An enduring image of Hawaii is captured in the slogans on Honolulu tour buses that proclaim “Paradise Discovered.” Séamus Power experienced the feeling when he broke through into the world’s top 50 at Waialae Country Club last weekend.
Coincidentally, the opening weeks of this new tournament year have taken him to some of the most stunning terrain in the world. There were the dramatic elevation changes at the Plantation Course in Kapalua, followed by the charming area of Waialae, down the road from Waikiki Beach. Then this weekend came the natural beauty of Palm Springs and La Quinta CC, home of The American Express.
A return there inspired him to continue, sparkling play in the opening rounds of 65, 69 and 66 to throw him straight into the fray. “I’ve always had a good time here,” he said. “I like the greens, which I seem to read quite well. That’s such a big thing. Palm Springs is just so beautiful this time of year that you feel like you’re going to make some good swings.”
Mind you, he has not yet experienced Augusta National, although that omission will be corrected in April, if he manages to keep his place in the top 50 by the end of March. He is the 10th Irish player to achieve this status. They are: Rory McIlroy (1st), Pádraig Harrington (3rd), Graeme McDowell (4th), Darren Clarke (8th), Shane Lowry (16th), Ronan Rafferty (16th), Paul McGinley (18th), David Feherty (33rd) , Des Smyth (47th) and Power (49th).
McDowell, who has carded the opening rounds of 66 and 69 (T24th) at La Quinta, had the experience to play 54 holes with Power in the Bermuda Championship last October. “He’s very good,” said the 2010 US Open champion. “I actually apologized to him and said I was sorry it took us so long to play some match golf together. He’s very strong off the tee And he’s a really good ball shredder too.”
Power was third in last Sunday’s Sony Open behind Hideki Matsuyama, whose play-off win seemed fitting against the backdrop of Japan’s influence in the area. I think of the group of older players I saw playing so-called Ground Golf during a visit in 2006 in a public park near Waikiki Beach. This Japanese-invented chase is highly organized in the Honolulu area. The equipment is a wooden bat in the shape of a putter but with a significantly larger head, which strikes an object the size of a tennis ball.
Unlike croquet, the stroke is made in the conventional manner of golf and balls can be knocked off and hit into the air. Holes range from 50 to over 100 yards and the target is a wire device, not unlike a birdcage, sitting on the grass, with openings through which the ball is slit and where the sound of chimes signals success. All wonderfully relaxing.
While it has taken Power some time to make his mark on the PGA Tour, we shouldn’t be surprised at his current ascendancy. Very little mention is made of his success in the Irish Youths Championship these days, perhaps because the event is now defunct. But he captured it on a remarkable three occasions over four years in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
Such success in an age-restricted event—under 21 on January 1—is extremely rare, although John McHenry (Douglas) took three wins in a six-year span in 1980, ’81 and ’85. His club mate, Junior Morris, won in 1984 and ’86.
It was not uncommon for players to win in successive years, as Mark Gannon did in 1971/’72, Scotland’s Steven Young (1995/’96) and McDowell (1999/2000). Coincidentally, McIlroy Power preceded him as champion in 2004.
“When I won the first, I was still a boy, under 18,” he recalls. “My third came in my second year in America. I always had a better track record in stroke play than in match play.”
Standing 6 feet tall and namesake of a legendary Waterford pitcher, Power was the premier golfer in the small village of Tooraneena, located between Dungarvan and Clonmel. “When I was 11 my father’s friends took me to play golf and I loved it from the start. It meant my father was 25 minutes’ drive from our house to West Waterford Golf Club, but he was good at it.’
Like countless young players of the time, Power was greatly influenced by Tiger Woods. He and his father even took an hour-long trip from home to watch Woods compete in the American Express Championship at Mount Juliet in 2002 and 2004. “Yeah, I was a big fan,” he said. “When he was playing I would always watch. He was exciting. So driven and the first player to really put an emphasis on the physical part of things, especially upper body strength. Now everyone is in the gym.
“I would love to see him again, to have the chance to play with him. One of the reasons I wanted to be a tour player was the chance to play with Tiger. I bought his book, How I play golf, and one of the things I’ve learned from it is my putting routine. I’ve always had two practice strokes that I read in the book.
“His emphasis was also on strategy and course management. The positional side. I remember messing around in the training ground when I was growing up, you would try to copy the things he did. Like some of his crazy flop shots.
“I met him once. I played a college tournament for East Tennessee in Isleworth. He lived there then. He was there all week and most of the guys ran into him at some point. It was a quick introduction. Hello. Not much else. But it remained a very good experience for me.”
Against this backdrop, you can imagine his fascination as the world’s 295th ranked player at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, talking about Woods with Harrington, his partner in the Irish team. “I hadn’t realized that Pádraig had one of the best records, average by stroke count, of anyone who played with Tiger. And of course he beat him [in the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix].
“Pádraig told me how to prepare mentally before going out. Be prepared for everything that comes with playing with Tiger. I learned it’s hard to win a tournament, but Tiger never seemed to throw them away He just didn’t allow you to beat him.”
In his own words, Power did not have the necessary spark in his game last Sunday to seriously fight for the title. But he could see that much more was at stake, if he liked his work. He did this with a 65 that included six birdies, two on the first two holes, two more on 17 and 18 and two in between, on the ninth and 12th. His only slip was a bogey on the 11th.
All of this reflected a player who had pretty much everything under control. “In general, you have to figure out how to get under 16 for a week,” he said. “What I will try to do a little better this year is to be a little more aggressive.”
He will be looking for another tour win to augment his Barbasol Championship triumph from last July, boosting career earnings of $5.715 million since turning pro in 2011.
Harrington’s early influence was evident in the decision to study accountancy in East Tennessee. “I’ve always been good with numbers. Mathematics, chemistry and physics were my strongest subjects.”
Along the way he also acquired the mental strength to make the breakthrough, when the opportunity presented itself. Three strokes behind JT Poston on the final morning of the Barbasol, he tied with a closing 67, beating Poston on the sixth hole of a sudden death playoff.
Meanwhile, major organizational changes have taken place, including hiring Simon Keelan of Cork as his caddy and moving his base from Charlotte, North Carolina to Las Vegas, where a trusted cousin lives. It’s also where leading US players, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele, chose to settle because of the weather and accessibility by air.
This promises to be a very important year for a player who has yet to compete in a Major. Power has already qualified for the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa in May and entry into the other three Majors will depend on his world rankings. His progress will certainly be followed closely in these parts, not least because he remains a very Irish sportsman. In fact, he is the only one to have mentioned Gaelic-speaking and “a great reader of history” as one of his attributes with the PGA Tour.
He will turn 35 on March 4, the same age as Harrington when he won the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie. And recent events suggest that Power is at a stage in his life where he is ready to dream some wild dreams.