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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 26 November 2020
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Home thoughts from abroad: the family that made a Masters hopeful

This year of Covid 19 has disrupted all schedules yet James Sugrue still stands apart. This week, finally, he tees up at the US Masters, seven months on from its intended date. His journey started in North Cork.

james-sugrue-on-the-6th-hole Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

TODAY, AN IMPISH calm settles in the kitchen. Early January, at home in Mallow, the Sugrues are planning ahead. Underneath the glass top kitchen table sits a map of the world.

James contemplates it briefly, tracing his finger across the places he has been. South Africa catches his eye, annual destination for the GUI National Squad and their winter coaching trip.

Moving north, he points out Oman. A request for him, the British Amateur champion, to play their national open recently came through. Then he looks west. His year is dominated by golfing trips to the United States: The Masters and Augusta National; Winged Foot and the US Open.

“We’re in the process of clearing out the games room for all of James’ golf stuff,” his mother announces. Later, she sends him to retrieve some memorabilia. He returns with a Titleist hat, one sleeve of Pro V1 balls and a white marker emblazoned with the red lion of the Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team.

The following day, new treasure arrives in the post. Issued by the Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club, the most prized invitation in golf is, much to my dismay, non transferrable. For the Sugrues, this envelope shines.

Letters concerning James were not always such a joy: “The phone ringing and the notes home from school: ‘James wasn’t in attendance today.’ I’d ask James: ‘We had a free class.’ And he’d be gone up to the golf club to practice. Golf was always his priority.”

Sport offered easy escape. If not golf there was hurling or football as freedom. Tennis, rugby and soccer too. Even the family shop provided cover.

His recollection is rosy: “It was so handy. My auntie, who acts like a child, used to write me notes if I ever needed them: ‘James was at the dentist yesterday.’ That sort of thing.”

“I didn’t know that until now,” his mother cuts in. “I remember the teacher came to me and she said: ‘He really does have to get involved in the school play, Margaret. And so does his cousin Ciarán.’ So Ciarán ran the shop and James pulled the curtain. That was their contribution to the play.”

Exam time compounded her worry.

“All I wanted was for him to get his Leaving Cert,” she recounts. “Now he won’t be doing Medicine but he got his Leaving Cert, and that’s fine.”

“Sound,” says James, droll as ever.

***

Mick Sugrue, the son of Kerry parents, was raised in Manchester. The family moved home when he was 16. Down Munster way, the cultural exchange provoked plain reproach.

Once, he ventured to Kanturk, hunting for pumps: ‘Arrah, get out of it. You’re in the wrong shop.’

English slang for runners sat unappropriated by local retailers.

The Sugrues had set up shop in Mallow, selling furniture on O’Brien Street. Mick went down a different route, training as a TV engineer. He opened Sugrue Electronics next door to the family store.

His specialist operation thrived at a time when televisions were not sold in supermarkets. These days, their premises is let, a vape the only electrical good on display. They moved with the economy, though Mick still prefers a smoke.

Back home, he steps out periodically. He takes shelter in the garage, puffing away while the dogs, Ruby and Sheba, make their move. On Mick’s watch, they stay outdoors. As night falls, James retrieves an old duvet to set a bed for the family pets inside the back door, an act that plays out every evening.

Margaret describes their daily barter: “He freaks out: ‘They should be outside.’ We leave him say his piece and then bring the dogs in.”

Life does not always turn into expectation. Of late, fortune has been kind. Success for James, on such a grand scale, dropped like gold from the sky. Winning the British Amateur at Portmarnock last June, 12 months, granted entry to the big time, tickets to places he could have but dream about.

Time, that finite resource, is their most valued commodity.

“He’d never talk about it,” says James of his father.

“You’re right, James,” Margaret adds.

“It’s like he had done something illegal. Even if somebody died from cancer and I asked what happened, he’d be like: ‘What happens them all?’ That will never be talked about, ever.”

15 years after diagnosis, Mick keeps coy about his condition.

“We were in America on holidays and he went in to buy a shirt,” Margaret recalls. “The man in the shop said his neck was 17 and a half.”

This nuance evoked surprise: “There’s no way that’s right.”

“I have a bit of a lump there alright,” Mick conceded.

Tests uncovered a tumour but treatment was compromised by its location. Margaret retraces the journey: “He had Hodgkin’s disease and the tumour was attached to the main artery to his heart and his brain. When they opened him, they had to close him straight away.”

Unsuited to surgery, he faced an aggressive form of chemotherapy. Although the medics advised them to share this news with their children, Margaret opted to keep them out of the loop.

“There was no need for them to know,” she reasons. “You’re looking at a child going into bed at night and they’re told: ‘Your father has cancer.’ We continued on as normal as possible.”

They worked hard to maintain that front. Margaret left her job as a legal executive to manage the shop; Mick did the school run before his chemo sessions, finishing in time for the children coming home. They took pre-emptive measures. Mick shaved his head, a cosmetic touch to disguise receding hair.

Friends and family mobilised: “My mother did the dinners for them every day. Mick got up and came to the shop around 11am. We’d go to bed early at night. I rang Michelle’s friends’ parents and Edward’s friends’ parents, and told them. They rallied in then.”

Life continued its march: Edward prepared for Confirmation, James was readied for Communion.

“I don’t know how I got through,” Margaret admits. “You just do it. There’s no point in laying down and crying. Just move along.”

the-amateur-trophy-mallow-golf-club James Sugrue with his parents, Margaret and Mick. Source: Niall O'Shea

No need for tears when you find humour in the darkness: “My cousin brought him up to the Mercy one day for his chemo. And Mick’s mother, Lord have mercy on her, had given him tomato soup beforehand. When he came out of the Mercy, he puked all over the place. Martin, my cousin, he rang: ‘He’s vomiting blood.’ Mick was trying to say: ‘I’m not. It’s the tomato soup.’ Ah lads…”

Good news emerged after six months: the tumour had retreated. But ordeal had taken its toll. He developed diabetes and is now insulin dependent, injecting himself at least four times daily. This constant need leaves his body bruised.

Margaret, too, has suffered serious affliction: “I got this very rare autoimmune disease and I ended up in the hospital. I went for tests and they rang from the lab: ‘Bring her in straightaway.’ My blood was thinning. If I had an accident, I would have bled to death. It happens about three people, maybe, in a year. I had to go up then every day to the hospital, have a drip and things like that. I never laid down. I kept going. I was fine.”

So firm a tone moves on the conversation.

***

A sheepish grin greets the next question.

“She’s a nice person, first of all, anyway,” he drawls, inclining his head towards Mum. “I can’t find the words.”

A prompt across the table: “Supportive.”

“Supportive, yeah,” James affirms. “Always on the go. A busy person.”

But son does not take after mother. On this point, they agree.

“He is definitely like his father,” Margaret insists. “He is the polar opposite of me.”

He sounds a grateful note: “Dad is more laidback than Mam, thankfully.”

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At times, the twain do meet.

Three years ago, competing for the North of Ireland at Royal Portrush, he woke late and missed his first round tee time. Disqualified, he travelled home expecting flack.

“I’d say he probably thought I was going to be giving out,” Margaret suggests. “Nah: ‘You missed it, that’s it, get on with it.’ On reflection, it was the best thing that happened him in his whole career.”

On the journey down, he vowed to make amends. Next up was the South of Ireland at Lahinch. For the first time in his career, he gave himself a target.

“You said you would go down there and win that,” Mick reminds him. “Some fellas would set goals for themselves. James never did.”

The break from habit spurred victory. From there, his career kicked off. He moved onto the National panel, earning his first Senior cap with Ireland the following year. Sugrue, who made waves at 15 by winning the Connacht Boys (U18), was no longer just a prospect.

Beyond these shores, he had yet to make a mark. Golfers often weave an undistinguished path. Then suddenly a leap and separation from the pack.

“You can be number one or number 231,” Margaret surmises. “You still have to go out, play your game, and win your match.”

The British Open returning to Irish soil framed 2019. Beyond that historic scene, golf’s rising stars had eyes fixed on Portmarnock. Come June, they were gathered in North Dublin for the British Amateur.

Five days in, Sugrue stood unbeaten. Across the grand old links, he thrilled a growing gallery, the partisan crowd gripped as he plotted his way to the final.

“I was worried sick,” Margaret demurs. “As a mother, you want the best for your child. You don’t want him to be disappointed.”

Mick is to the point: “She’d be down more than James. Her sister went to Portmarnock and she couldn’t go round. She was bawling crying in the corner. Saying the Rosary.”

“I was gray,” Margaret continues. “I lost a half a stone while I was up there. Now, I put it all back on.”

James quickly brightens: “We can bring you up there again.”

His offer meets a derisive look. Stress coloured her experience.

“I did not sleep on the Friday night,” she relays.

On the morning of the final, Mick read an interview James had given: “He said: ‘Didn’t get a great night’s sleep. Went to sleep at 11 o’clock and woke up when the alarm woke me up.’ For fuck sake, he got eight or nine hours, like. And he thought that was a bad night.”

Poise has passed from paternal side: “At the start, you’d be afraid that he’d make a balls of a shot. He was invited up to the Captain’s Drive In last year. Someone came up to me and said: ‘Are you nervous about him driving?’ I said: ‘Definitely not. I’ve never been more confident of anything in my life.’ Not at this stage of the game.”

Father proved correct. No need for worry at Portmarnock when James raced into the lead. Five up after nine and three clear at halfway, the Corkman had control. But a 36-hole decider is relentlessly demanding. Euan Walker, his opponent from Scotland, reeled him in.

All square, they turned to face the penultimate hole. Sugrue made a standard par: fairway, green, two putts. Walker went right off the tee – a no-go area that week – and the home favourite won the hole with regulation four.

On 18, he was crowned champion, the trophy bringing with it entry to the British Open.

Returning to Portrush upset his stock demeanour. In that regard, he was not alone. Playing alongside Darren Clarke, he walked off the first expressing sheer relief: “I was like: ‘Thank God that’s over. I was going to hit iron.’ And he was like: ‘Iron? I’d be afraid I’d miss it. And it is an iron.’ He hit driver.”

The Mallow faithful threaded the crowd. Although Sugrue missed the cut by one, the lighter moments came quick to hand.

Margaret replays a clip: round two, James hunting for birdie, aboard the 13th green.

“I can still see where I was standing,” she divulges. “We were all hoping he would get the putt.”

Mick layers context: “If there’s a thousand people there and Kevin O’Keeffe is there, you’ll probably hear Kevin O’Keeffe out of all of them.”

When Sugrue’s birdie try lipped out, the place fell to silence.

“TOUGH LUCK, SUGGIE!” blared across the green. “MOVE ON TO THE NEXT ONE!”

“I knew it was Kevin,” James avers. “I was just laughing at it.”

***

Those moments take him back to the beginning; back to Mallow, back into the world that made him.

Last one still at home (Michelle and Edward both work as Radiographers in Dublin), he relishes country ways: a ramble with the dogs, a roam through neighbouring fields. Shooting is another sport to him, the gun inherited from his grandfather. Old calendars he repurposes for target practice, marking circles with a geometric compass on the blank back covers.

“An A4 sheet is flimsy,” he notes. “If you’re shooting something that’s 120 yards away, the slightest little movement will throw the bullet off a long way. You have to control your breathing.”

The practical always attracted him. James and the Ford Fiesta is a story only his mother can tell: “He was about eight. And I was inside here. Next thing, the garage door opened and this Fiesta passed me out. Down the driveway, into the field, all around. I, roaring. My mother on the couch: ‘Margaret, stop roaring.’ Me back: ‘Look at him!’ Next thing, he went all around the back of the house, up the driveway, back again, into the garage, parked her up. His head was barely above the steering wheel.”

james-sugrue-of-ireland-during-a-press-conference-after-his-practice-round Sugrue faces the press at Royal Portrush. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

She remains his biggest fan.

“I do pity people down the town,” Mick juts in. “They’d meet us and they’d be like: ‘How’s James getting on?’ All they want to hear is: ‘James is getting on fine.’ With Margaret: ‘Well, he won this, he’s going there…’ Half an hour later, they’re still there.”

Around here, the mocking never stops. A wicked strain runs through the Sugrues and Mick’s brother Peter is wildest of all, an ever ready wit. James knows his form. They often work together, making deliveries for the family furniture store.

“He’s lethal,” he states. “You could go into a couple, 80 odd. We’d be giving them a mattress and he’d be like: ‘You can’t be having sex on that now for two weeks.’ He’s unreal. And people love him.”

Peter is not the only Sugrue regarded with great affection. Since the British Amateur win, James Sugrue has become a local poster boy. During the Open at Portrush, his picture adorned shop windows. Visitors to Mallow were greeted by his image on a billboard. Some fans, though, make strange requests.

“He was delivering a wardrobe and the woman asked him to sign the inside of it,” Margaret reveals. “I wouldn’t be asking him to sign my brand new wardrobe.”

“I thought she was messing,” James smiles. “Next thing, she brought me up a marker. I signed the inside of it. Every time you open it, you’ll see: James Sugrue, Amateur Champion. She took a picture of me in the wardrobe, signing it. She’s very nice.”

Some days, he walks through town with the mobile pressed against his ear, just to get a break from golfing conversations. One day, he might make his career from the game. Such ambitions are too distant for him to contemplate.

“James takes one competition at a time,” his father summarises. “He doesn’t do any long-term planning.”

Mother lends a favoured saw: “The Lord laughs at those who plan.”

James and the final word: “I won’t have Him laughing at me.”

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