided significantly by a boom in the profile of Brendan Lawlor.
The 25-year-old is coming off a whirlwind 2021, where winning three events in-a-row took him to the top of the world rankings, while Lawlor – who is backed by Niall Horan's Modest! management company - is also the only golfer with a disability to compete on the European Tour.
“Brendan is a brilliant ambassador for the sport. The other three lads who were on the team at the weekend are all in their 20s and they all came to disability golf because of him.
“They'd all being playing good club golf, but they've seen his following on social media, the stories about him and his journey, and wanted to see what it was all about. That has really helped spread the word.”
Next month – on July 5-6 - the first Irish Open for golfers with disability will take place at Roganstown Hotel & Country Club in Dublin.