Richard Barrett sat down with Golfing Union of Ireland’s National Coach, and coach to Shane Lowry, Neil Manchip, to discuss life inside the ropes as coach to some of the best talent Ireland has produced.
“My good golf was okay”, Neil Manchip jokes, as he leads me to a quiet corner at the back of the Carton House hotel foyer. “This is perfect,” he mutters as we sit in the most remote part of the unopened restaurant, and draw the curtain for extra privacy.
It’s clear from the beginning that Manchip prefers privacy, and that suits me perfectly as I’ve been eager to pick his brain since first meeting the Scot at the World Amateur Team Championships a couple of months previous.
Ten years as Ireland’s National Coach, Manchip has played a central part in the success of many of Ireland’s prodigious talents. He was the national coach when Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry were part of an Irish team that tasted victory at the European Amateur Team Championships in 2007, and remains close with both. He is particularly close to Lowry and remains the Offaly man’s coach.
While highly modest, seemingly shunning the blazing spotlight that shines on some of the golfers he coaches, it doesn’t make Manchip appear any less confident. He has a presence that screams, ‘when I speak, it’s worth listening’.
We begin by speaking about, of all things, GAA. Manchip fell in love with a Mayo woman many years ago and has been an avid supporter of the county team since. However, the conversation quickly moves to the unpredictability and multi-faceted nature of his first love, golf, and whether there is a secret formula to success.
“We don’t know, no one does. I think it’s like anything in life; why is Henry Shefflin a better hurler than everyone else?
“The best players are consistent in one thing; they score lower than everyone else. How we do that, or the ways in which we do that, are generally the same; hit a driver from the tee, a five or six iron to the green, hole the putt or don’t hole the putt.
“It’s very hard to say (what the formula to success is). If you knew the answer to that, you could transplant it onto other people.
“Generally we screw it up ourselves. We try to force things. The golf ball doesn’t know if you’re five over or five under, you just need to play the next shot. It’s about understanding yourself and the decisions you’re making, trying not to let the stress build up.”
“The mental side of the game is the difference between playing well and not playing well. In golf, no one is tackling us, the ball’s not moving, the target’s not moving, and people even get quiet for us.
“Imagine in golf if you had ten seconds to take the shot because someone was coming to tackle you. Some players would be better, other guys might not be. Maybe they play good golf because they do have time, maybe they’re not as rushed as other sports. Free-taking in GAA is quite similar to golf. Imagine what golf would be like if you had to run in between shots?”
I try to comprehend and dissect the treasure trove of valuable insights spewing from Manchip’s mouth, but it’s no use, my time is best spent listening. The man is a bunker of knowledge.
“Every shot we’re trying to be in a good frame of mind. Anyone that wins tournaments gets good breaks. You should get pretty much the most out of yourself every day. Some days, that could be a 74, others a 66.
“What we’re trying to do is perform well on each individual shot. Nobody is tackling you, nothing’s moving, so it’s all on you.”
Manchip is no stranger to caddying at the highest level, manning the bag for Shane Lowry at The Open Championship at Carnoustie last July. Manchip, Lowry’s coach, stepped in following Lowry’s decision to part with long-term bagman, Dermot Byrne. Manchip is also at Augusta this week as part of Lowry’s inner circle.
“The player-caddy relationship is an interesting one. It’s about understanding the player, when to gee him or her up, when to keep things on the level, when to eat, rest. When to say, ‘we’ve got ten mins here because the group in front hasn’t teed off.’
“As a caddy, you need to be open about things, particularly if a golfer is capitulating. You could be going poorly after 14, but finish strongly and vice versa. For the top players, it seems like four-to-five years is generally how long a player-caddy relationship lasts. It’s a really intense relationship.
“As Padraig (Harrington) would say, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. If you’ve been a strong amateur or you’re in the top 10 or whatever, just keep doing what you’re doing. Becoming self-reliant and looking after yourself when moving from amateur team events to becoming a pro, can you make that quick transfer and just keep doing what you’re doing?
“Keep playing the golf and organically you will improve because you’ll adapt to the environment. You’ll get used to being a little bit more precise.”
“One of the big differences between amateurs and professionals is just those little decisions you make; playing shots that you’re comfortable with, not trying to copy someone else. Do your own thing and just navigate your way around the course in 66 instead of 68, 68 instead of 70.”
Manchip has had a front row seat to some of the highest achievements in golf, be it through his experience with Rory winning Majors, or Lowry winning on the PGA Tour. But what is it that sets elite players apart from their peers?
“You’ve got somebody like Rory who was a real child prodigy, brilliant from the day he started playing golf and has kept that up. That is really unusual, for a good underage player to be top of the world as well. It doesn’t often transfer across.
“There are so many child prodigies out there, brilliant golfers at 13 or 14, and all of a sudden it will come to an end. Who knows why? They just get bored of it.”
The weight of expectation on McIlroy continues to swell this week as he maintains his pursuit of golf’s grand slam at Augusta. Hoping to add the Masters to his US Open, Open Championship and US PGA titles, all eyes will be on the Holywood golfer as he seeks his maiden Masters title surrounded by the beautiful azaleas that decorate the scene of his greatest capitulation, eight years previous.
“Body language can affect your mental state, and your mental state affects your body language.
“There are so many disappointments in golf. The better you perform, the higher your expectations.”
The image of a forlorn McIlroy standing over his club during a disastrous final round will forever be imprinted on the minds of golf fans, as a score of 80 decimated his four-shot lead and with it, chances of a green jacket. Neil Manchip will undoubtedly have spoken to McIlroy about that moment in great detail.
“Somedays, Ryder Cup guys can have terrible days against guys that are ranked way lower. In so many other sports, you just wouldn’t see that.
“The whole thing about resilience and being able to keep on going. There are so many different factors going on, but if you have that will to keep on going and battling it out inside you, you can win.
“You hear all sorts of stories about guys that could miss six cuts in a row and win. You just don’t get that in other sports. In athletics, you can pretty much tell what’s going to happen before it does. Whereas in golf, you could have a guy shooting 62 on a Thursday and 75 on a Friday. That’s just the game. It’s so multifaceted in terms of the actual result on any given day, that even a really skilled player can have a bad day.”
Manchip’s influence at Augusta this week for Shane Lowry may not be front and centre of TV screens, but it should not be underestimated. If Lowry goes on to win his first Major, Manchip will no doubt have played an important part.
“Our job is to make good golfers better, and a huge part of that is helping them to understand the decisions to make and the shots to take on. The attitude before going out, the attitude to bad results and good results. How they perceive their own thing.
“If they drive well and putt well, and hit a few decent iron shots, they’re going to do well. When it’s in your head that you have to do something, and you have to hit a certain shot, you can begin to try too hard and force things. But if you’re a decent version of yourself, understanding what you’re doing, it’s a great foundation upon which to make progress.
“There’s no formula to the whole thing. You could do everything right before getting on the course but could play lousy. It’s about understanding yourself.
“The job is simple; it’s about getting around the course in the least amount of shots that you can. Everything else is conversation and we need to know which conversations to direct our attention to at the right times.”
When asked what Manchip’s legacy would be in years to come, his modesty unsurprisingly came to the fore once more.
“Legacies are funny. Are they not a bit ego driven?”
We shake hands and draw the curtain back, as Manchip escapes through the Carton House foyer and back to the GUI Academy. We spent two hours together, but it felt like significantly less. ‘He makes it sound so easy’, I think to myself, no doubt a thought shared by many elite golfers following a meeting with the well-spoken Scot.
He may not be focused on legacy, but it’s clear behind the scenes that Neil Manchip is certainly forging one for Irish golf.