Posts Tagged ‘@soccer2golf’

On tee, Stephen Grant (@soccer2golf)

Irish golf is in rude health with four current Irish players with Major wins on their CVs and an Irishman top of the World Rankings. Hoping to join Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington playing in one of the major golf tours is former Shamrock Rovers player Stephen Grant. Grant begins playing on the European Challenge Tour this month, the tour that is just one level below the European PGA tour.

It was in 2005 that Grant made the switch from professional football to professional golf having played over 150 times for Shamrock Rovers as well as playing with Waterford United and Stockport County amongst others. In 2007, he shot a course record 64 at the West of Ireland Championship in Rosses Point leaving a certain up and coming golfing star Rory McIlroy behind him in the field!

In recent years he has been living in Florida playing in events on the US Gateway Tour. Grant shares a coach with multi-major winner Ernie Els as he works with Butch Harmon and his son Claude Harmon III. He now has his sights firmly set on a place on the European Tour and the Challenge Tour is the stepping-stone for that.

I spoke to the former Ireland under 21 international footballer when he recently returned to Ireland from Rabat in Morocco where he had to withdraw from an event on the European Development Tour due to illness. “I’ve got a tournament on the European Challenge Tour on the 10 May in France,” said Grant about the forthcoming Allianz Open Cotes d’Armour Bretagne. “I’m going to playing a number of tournaments on the Challenge Tour. If you finish top 25 on the order of merit on the Challenge Tour, you get your full European Tour card.”

The man from Birr will be hoping to get his automatic card rather than having to go to qualifying school again to attain the coveted full European Tour place. Last year, he missed out on qualification for the final section of ‘Q school’ by just two shots. “If I can’t card this way,” said Grant about the Challenge Tour option, “I can always go to Q school. The last two years I’ve been getting really close to where I need to be to get my card.”

In the modern golf game, it is key to have a high level of fitness and that isn’t a problem for the former professional footballer. “To be honest, my fitness levels this time last year were unbelievable. I got my body fat down to 8%. I was training like crazy. I almost found I was probably overtraining and I was neglecting practicing my short game. This year I’m still really fit. I still train real hard and while I’m not as fit as last year, I’m playing better golf this year as I’m spending more time practicing my short game.”

It is on the greens that Grant feels he needs to improve if he is to make the step up to the top level of the game here in Europe. “Putting is probably the thing I’ve found the hardest. On the greens for me it has gotten a lot better as I’ve gone for a belly putter over the last four or five months and that has helped a lot. My course management is getting better. That has been costing me shots but that is down to experience.”

Experience is something that is only now beginning to come to Grant as he only became a golf pro at the age of 27. “I probably only played five or six times in my life before my mid 20s. I never played Youth or Boys golf or anything like that.” So does he feel he can realistically make the step up and get a card on the European Tour? “The difference is experience and that bit of consistency. The top players’ game is at a certain level and it is at that certain level more often. That really is the key. The gap is not massive at all.

“The thing that amazes me is that there is such a fine line. There are guys out there making millions of dollars a year and they are good but they are not that good. McIlroy is a player who I’ve played with and you see how stupidly good he is! But I play with guys who are good but aren’t that special and they are making a million and a half as a player.”

Grant regularly tees it up in Florida with players like Ricky Fowler (US Ryder Cup Player), Keegan Bradley (winner of the US PGA Championship in 2011) and US PGA Tour players Kris Blanks and Steve Marino. “If I’m playing with someone like Kris Blanks and he is handing my a**e to me every time we tee it up by five shots then I know I’m not good enough. But I’m playing money games with these guys and that is not the case. I’m taking money off them and they are taking money off me. I have the will to keep going and I’m seeing my scores get better.”

So what are the major differences between playing professional football, like he did for 10 years, and professional golf? “It is different in a sense that the golf is totally down to what I do myself. Soccer is different. It is opinions, how you play and the team around you. I can’t make any excuses. There is nowhere to hide.”

Where Eagles Dare? On tour with Stephen Grant

In 2005, Stephen Grant’s career was at a real cross road. It wasn’t simply a choice of whether the striker would stay with Shamrock Rovers or go to another League of Ireland club. He also had the chance to change careers from being a professional footballer to being a professional golfer and it was the set of golf clubs rather than a new football club that he went for. It was a brave move for the Birr native but his daring decision over the last number of years has led him to a place on the European Challenge Tour starting next month.

Last weekend Hoops Scene caught up with Grant, who is based in Florida most of the year, on a rare visit to Ireland. Grant had just returned from playing in Morocco. On Sunday, he was flying out for a couple of weeks practice in Portugal before his next tournament in France in May. Despite all this jet setting, Grant still retains a strong affinity for Shamrock Rovers. He not only follows the games on SRTV and Twitter (where is twitter handle is the apt @soccer2golf) but he is also a Shamrock Rovers club member.

“Ever since I was a kid, even down in Offaly, Shamrock Rovers was a big deal,” said Grant. “I played for Rovers on two occasions and that was a big part of my soccer life. I saw the opportunity with the 400 club to help give something back to the club. I felt that the club paid my wages and gave me good times and so I wanted to give back so I became a member. I always wanted to play for them and I was always really proud to play for them. It was amazing what the fans did taking over the club but the Rovers fans are hard-core. They love the club. It is a special club and we all know that.”

Grant was part of a special Rovers team that were the first League of Ireland team to win home and away in Europe in over twenty years. “It was a big night for the fans, the players and a big night for the club,” said Grant of the night he scored one of Rovers’ goals in the 2-1 away win over Odra Wodzislaw in 2003. This was during Grant’s second spell at Rovers following his return from Stockport where he had finished eighth in the Championship. “I really enjoyed my last couple of seasons at Rovers. I was playing really well and enjoying it. I scored against Bohs in a few big games too!”

Looking back though, Grant feels that those years were a missed opportunity for the club. “It was a team that probably unachieved,” admitted the former Ireland under 21 international footballer. “That was a really good side. We had a lot of good players. I always look back on that and I can’t believe we didn’t win anything. We got to the cup final but it was amazing to think that Rovers team didn’t win anything.”

“The season I retired was the season before they got relegated. I could see the writing on the wall at the club. I couldn’t see us doing anything at Rovers the way the investment was. I was out of contract and I was offered a new one. My choice was to stay on for another season of soccer but the way things were going I had a good opportunity to make a go at the golf as I was starting to get good.”

“Damien Richardson was manager at Cork City and they were in Europe and one of the best teams. He offered me a two-year contract with Cork City. I didn’t want to play for anyone else in the League of Ireland. I thought I’m going to play for Rovers or nothing. The golf was a big opportunity and that is why I retired from soccer.”

These days Stephen Grant, who works with the coaching team of Butch Harmon and his son, regularly tees it up at his new home club in Florida with top US PGA players like Major winner Keegan Bradley or Ryder Cup player Ricky Fowler. So do the golf professionals know he used to be a professional soccer player? “They do. They buzz off it too. They think it is great. The club I’m a member in over in Florida has a lot of top players who are members like Ricky Flower and Steve Marino. You get to play with them and see how you are and it is real good for your game.”

Grant has yet to see a game in Tallaght but, as he is based in Europe this summer, he hopes to get to a match here or maybe even link up with Rovers for a Champions League away game in Europe. “That would be sweet! I haven’t been to a game yet in Tallaght. In the last two years, I’ve been in Ireland maybe 22 days. When I finally get time at home, I will go to a game in the new stadium. When I first signed for Shamrock Rovers, Pat Byrne’s selling point for me as manager then was that we would be in the stadium next season!” That was in 1997!

Up until recently Grant was, like other former Shamrock Rovers players Karl Sheppard and Shane Robinson, watching Rovers games online through SRTV and he is disappointed that the FAI have asked for games not to be streamed online. “I was able to watch games online in Florida but I’ve been told now they are not allowed anymore. What is the idea of them not watching us to watch it?” questioned Grant.

It is clear that Grant is up to speed on all things Rovers and how the season is progressing under Stephen Kenny, a manager who tried to sign Grant when Kenny was at Longford Town. Grant was all praise for the man that plays in his old position at Rovers. “Twigg is a ridiculous goalscorer! He is like Tony Cousins who was an unbelievable. When you have an instinct like this guy, he is worth his weight in gold.”

It is Grant’s golfing instincts that will be put to the test over the next few months as he begins playing on the Challenge Tour, the second tier of professional golf in Europe. Grant missed out on the final qualifying school tournament for a card on the main European Tour by two shots last year but is hoping that a good performance on the Challenge Tour will avoid the requirement of going to Q school later on in the year. “The top 25 on the order of merit at the end of the season gets their full European card. I’ve got a tournament on the challenge tour on the 10 May in France. That is my first real big tournament of the season. The season starts from here for me.”

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 6 2012 (Shamrock Rovers v Derry City, 27 April 2012)