How becoming a master of links golf took me to Augusta
Links golf has been good to Brian McElhinney. The Donegal man has played in three majors – two Opens and a Masters – thanks to his heroics on the links.
He won the European Amateur at Nairn in 2003 which got him into the following year’s Open at Royal Troon and his British Amateur success at Royal Birkdale saw him tee it up at St Andrews the following month and Augusta the next spring.
Interestingly only two players have won both the British and European Amateur titles, the other is Sergio Garcia.
Now attached to the North West Golf Club, another links in Donegal, he plays most of his golf on the EuroPro Tour and also in PGA events in Ireland.
We met to discuss his love of the links and to pick up some handy tips.
On his career…
Other than the two big wins I’ve also won the North of Ireland at Portrush, the Irish Close at Donegal, as well as some boys and youth bits.
I was second behind Padraig Harrington in the Irish PGA at the European Club in 2009. It was his third straight win in the championship, the previous two he went on to win the Open the week after.
Watching the Open this year at Birkdale brought back a lot of good memories. It is a really tough course and par was always good there, even in matchplay.
The 17th always stood out for me as it proved a turning point in a couple of matches. In my first round I was up against Edoardo Molinari and I was up the left and he was down the middle so I had to wedge back out to 150 yards short.
He hit a great shot which rolled off the back of the green, I hit an 8-iron to 10 feet, he was similar after his bunker shot and I holed and he missed.
In the final against John Gallagher he hit the green in the morning, I was two up at the time, and I hit a wedge to three feet and made birdie and won the hole.
I always hit a 2-iron off the 1st, the wind was off the left that week and it was then a mid to short iron in.
I’ve not been back since, I’ve not had the chance or the reason.
On his favourite links course…
In Scotland I played the Open at Troon which was amazing, I was at Muirfield this year, then you think of Kingsbarns and the Old Course. There are so many.
On tackling links golf…
The roughest links experience I remember is at a youth tournament at Connemara where there were hailstones coming down. We were meant to play 36 holes but it was reduced to 18, you couldn’t feel your hands. I think I shot 79 which was pretty good.
My mindset of playing links golf is definitely one of being more comfortable as I grew up playing it. I like plotting my way round and trying to avoid the bunkers. Then if you miss the green you have to get up and down from all these different lies.
I grew up playing links all the time and it is where I have had all my success but the transition to longer, softer courses is a tough one. I’ve not really changed my game but I do now try and get ball in the air a bit more and further.
On adjusting your game for links golf…
You get so many different shots you have to play but getting the strike right is so important.
If I was stood into a stiff headwind my mindset would be to swing within myself as much as possible. If you don’t get a good strike on it the ball won’t get very far, it just kills it, and it will accentuate any sidespin.
Tee it down, have it further back in the stance and swing smoothly. You can go a bit faster at it but you need to be controlled to get that strike right.
For your irons try and gauge how many clubs difference it is. If it was a two-club wind and I normally hit my 7-iron 160 yards then, downwind, I would be hitting it maybe 10-15 yards further per club. Try and gauge it that way.
Go by feel, you should know after a couple of holes how much the ball is being affected so pay attention to that early on. Into the wind always hit more club and, again, try and control the swing and keep the spin off it.
For putting in the wind you have got to have a firm base, the stroke should be nice and compact which is a hard thing to change if you have a flowing stroke. Just feel it being a bit shorter and firmer but, like everything else, you have to get the roll right.
I enjoy deep pot bunkers as that is a strength of mine. To get height use the loft of the club and then it is down to clubhead speed. My basics are ball position further forward, weight more on your left-hand side, open the face a good bit so you can use the bounce and, from there, control the speed of the club. More speed equals more height.
Amateurs don’t really understand the bounce. They think by opening the face that the ball will go right, they need to understand how the shots works.