It was early June 2006 and some high finishers from the Irish Senior Amateur Open were sitting at the bar of Limerick GC. Suddenly, third-placed Maurice Kelly was conscious of a voice behind him. Arthur Pierse, the former Walker Cup player who filled the runner-up position to American, John Baldwin, wanted to know: “Where the hell did you come from?” Kelly gave a half-smile. “I’ve been around all the time, Arthur, but fellows like you wouldn’t have noticed me,” he replied.
Pierse’s bafflement was entirely understandable, given the village nature of the Irish amateur scene. Players don’t usually appear from nowhere to win the Connacht Senior Open as Kelly had done in 2005, his first year among the over-55 brigade. Now he had proven it was no fluke by making a spirited challenge in a field of serious quality.
More than four years on, his championship tally, which includes the 2008 Spanish Senior Amateur Open, has grown to seven after his most successful season yet. Kelly captured the Irish Amateur Open at Castletroy in May; won the Leinster title for the first time; then retained the Irish Close at Blainroe before completing the season with victory last month in the Italian Senior Amateur Open in Sardinia. In the process, he captured the Mick Hennelly Award as the season’s most consistent player, for a fifth time in six years.
Apart from the basic satisfaction of achieving such prominence at an advanced stage of his golfing life, it is clear that Kelly also takes mischievous delight in beating well-known rivals. “I remember when Arthur (Pierse) came on the scene, people predicted he would win all before him,” he said. “Then they told me Adrian Morrow would do the same. Now they’re saying the same thing about Garth McGimpsey.” He paused before adding pointedly, “We’ll see. When Arthur and the boys were winning championships, I was busy working as a fitter, and now that I’m getting the chance, I’m determined to take it with both hands.”
Kelly is a long-time member of Bodenstown GC, where he was captain in 1986. The crucial change in his golfing fortunes came in November 1998 when he was invited to become involved with the embryonic Killeen club. His first task before running the place as secretary/manager was to design 12 holes by way of completing the original architectural work of Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock. The Kelly holes are one to 10, the 14th and the menacing, 176-yard par-3 18th, where water beckons on three sides of the green.
Meanwhile, working in a golf club gave him the opportunity of sharpening his game on the practice ground. And when reaching senior status in 2005, he decided to test his game at championship level. Success was almost immediate. Apart from the Connacht win, he was runner-up to Baldwin in the Irish Amateur Open, so securing a place in the Ireland team for the senior internationals. He was on his way.
“A lot of people were amazed at what I began to achieve, but they shouldn’t have been,” he said. “I’ve always been passionate about anything I’ve attempted, and in golf I’ve managed to be very consistent without doing anything spectacular. I drive the ball a moderate distance, about 260 yards, and would describe myself as a decent putter. The main strength is my iron play, which has become really solid since I acquired a set of Callaway prototype blade irons two years ago. They’ve really improved my distance control.”
But what about the process of winning, which most of his rivals would have been used to from their days in regular amateur events? “I have to admit that I felt the pressure over the final few holes of the Irish Close at Roscommon last year,” he replied. “I knew I was leading and, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it. But going on to win it seemed to change everything. Now, I really enjoy being in contention in the last round of tournaments. I seem to get stronger as they go on, like in Italy recently when I went 75,73,71.
“Watching my fitness also helps. I have lads I play with here at Killeen, including my son Warren, who is also a scratchman. Most of them are half my age and I’ll do my damnedest to match them if not beat them. They keep me young. Meanwhile, I create the time for tournaments by working my holidays around them. And after work, I’ll head for the practice ground here at Killeen for hours every evening, instead of actually playing the game. Then I build up to every championship, while resting in between. A remaining ambition is to shoot my age. My father, Jack Kelly, who played off three at Newlands, did it when he was 76. At 60, I reckon time is on my side.”
His next golfing assignment will be with the Midland Senior Alliance at Birr on Sunday, November 14. “After that,” he said, “I’ll just relax through the winter, wait for next year to come around and see what happens.” While renewing rivalry with players like Pierse and Morrow, who have now become his unlikely friends.