‘WELCOME to Augusta’: Fourteen years ago, Burnfoot golfer Brian McElhinney entered a new world.
Down a 330-yard lane, through 61 stately century-old magnolia trees, around Founders Circle, an iconic roundabout, and into Augusta National Golf Club.
McElhinney still gets the shivers when he considers the journey from rural Donegal to The Masters.
It was on that first drive down Magnolia Lane when McElhinney – accompanied by his trusted caddy James O’Donnell – had really entered elite company.
Winning the British Amateur Championship at Royal Birkdale in 2005 punched McElhinney’s ticket to Augusta – an entry to the 2006 Masters Tournament.
“The only thing I had known about Augusta was what I had seen on TV,” McElhinney tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub.
“I never thought that I’d have the chance to play there.
“It was unreal. What a great experience it was.”
IT was in early June 2005 when McElhinney – who had already featured at the 2004 British Open at Troon – sensed that Augusta was close.
“I was aware of what it would mean,” McElhinney recalls of his feelings heading into the Amateur Championship final, where he would play Scotland’s John Gallagher.
“I didn’t sleep the night before the final at all. The adrenaline just kept me going.
“I knew I’d never get an opportunity like that again in a final to win a British Amateur title. That was in the back of my head the whole time.
“You are totally aware of that. Maybe it helped being a Troon in 2004, but I knew that winning this one would give me a chance to play in The Masters at Augusta. You have to try not to dwell on that too much, but it’s hard not to.”
McElhinney put future Ryder Cupper Edoardo Molinari to the sword, but remembers ‘getting away with one’ on the 15th hole against the Italian.
“We were all square on the 15th, a par five,” McElhinney says.
“I hit my second shot into a gorse bush on the right and had to take a penalty drop. Edoardo hit his third shot into about eight feet. I got into about eight also and holed mine for a five. Eduardo missed his for a four.”
Molinari rolled a shot on the 17th off the green and into a bunker and McElhinney seized his moment.
After beating Jamie Moul, McElhinney came up against Oliver Fisher in a semi-final.
“Olive was only about 15, but he was a very highly regarded up and coming player,” McElhinney says.
McElhinney was two up with three holes to play, but the margin was down to one heading for the 18th.
The Donegal man says: “I was really nervous. I had this feeling that something would happen; that if he didn’t make birdie that he would be very, very close.
“I had a great drive and a good second shot, taking to about 30 feet on the green. There were a couple of bunkers close by and it was a shot I had to get right.”
Fisher missed the green and what McElhinney describes as a ‘lovely chip shot’ from the Englishman missed the pin.
“I had two putts to win it and got there,” McElhinney says. “It was very tight.”
He tossed and turned that night. He knew the meaning of the next day.
He was aware of the possibilities and of the opportunities.
His opponent, though, posed a difficulty.
He says: “John was cack-handed (where the player grips the club with the left hand beneath the right), which is totally unheard of at that standard. You just can never take things for granted.
“John hadn’t got to the final by not being very good, but it was strange as I didn’t know what to expect. I played quite solid and won 5 & 4. Conditions were very tough and the wind got up something serious. That made it very tight.
“There was no wild expectations. That, for me, was when I always competed at my best. I played well in the two qualifying rounds, I was playing nicely.”
SOMETIMES destiny just appears. There is now a lightbulb moment for McElhinney, but at the time at Royal Portrush in 2003 he wasn’t even aware that the switch had been flicked.
He was up against Johnny Foster in the final of the North of Ireland Championship.
Foster was two up with five holes to play.
“I remember that day so well,” McElhinney says.
He birdied the 14th, eagled the 15th and birdied the 16th to turn the tables. From two down, he was now one up.
Disaster struck, though, on the 18th, when McElhinney drove into a bunker.
“I had to chip out, I hit a four-iron inside two feet of the hill and the putt was conceded,” he says.
“Johnny was playing solid. He was hitting really well. Something unusual had to happen for me to turn it – and it’s not every day you go birdie-eagle-birdie. If I hadn’t done that, who knows what might’ve happened after that.”
The month was April and four months later he was off to Nairn in Scotland for the European Amateur Championship.
Again, the expectation was low.
They were lower still when McElhinney found himself eight behind Germany’s Michael Thannhauser after day three.
“Winning was never on my mind,” he reflects.
“I changed putter during that one. I felt that I was playing better than I was scoring. I changed putter and I started to putt really well. I was playing as well as I had been, but now I was also putting much better.
“It was a links course, quite tight and it suited me. I finished well.”
McElhinney shot five-under on the fourth day, beating Spaniard Pablo Martin Benavides, England’s Matthew Richardson and Thannhauser.
“That was massive,” McElhinney says.
“Guys came from all over Europe. It wasn’t just the really good Irish and English players anymore. They were from everywhere and that was daunting.
“We went as part of a team, send by the GUI. There was a captain and a manager who looked after everything and all we had to do was play golf. Those guys took care of our travel, flights, accommodation, food.
“That European Amateurs was a good opportunity for me to compare my game to what I was up against.”
The victory was not lost on the natives back home and he was given a heroes welcome back to North West Golf Club.
He says: “You’d hardly have got walking through the place, it was so full. That was great to have people acknowledging the win like that. I wouldn’t have expected something like that at all. The atmosphere was brilliant.”
As the European amateur champion, he would get to feature at the 2004 British Open.
WHEN he was at St Aengus’ National School in Bridgend, McElhinney played everything.
He lined out for the Burt footballers and turned out for Aileach FC in the Inishowen Schoolboys League too. With Burt, he was an Under-13 Championship winner in 1995, as the Hibernian men defeated Kilcar.
His father, Brian, took up golf and the youngster ventured too ‘just walking around and kind of caddying with him.’
“He would let me try the odd shot,” McElhinney remembers. “I found I could it it well and had a decent wee swing.”
A membership at Buncrana Golf Club followed when he was 11 and a few years later golf became his game.
“No-one was pushing me in any one direction.” he says. “I was quite good at football, but when I was 15, I veered towards the golf. I liked the individual nature of it and especially the flexibility – you can go out and play when you want.”
He began to make some noise and, at 16, won a Donegal Under-18 competition. The first taste of international recognition came when he represented Ireland at a home international in Portmarnock after he won the Connacht Boys’ Championship.
“It all happened pretty quickly from there,” he says.”
THE European amateur champion had to do a double take as he went to the putting green at Royal Troon Golf Club in 2004.
Tigers Woods was already an eight-time Major winner when he rocked up to Troon.
“I just tried to treat it as another tournament,” McElhinney says.
“You have to try not to get caught up and that can be difficult. Tiger Woods was a couple of groups ahead of me and when I was going to the putting green before tee off, he was just going to the tee. Things like that can throw you off, but it’s the big event experience.”
McElhinney played alongside Freddie Jackobson and Jim Furyk and was backed back a big crowd from home.
He says: “I had scores in the mid-70s, I didn’t make the cut, but I played okay/. I was playing with the best players in the world and there were so many spectators, but it was still another game of golf.
“It was a brilliant experience.”
MCELHINNEY is now coaching and still playing. He had two wins on the EuroPro Tour, at Roganstown and The Shire.
But the move into the professional game didn’t really work out for him.
“I still enjoy competing and playing,” he says.
“I did the EuroPro for a couple of years. It was good, but a bit different. It was hard to get into it after being away from it for such a long time. It was harder mindset-wise. The standard, I noticed, had improved a lot. I won on it twice when I turned professional and felt as if my game was as good as it was. Maybe I was a bit further away.”
He had been eyeing up the Irish Region series until the Covid-19 lockdown extended to golf courses and now he’s waiting and wondering again.
A WEEK before the Masters in 2006, McElhinney won The Georgia Cup, an 18-hole charity match between the British Amateur Champion and the United States Amateur Champion.
McElhinney followed players like Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia in winning, as he beat Edoardo Molinari, whom he had defeated on his way to winning the British title a year previous.
“It was pretty nice to win,” McElhinney says. “It was great. I played quite well and maybe Eduardo didn’t play at his best. Winning that definitely helped my confidence going up to Augusta.”
He also featured in a par-three tournament in the build-up and was shaken when a familiar figure appeared with the greeting: ‘What a young man to be playing in The Masters, wonderful’.
Gary Player, ‘The Black Knight’ is regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time with nine Major wins included in a roll of honour that has 163 tournament wins across six continents over seven decades.
Butch Harmon and Adam Scott recognised the young man who would become a Masters debutant and offered good wishes.
”It was so nice of them to go out of their way.”
At the end of 2005, Paul McGinley swapped numbers with McElhinney. McGinley, whose parents are both from Donegal, extended an arm to McElhinney on the Monday and they played a four-bak with Colin Montgomery and Geoff Ogilvy the following day.
In the days preceding The Masters, Furyk – recognising him from Troon – invited him to play a few holes with he and Rocco Mediate.
“We went over about three weeks beforehand,” McElhinney says.
“It was really good having a few weeks of build-up. The courses were fantastic and the whole experience….brilliant.”
AT Augusta, McElhinney lined up on the first tee with Tom Watson and Michael Campbell.
He made scores of 80 and 75 on the first two days and didn’t make the cut.
“I actually played okay,” he says.
“The first day I was eight over and wasn’t playing too bad. I was nine over after 12 and just got on the wrong side of a free greens.
“I went on a bogey run, but didn’t do too much wrong. The second day was similar and I shot a three-over. I had a double-bogey on the par-3 sixth, which didn’t help.
“I played better around the greens on the second day, which was the main difference. That first day, I just gave myself no chance.
“I putted really well in the tournament. You just have to be so careful on the greens and you don’t have to do a wild lot wrong to be penalised.
“From not doing an awful lot wrong, you can be in tough positions.
“On my first round, I dropped a nice shot into the pin at the back of a green. If I was a foot shorter, I’d have been on the green, 20 feet from the hole. When I was going for the chip, I was thinking: ‘Make bogey here and I’ll be delighted’. I had a nice chip to 15 feet, but two-putted for a double-bogey!”
They are experiences he will treasure and he remains the only Donegal man to have teed off in The Masters.
His first experience of playing at Augusta still lives with him.
“I had hit a good drive and a nice shot onto the green on our first hole of practising,” he says. “Then, I got a proper insight. I was looking at the putt and thought I had it read. I hit it straight to the edge of the hole and it broke much more than I thought. It ended up going off the green.”
Caddy James O’Donnell glanced over his right shoulder and smiled: ‘Welcome to Augusta!’Tags: