Some stories are more interesting than others, like how a 3-handicapper entering University who lived his teen years with ambitions of playing professional rugby for Connacht can graduate, hold down a full-time job and become a winning Irish international golfer.
Well, that’s Co. Sligo’s TJ Ford in a nutshell. I first met him at the closing ceremony to last year’s Mullingar Scratch Cup; the towering South of Ireland champion narrowly defeated by Jake Whelan in a ding-dong battle down the stretch.
The previous day, a player from the group behind caught in a log-jam on the par-5 16th tee pleaded with Ford, who was waiting to hit, ‘to give the rest of us a chance’. He birdied the hole on his way to a second round 66.
Ford was in the form of his life having sauntered to a 5&4 win over Alan Fahy in Lahinch, and although he fell one shot shy of following in the footsteps of the likes of Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington to make it a double in Mullingar, you could forgive me for asking if he was a full-time amateur at the ceremony, such was the standard of his play.
“Me? God no. Full-time working,” he confirmed.
His golf could’ve fooled me.
I caught up with Ford fresh off receiving the news that he’d been picked to represent Ireland at the Octagonal Matches in Spain. Back living with his parents in Rosses Point where he works remotely for golf marketing company, The Revenue Club, the 26-year old was happy to chat, a break from the confines of his home office where he takes advantage of his short walk to Co. Sligo at lunch-time to fine-tune a short-game that behaved so well last season.
“I definitely think the working from home is a summer gig,” Ford says.
“You can really make the most of the day when you’re not in the car commuting. I find it more difficult during the winter, you’d miss some of the water-cooler interactions you might have with people in an office, generally you’re only talking to people about things that need to be done.
“Thankfully The Revenue Club are big on encouraging flexi-time. I just need to do a better job of using it!”
Whatever about the mundanity of the daily grind through the winter months, Ford, helped greatly by his accommodating employers, has been granted Stretch Armstrong-like flexibility to chase his fairway ambitions where most jobs simply wouldn’t allow.
“I’ve been chatting to work and they’ve been unbelievable with me,” Ford explains.
“To be honest, I was tempted to take out a short term loan for this year. When I looked at the schedule, I sat down and documented how many days I was going to be playing golf for this year – how many working days – budgeted for the best case scenario of playing the final day of every event – which isn’t realistic – but anyway, it was like 85 working days between April and August.
“The Revenue Club basically said ‘play whatever you want and we’ll support you’. I don’t know how they’ve agreed to keep me on but I’m very grateful.”
Time management is a constant challenge for amateurs in Ford’s position. 2021 was a breakout year for him but while those harbouring dreams of one day making the grade on tour can dedicate their all to the cause, Ford had to maximise his annual leave in order to make himself available for the biggest tournaments possible.
Such commitment leaves little time for rest between the desk job and the golf job but where the version of Ford who lived and died by his golf game whilst graduating to the Paddy Harrington Programme in Maynooth might’ve struggled with the juggling act, the now Masters graduate from Sligo can appreciate the great escape that golf provides like never before.
“Last summer I had twenty days annual leave and I planned that around my golf,” he explains.
“When I was in Maynooth, golf was basically all I had. My mood would very much be dictated by how I was playing at the time. If I was playing poorly, which I often was, I’d just be grumpy and that’s obviously not a good place to be.
“But when I started working, all of a sudden you’re sitting at this desk for eight or nine hours a day and you go out and play golf and you’re like, ‘this is class’.
“I’m playing these events that literally are my holidays. You’re catching up with the lads, having a pint in the evening with your food and loving every minute of it.
“That’s something I need to be conscious of this year playing in an Irish team and competing at bigger events, not to lose that perspective, and to avoid putting too much pressure on myself to make teams here and there.
“I’ll be able to put my ‘Out of Office’ on my emails and go and play golf. That’s a pretty nice situation to be in.
“I have missed two holidays with my girlfriend Shannon though. We were supposed to go to Paris in September, which ended up clashing with Homes, and then Venice in February, which is clashing with the Portuguese amateur. Shannon deserves the same shout-out that TRC do for sticking with me!”
In many ways, fate had a hand in Ford’s ascent to the top of the amateur game. A talented junior who made an Irish under-14 panel in his mid-teens, Ford traded the small round ball for an oval one, playing rugby in secondary school for Sligo Grammar before catching the eye of provincial selectors with Connacht and training three times a week in Galway for interpros.
At somewhat of a crossroads upon graduating secondary school, a misfiring email confirming his selection to the Connacht under-19 panel landed in the wrong inbox. Ford thought he’d been overlooked, and tired of being hit hard by lads even bigger than him, he decided to return his attention to golf.
Ford opted for University in Maynooth, “not sniffing a scholarship” at the home of the Paddy Harrington programme where the likes of Walker Cup star Gary Hurley was honing his craft.
He joined Carton House out of his own pocket but it was the help of fellow student and long-time friend from the club back home, Sean Flanagan that introduced Ford to a golfing environment he quickly fed off.
“The big thing for me was just being surrounded by so many players who were way better than me,” he recalls. “Literally lads who I would’ve been nearly idolising.
“Robin Dawson and Stuart Grehan were there in the peak of their powers in the amateur game at that stage. Ronan Mullarney, Eugene Smith, Jordan Hood. There were so many lads who were really, really good golfers and just playing chipping matches for a fiver against those lads, you don’t really have a choice but to get better and learn from them.”
Living below Flanagan, Kyle McCarron and John Murphy in his first year, Ford was as close to the golf programme as one could get without actually being in it. Eventually he would play his way onto the Development panel in second year, gaining full use of Carton House and access to a block of pre-booked lessons with Kenny Fahy in the National Academy.
During his time, Ford has picked the minds of some of the brightest teachers in golf, from Shane O’Grady to Noel Fox, and Johnny Foster to Donal Scott. As he made his way through the ranks at Maynooth, doors opened to Strength and Conditioning, education around Nutrition and even Sports Psychology, and by the time he graduated having house-shared with Ronan Mullarney and another Walker Cupper in Caolan Rafferty for final year, Ford left campus a better player than ever.
He would go on to do a Masters in Marketing, mostly online in Sligo but even having come through the programme at Maynooth, surrounded by some of the most promising talents in Irish golf and often holding his own, Ford couldn’t have predicted just how far his star would rise last year.
“It’s cool,” he says after a long pause when I bring up what it feels like to have won one of the most decorated titles in Irish amateur golf – the South.
“Again, I put a lot of it down to playing with people that are better than you. It means you have to be better too.”
That wasn’t always the case though. Sometimes it helped teeing up against lads who might’ve been better than you, but you had no idea. Just take Ford’s first cap as an Irish International at the Homes.
“I was nervous,” he admits of his debut at the round-robin tournament at Hankley Common where Ireland claimed victory for the first time since 2017.
“It’s just the unknown. Good thing for me was that because I hadn’t played too many international events the last couple of years, I hadn’t a clue who I was playing on the other teams.
“Looking back on it now, I played Josh Hill in one of the games in foursomes and he’s playing his third HSBC event over in Dubai – he’s a prodigy! – and I hadn’t a clue who he was, which definitely helped.
“But I was nervous, but it was fun and my confidence grew from having a good season. I was going there playing well and had a reasonable idea of how my game would be. First cap, you’re always going to be nervous but hopefully it’s the first of many.”
Despite his new-found status as an Irish international, and having etched his name on the famous South trophy, Ford’s head remains tightly screwed on when it comes to fleeting notions that he could turn pro.
Having spent so much time in awe of some of his peers who graduated from Maynooth only to watch them struggle to make the grade in the paid ranks, Ford’s adamant that he’s found his place in the amateur game, with no prospect of that changing in future.
“I definitely squash any ideas of turning professional because I don’t think a good domestic season is a good enough benchmark,” he says.
Perhaps that opens the door to a road less travelled these days for the likes of Ford then – a life as a career amateur, with the R&A recently modernising the rules around amateur status and therefore eliminating all advertising, expense-related and sponsorship restrictions.
“It’s a funny one – it’s hard to go to a business and pitch for a thousand quid and they go, ‘OK, what will we get in return?’ and you go, ‘oh, well, that’s thing. What do you want? Because I can’t really offer you anything!’
“It’s brilliant obviously, and there’ll be prodigies coming through like Tom McKibbin when he was an amateur, who businesses would throw money at trying to get in early but for 80% of amateurs, it’s hard to see how the change will have an impact.”
Instead, Ford will focus his energy on competing further afield this year, testing the unexposed limits of his play against players, courses and competitions outside a comfort zone he’s hesitant to linger within.
“I’m looking forward to playing this year,” he says. “It’s all well and good having a good domestic season last year but like I say, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a great benchmark.
“You’re playing against the same fellas every week. You know this fella hits a hook every few holes, or this fella’s liable to slice one, and I’m one of those people obviously too, but just getting out there and testing the waters against a different talent pool should be eye opening. I’m very excited to see how it goes.”