JAMES Sugrue closed out 2019 with another win, this time it was off the course when he won the Amateur Golfer of Year award from the Irish Golf Writers Association.
With the playing season over it was a great opportunity to reflect on the golfing year, which brought several successes for golfers and the sport in general.
In June Sugrue became just the seventh Irishman to win the Amateur Championship, following in footsteps of Jimmy Bruen, the first Irish winner in 1946.
Sugrue had a busy year, and in spite of suffering from two injuries during the season, he recorded several notable finishes in addition to his win in the Amateur in June.
The season started in South Africa in February when he was part of the Irish team to compete in South Africa. Sugrue finished in the top 10 in the South African Strokeplay Championship in March and also reached the last 32 in the South African Matchplay Championship.
After that, he finished in 11th place in a shortened West of Ireland, but he had a setback in April when a rib injury forced him to withdraw from the Euro nations cup in Spain. Sugrue had just been named on the Walker Cup panel and while he needed to impress the selectors, the injury forced him to take three weeks off at a crucial stage of the season.
He returned to action with a top 15 finish in the Lytham in May and had a top 20 finish in the Brabazon. His world changed in June with the win at the Amateur Championship, and that was followed by an appearance in the Open at Portrush where he narrowly missed the cut.
Sugrue was interviewed by Greg Allen at the awards and he told everyone about a tip he got at the start of the week in Portmarnock.
“Playing Portmarnock the first day was really tough, I think I shot five over. I wasn’t striking it great but I was putting really well,” said Sugrue.
Along with the other Irish team members, Sugrue was under the eye of national coach Neil Manchip who has worked with James for over a decade.
“We went to range with Neil and he just told me something really simple. He said I was standing too far away from the ball and he just said get on top of it a little bit more. I went out and struck the ball way better and that definitely helped. I went out in the Island in the second round and shot three under.
"I finished pretty well, the last in the Island is a tricky enough hole, a long hole. I got a nice drive away and hit one in close for a birdie putt.”
That finish to qualifying in the Island would signal a change in Sugrue’s approach. Although he struggled to get ahead in several of his knockout matches, he was impossible to beat.
He dug deep in the second round and in the quarter-final where he was a few down on the back nine. That resilience was needed again in the final. Five up at one stage, Sugrue found himself pegged back to all square going down the 16th in the second round.
He held on however and won the 36th hole to become the second-ever Corkman to win the Amateur Championship.
The Professional Golfer of the Year award went to Shane Lowry who was also present for the awards. Despite Ireland having several Open winners in the past 12 years, as well as many Amateur Championship winners in the past 30 years, this was the first time that both prestigious R&A championships were won by Irishmen.
More championships in Ireland and England would follow, and his Portmarnock win sealed his selection for The Walker Cup and Home Internationals.
A back injury limited his game in Royal Liverpool and he missed out on the Homes in Lahinch a week later. A few weeks off and some S&C gym sessions got him back on track and Sugrue is now focused on 2020.
“I’ve been practising and I’ve been in the gym. I hurt my back at the end of the season in the Walker Cup but that’s all sorted now and I’m looking forward to the year ahead. I don’t think there’s too much that has changed about my game.
"I haven’t tried to change anything or reinvent the wheel, I suppose it just preparing for things on a bigger scale. 2019 was a really great experience, and obviously what’s to come in the future is really exciting.”
While the Mallow man has already signalled that he’s likely to turn professional in the second half of the year, he’ll have at least six months as an amateur to ensure he can avail of his invitations to two more majors.
Sugrue is already looking forward to 2020 with trips to Augusta for the Masters and New York for the US Open already in the diary. There are several more commitments in the first six months.
At the end of January Sugrue is likely to lead the Irish team to South Africa. This will be the second year that the Mallow man has travelled on the three week trip, and last year it provided an ideal training programme in addition to two top-class events.
That trip takes in two events, in addition to plenty of time for practice which provides the ideal start to the season.