How turning his back on Tour saved Scots golfer's career

It's not exactly the sort of silverware Keir McNicoll had in mind when he set out in the professional ranks after becoming the first Scottish golfer to reach a plus six handicap, but you won't hear him complaining.

Keir McNicoll of Gullane Golf Club was named Assistant of the Year at the PGA in Scotland annual lunch. Picture: Andy Forman

It was his decision, after all, to kill off his dream of making it to the European Tour and turn instead to life as a PGA professional. His success in the training programme for that particular role has made that change of career path look a very smart move.

The Carnoustie man has just picked up the Stewart Thom Salver, which is awarded to the Year 3 PGA in Scotland Trainee of the Year. It completed a hat-trick of silverware successes for McNicoll, having been the Rookie of the Year in 2014 then Assistant of the Year in 2015. He was the best of British in the latter two instances, but being honoured on home soil in front of a 700-strong audience at the PGA in Scotland lunch in Glasgow proved equally satisfying.

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“I was looking at some of the names on the salver and most of them have gone on to become really good PGA pros, so it’s good to have joined them,” said McNicoll, who looked well-equipped for a playing career in the professional game on the back of some eye-catching amateur achievements, notably a St Andrews Links Trophy triumph in 2008.

Retired Hazlehead professional Ian Smith won the John Panton award at the PGA in Scotland annual lunch. Picture: Andy Forman

He just missed the cut on his professional debut in the Dunhill Links Championship, but his confidence was soon shattered in the paid ranks. It led to McNicoll making that brave decision five years ago to put his playing career on hold and sign up to the PGA training programme under Alasdair Good at Gullane.

“It has definitely helped working at a club like Gullane, which gets a lot of exposure and a lot of members and visitors through the door. You have to learn pretty fast as Alasdair likes to give his staff responsibility right from the outset and that’s good. It’s been a quick five years, for sure,” said McNicoll.

“When I decided to enter the PGA training programme, I talked it through with my father [David, who played for Hearts in the 1970s and also had spells with Dunfermline, St Johnstone, East Fife and Montrose], and I don’t think he was too keen. I think he’d have preferred if I’d kept playing. But my confidence was low at that time and I honestly didn’t think I could get my game back to the level it needed to be at for me to compete. I also spoke to a couple of people, including [Murrayfield professional] Jonnie Cliff.

“It is a difficult decision to make. When you’ve had a lot of success as an amateur and don’t enjoy instant success as a pro, it’s quite tough mentally and I think that’s where I really struggled. I just wasn’t prepared for that. It’s the one thing that I think Scottish Golf is missing. It is such a mental game and I think having a psychologist on board would be beneficial to players. Ian Rae is a fantastic coach, as is Spencer Henderson. But I think it would be helpful and make sense to employ someone who could help on the mental side.”

Retired Hazlehead professional Ian Smith won the John Panton award at the PGA in Scotland annual lunch. Picture: Andy Forman

The other accolade handed out at the PGA in Scotland annual bash, the John Panton Award, went to former Hazlehead professional Ian Smith in recognition of his long and outstanding service to the sport.

Dundee-born Smith got his first job in golf in 1952 as an assistant to Jack McLean at Gleneagles, spending “four happy years” at the Perthshire resort. He then had eight years at Hesketh in Lancashire before arriving at Hazlehead in 1964 as Tom Whyte’s successor. Smith, who tied for 16th behind Kel Nagle in the 1960 Open at St Andrews, was there for 43 years and some of the assistants he trained in that time went on to become leading club pros.

“It’s been a long road and there have been some ups and downs, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything in the world,” said Smith. Recalling his own memories of playing with the legendary Panton, who made three Ryder Cup appearances and won the Scottish PGA Championship a record eight times, he added: “I marvelled at the way he hit his iron shots. That was with old-fashioned blades, too. It was just pure skill and John had an abundance of that.”