Augusta is a city famous the world over for one sport, golf.
Better known for hosting the game’s greatest major, the Masters, what you may not know about Georgia’s second city is that hurling is on the rise.
Founded in 2009, Augusta Gaelic Sports Club was on track for their most successful season had it not been for Covid-19.
The club was founded by Kristopher Wells who accidentally discovered hurling watching a Guinness advertisement. He didn’t know it was hurling back then but a trip to Ireland ignited a love for the game that burns bright to this day.
And it all started with one of the most famous matches of the 21st century.
Wexford’s famous win
“There was a set of Guinness commercials that came to the US that had featured hurling in them. Of course, there was no explanation because they were being aired in Ireland as well. But I remember thinking, ‘what is that?’
“It sort of went out of my mind and then in 2004 my parents, my sister, my wife and I decided to go to Ireland. My dad always wanted to go and we took a bus tour that goes around the edge of the whole island.
“I thought back on the commercial I had seen years before that and said: ‘I’m gonna ask somebody what that game is they play with the sticks’.
“And so, in the hotel we’re staying at in Dublin. I just asked what it was and they said it was hurling.
“I said: ‘Can I see a game?’ and they said: ‘Oh, yeah, Croke Park. Just head down there and pick up a ticket on Sunday.’
“So we skipped out on part of the tour just to make it happen. We walked to Croke Park, picked up tickets to what turned out to be the 2004 Leinster semi-final. It was Wexford versus Kilkenny.
“Wexford had a sideline cut in the last minute that went deep into the forward line. I think it was Peter Barry who caught it and went to clear the ball only for Michael Jacob to block it down, catch it off one hop, turn and fire it into the back of the Kilkenny net.
“And then the referee blew the whistle, the game was over.
“We were actually sitting in a group of Wexford fans and they invited us to storm the pitch with them because they didn’t expect to beat Kilkenny.
“So after that, I was hooked and just started watching the game. I said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve got to learn everything I can and I want to try and play.’ I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I figured that it didn’t exist anywhere in the US.”
For the love of hurling
Wells bought his first hurley that day and for the remainder of his trip, tried to learn this new game. He even crawled under the gates in Dingle just to have a puck about with the locals.
He took the game back to Augusta however in a city with little in the way of the Irish diaspora, growing interest was always difficult.
As work and family commitments took over, dreams of playing organised hurling seemed all but lost. However the tragic passing of Wells’s best friend gave him a sense of purpose.
It was then he told himself he was going to play hurling, no matter what that meant.
“In 2009, five years after the trip, one of my best friends had cystic fibrosis and passed away at aged 21. It sort of hit me then that I really have wanted to do this. I don’t know how much time I’ve got so I need to do it.
“I found a club in Atlanta. It was one of only two clubs in the whole southeast, Atlanta and Charlotte. We drove the two and a half hours from Augusta to Atlanta. I started driving there every week, learning how to play.
“A few months into it, I realised they had a bunch of Americans playing. It was about half and half. ‘Why can’t I do this?’ I thought.
“There was a group of friends that I had played basketball and football with all the time. They’re the sort of people that didn’t care what it was, they would try it out.
“So the four of us on a Sunday in June of 2009. We went out to the park, we hit it around, I showed them what to do and we tried to play a little two on two hurling. That was basically the start of the club.”
Augusta Gaelic Sports Club
What started with four became 14, then 40. All of a sudden, Augusta Gaelic Sports Club was born.
However it wasn’t all sunshine and sliotars from there.
The club experienced tough times as numbers fluctuated over the coming years due to reasons out of their control.
In 2016 with hope dwindling by the day, the club’s fortunes took a turn.
Nathan Montgomery, the club’s current chairperson and US Navy recruit Eric McTaggart joined the club with numbers at an all-time low.
McTaggart, like Wells, had fallen in love with hurling while visiting Ireland. Five years later, the Indiana native was a member of Purdue University’s first hurling club where he learned to play the game from “a bunch of Americans and the odd Irish foreign exchange student.”
When the call came to serve his country, McTaggart was only delighted to find out his new home of Augusta had a hurling club.
The loud-mouth who loves hurling
“Honestly, I joined the Navy in 2015 and thought I’d never play hurling again. So when I found out where my permanent duty station was going to be in Augusta, Georgia, I went looking on Facebook just to see if there’s a hurling club. There was some stuff there, but they hadn’t posted anything since 2014.
“So when I got here, I started reaching out to them, I sent emails, Facebook messages, everything. Kris said he had just gotten the idea to maybe get the club started back again. He was talking to some of the guys who were there back in the day.
“So right about then, the club started back. We dwindled at first, you know, we had maybe eight people and considered that a good practice. But now, with full numbers not including the youth and the kids in people’s families, we’ll have like 30 to 40 people.”
A self-confessed loud-mouth who loves hurling, McTaggart is quick to play down the role his passion for the game had in turning around the club’s fortunes.
The club’s founder isn’t though.
“For years I was really the only hardcore fanatic,” says Wells.
“The nucleus of the group enjoyed playing, the camaraderie, the exercise, the competition. But they would just as easily have played ultimate frisbee or flag (American) football.
“I was sort of a lone voice in the wilderness when it came to hurling. When Erik showed up in 2016, it was almost as if my fanaticism was validated by his.
“Having someone else in their midst that was just as crazy about the sport solidified their commitment to it. The combination of that from Erik, along with Nathan Montgomery inviting everyone he knew was the key to turning things around.”
For McTaggart, that fanaticism for hurling comes from what he describes as “the primal nature of the game.”
“The big thing for me more than anything else was that there’s just something absolutely primal about hurling.
“Here in America, we have American football and stuff like that. But if you don’t fit the body type you’re out of luck. Same thing with some of the other games that are played here. I always found soccer to be a bit two-dimensional, there was no roughness to it.
“Whereas hurling encompasses everything to me. It’s just a very, very complete demonstration of someone’s athleticism. You have to be strong, you have to be fast. You can’t be a two-dimensional athlete, you have to have everything.
“In the earlier stages of the game however when people aren’t very good, like in the American leagues you can take a guy who’s big and make him useful. You can take a guy who’s little and fast and make him useful. You can get use out of anybody because of the wide range of skills that are necessary.
“To me, it’s kind of like an every man’s game and most importantly, there’s something primal about it.”
Augusta hurling’s growth
While the current season has been blighted by the outbreak of Covid-19, Augusta Gaelic Sports Club is going nowhere.
For now, the goal is about growing the sport of hurling and the club’s Spring League has been instrumental in doing so.
The league offers newcomers the chance to learn the sport in a competitive environment with points awarded for new recruits as well as the team who boasts the most players.
The overall award for their Spring League is the Alex Johnson Memorial Hurl. Named in honour of the young man whose death inspired Wells to start this amazing adventure.
“You can spend your money getting ready and travelling across the country for Nationals or you can spend it growing the sport which is what we’ve tried to do through recruitment.
“So our league system was instrumental in our growth. Many people are afraid to play a new sport in a competitive atmosphere because they’re afraid they’ll hurt their team.
“We eliminated that by awarding points toward the league table for each new recruit and for retaining new recruits. So once we break up into league teams, we compete on the pitch as well as by bringing in new players.
“To get bigger crowds to show each week, we also award a league point for the largest roster on the day. So that’s really how we’ve gone about growing the sport in our town. So far, it seems to be working.”
An inspiring club.