Panama City, Panama
From the back of the line in a crowded Panama City pub, Ireland’s Richie Coughlan announces to those waiting for libations, “Get in there and announce your presence with authority.”
A telling first impression.
The prompt isn’t for himself – there would be no alcohol for Coughlan until after the Feb. 8 final round of the BellSouth Panama Championship. The slight adaptation of the famous line from the movie “Bull Durham” is classic. To hear it announced amid the din of a crowded bar in Coughlan’s signature Irish accent is priceless.
Coughlan is not your run-of-the-mill Nationwide Tour player. His plan in 2004, however, is to become one.
After seven years of fighting shaky confidence and a painful rib injury, the 29-year-old from Tallamore appears ready to announce his presence with authority.
“I rededicated myself at the end of last year,” he said. “I think I can make a good impression
Considering his meteoric start as a professional, it’s safe to say he already has made an impression.
In 1997, after a solid college career at Clemson University, he turned pro and promptly earned
playing privileges on the PGA Tour and PGA European Tour.
“I go and get two tour cards, right from the start, that tells me something,” said Coughlan, who shot rounds of 66-75-76-70 in Panama and finished tied for 27th. (Coughlan tied for 30th at the Jacob’s Creek Classic Feb. 19-22.)
In his rookie year on the PGA Tour (1998), Coughlan earned $174,035 and narrowly missed retaining his status. He regained his playing privileges in 2001 via Q-School and felt his breakthrough season awaited. That is, until things changed one cool day in New York.
Coughlan slipped at his home in Troy, N.Y., while packing his car for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Doctors told him he’d suffered a muscle injury, and for six weeks he tried to dismiss the prognosis and play through the pain.
“It would feel OK and then by Wednesday I’d get really sore,” Coughlan said.
Doctors finally discovered two fractured ribs, a stress injury complicated by his spill prior to the Hope.
As a result of the injury and declining confidence, Coughlan made the cut in only eight of 26 events in ’01, lost his PGA Tour card and spent the next 11/2 years playing the Nationwide and Canadian tours until a chance encounter with a video camera last year revealed an alarming truth.
“I was getting fitted and went on camera,”
said Coughlan, who played seven events on the Canadian Tour last year and finished 65th on that circuit’s Order of Merit. “When I watched the video I didn’t like what I saw. I thought it looked absolutely disgusting.”
Coughlan’s self-styled swing – although efficient enough to earn him All-American honors at Clemson and a spot on the 1997 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team – was a product of the Irish winds. While his low, running hook that incorporated a steep downswing worked on windswept links, it wasn’t suited for most Tour venues in the United States.
“I know my swing wasn’t technically great, and it was part of the reason for my inconsistencies,” said Coughlan, who ranked 34th on the PGA Tour in ’01 in driving accuracy but 115th in driving distance (277.8 yards).
Coughlan enlisted the help of Troy Country Club swing coach Michael Kucera last August and the pair crafted a more shallow downswing. Coughlan also adjusted his alignment and improved his posture while maintaining an inside takeaway. The result – a higher draw and more consistency.
“Now, I focus on my target more instead of a general area,” he said.
Inspired by his new swing, Coughlan cruised through the first two stages of Q-School and headed for the second stage of European Tour Q-School with growing confidence. In the 27 hours it took him to get from Nevada to France, things changed.
“I got to the hotel (in France for his second-stage Euro qualifier) at 10 p.m. and thought I had been hit by a truck,” said Coughlan, who failed to advance out of second stage after rounds of 75-76-69-69.
Despite a similar letdown at the final stage of PGA Tour Q-School – he tied for 104th after six rounds in the 70s – Coughlan begins ’04 brimming with confidence. He returned to Ireland for a three-week vacation after Q-School, and arrived in Panama healthy and comfortable with his swing. He plans to play 20-23 events on the Nationwide Tour this season with a single-minded focus.
“I’m just thinking about (finishing in) the top 20 and not going back to Q-School,” Coughlan said. “Now I feel I have a game that I can win with. Whereas before, when I was on (the PGA) Tour, I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
Announcing his presence with authority, it seems, is something Coughlan is becoming accustomed to – whether it be on the golf course or in a crowded Panamanian pub.