In the curious way of golfing fate, Padraig Harrington and David Higgins found themselves thrown together through competitive action last weekend, just as they were as amateurs, 16 years ago. On this occasion, however, Higgins was collecting a modest €14,000 as winner of the PGA Irish Region Order of Merit at Mount Juliet, while Harrington earned more than 10 times that amount for capturing the Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia.
Things were very different in the autumn of 1994 when Higgins was playing his last events in amateur ranks. Not only did he beat Harrington in the final of the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch, he went on to beat him again in the final of the Irish Close at Portmarnock, two weeks later.
“If I had a Euro for every time somebody reminded me of those matches, I’d be a rich man,” said Higgins, with no hint of rancour. “I admire Padraig for how hard he’s worked and I think it’s fantastic what he’s achieved. But if you win what you’re playing in, things can’t be bad. So, I’m happy with last weekend.” This sort of attitude makes you wish those fates which threw Harrington and Higgins together, would smile a little more benignly on the Waterville man, who has been made to struggle, sometimes in the face of desperately bad luck.
His talent couldn’t be questioned, given the achievement of gaining a unique distinction among Irish professionals within a few weeks of joining the paid ranks. When competing in the South African Tour School on the 7,200-yard Crown Mines course in Johannesburg in October 1994, his final round began: eagle, birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, birdie. He was an astonishing 9-under par after seven holes, a record-scoring burst for an Irish player.
In the event, he bogeyed the next and eventually finished with a 63. “In the circumstances, I suppose it was a bad 63,” he recalled with a wry smile. From then on, however, the game became a struggle, punctuated by some serious setbacks, notable among which was a riding accident at the end of December 1998.
“It happened in an indoor arena in Limerick, when I had just regained my European Tour card,” he said. “I guess the horse got a bit spooked. Anyway, he ran at a wall and I hit the wall with my left palm and my right elbow out front, trying to protect myself. I suffered broken bones in my left wrist and right elbow. I’ll never forget it. I didn’t hit a ball in four months yet still tried to come back at the highest level. Looking back, I should have taken a year out on a medical exemption, but I believe everything happens for a reason.”
In his perennial struggle, Higgins has always found peace on the practice ground down from the familiar green walls of Waterville House, hitting shots towards the wild Atlantic only 500 yards away. “As kids, we idolised Seve (Ballesteros), imagining ourselves hitting the sort of shots he could hit,” he said. “Later, during bleak times, I found myself thinking of chats with Des Smyth and his amazing enthusiasm for the game. Day after day, I went back there on my own, hitting balls, gathering them and remembering the time when I was about 13 and Mr Mulcahy (John A Mulcahy, the then owner of Waterville GC) was teaching me the game.”
He went on: “As dark clouds lifted and the wind cleared my head, it was wonderfully liberating. I had forgotten how important my family, my home place and my friends were to me. You can’t express such thoughts on tour. You daren’t let your guard down. So, everything had been bottled up inside me and something had to give.”
By way of preparation for his big weekend at Mount Juliet, he went back taking lessons from his uncle, Ted Higgins, who once played host to Tom Watson as the resident professional at Ballybunion. In terms of a return to the European Tour, however, he finds himself in no-man’s-land, having already failed at Stage One of the Tour School.
When he last held a Tour card in 2007, a mystery liver virus destroyed his season. Yet, through this and a total of 10 visits to the Tour School, Higgins has remained remarkably optimistic. “The irony is that I now feel I’d be good enough to stay on Tour if I could just manage to get there one more time,” he said.
By winning at Mount Juliet, he qualified for next season’s BMW/PGA Championship and the 3Irish Open. He is also one of three Irish Region members to join 18 players from the other regions in the PGA Play-offs at Little Aston, Birminghim on November 3 and 4. The winner there gets into a further three European Tour events, including the Welsh and Scottish Opens.
“It’s not the answer but it’s still something to focus on while I wait on a breakthrough,” said Higgins. “At 37, I believe there’s still time to realise my dreams.” Then, ever philosophical, he added: “After enduring so many false dawns in my golfing career, who knows, the next one might be the real thing.”