From Ireland To Iowa For Golf

By K.J. Pilcher, Reporter

Kirkwood Community College golfers Sean Cleary (left) of Tipperary, Ireland, and Mitch Jacobi of Belle Plaine, Iowa, at Hunters Ridge Golf Course on Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Marion, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Grant Burkhardt

MARION, Iowa – He might be a diamond in the rough or maybe he’s a jewel from the Emerald Isle.

Either way, Sean Cleary has come a long way to chase down his dream of a career in golf.

The 21-year-old left his home in Rathcabbin, a village in western Tipperary County of Ireland, to attend Kirkwood Community College and join the school’s golf program. In his second year, Cleary has become the Eagles top golfer and aspires to earn a scholarship from a four-year school and make a profession out of his favorite sport.

Kirkwood Coach Darin Pint discovered Cleary through an overseas recruiting service. He was the only international prospect, but he was the first to respond. Cleary jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s like every kid’s dream to play golf in Ireland, and get a golf scholarship over here,” said Cleary, a sophomore, who attended college briefly in Ireland and also worked at a golf course. “In Ireland, there’s no real college athletics or anything like that. It’s a good deal if you get to come over here and play golf in college. I was delighted to get the chance to come over.”

Cleary left his family and friends in the small village of a few hundred people to pursue his goals in Cedar Rapids. Just like any college freshman, Cleary desired to be home, but he adapted quickly thanks to Pint and his new teammates.

“It was pretty tough at first. I didn’t know anyone,” Cleary said. “It took me a few weeks. I was a bit homesick, but once I got to know all the guys and that they’re really nice. They really helped me.”

At the forefront was new teammate and former Belle Plaine standout Mitch Jacobi. They hit it off instantly, forming a friendship through golf and a similar personality.

“My parents call him their adopted son,” Jacobi said with a laugh. “We’ve been friends ever since he moved here.

“We’re both really easy going. We get along with everybody.”

According to Pint, Jacobi reached out at the start, offering rides to practice and Wal-Mart. The gesture created a trust and developed a bond between the Eagles top-two golfers.

“Mitch is probably my best buddy over here,” Cleary said. “We hit it off straight away.”

Cleary regularly travels to Belle Plaine with Jacobi. He spends time at their home every other weekend, accompanied them on a spring break trip to California last year and experienced his first Thanksgiving at their home.

“They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said Cleary, the second oldest of John and Bernadette Cleary’s three daughters and two sons. “They brought me all the way to Belle Plaine. I know everyone there pretty much I’ve been there so often. I love the place.”

The family even introduced him to hunting and shooting. Jacobi was nervous about Cleary firing at moving targets. Cleary proved to be a natural.

“I was like shouldn’t we have him shoot targets that are sitting on the ground first because I don’t know if he’s going to be able to shoot something flying through the air,” Jacobi said. “We throw the first one up and sure enough ‘boom’ he smokes it.”

Cleary has visited Belle Plaine more than his home since his trek started. Last year, he returned to Ireland for Christmas break and then again for the summer. He plans to remain in the states for the summer, focusing on golfing at the next level.

Unfortunately, he had to miss his older sister’s wedding earlier this year. One of the drawbacks of his venture. He did provide a message via Skype that was played on the day of the wedding.

“I wasn’t there for it because of golf. I was only back (in Iowa) for two weeks,” Cleary said. “She’s the first in the family to get married. it would have been nice to be there for the celebration.”

Cleary chose golf over hurling, an Irish team field sport. His dad and 18-year-old brother own handicaps of four and 10, respectively. His mother and younger sisters are involved in camogie, the female equivalent to hurling. He said his 12-year-old sister has potential “to be a star” in camogie.

Athletics have been always been a major interest for the Cleary family. It consumed a lot of their time, travelling to participate in various events.

“It’s very sports oriented,” Cleary said. “My mom and dad were always (with us) on the road.”

They have been supportive, helping provide the opportunity of a lifetime for Cleary. He was apprehensive at first, thinking of the financial strain it could pose on his family. John Cleary was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

“He was all for it,” Cleary said about his father. “I was worried about it at first, money-wise. He was like don’t worry about it. We’ll sort it out.

“That took the weight off my shoulders a little bit.”

Somethings were understandably different to Cleary. He wasn’t used to golfers using carts, the weather is nicer, and he said the ball seemed to travel farther here. Cleary enjoys the competitiveness of college golf in America.

“I play against kids my own age maybe three or four times a year, but here it’s every week, which is really good,” Cleary said. “It really improves your game.”

The progress is noticeable. He posted the second-lowest scoring average on the Eagles team last year. Now, he leads the team with a 73.6 stroke average through six rounds. Pint said he believes Cleary has the passion and ability to garner a scholarship from another school next fall.

“This isn’t a hobby for him,” Pint said. “He’s really committed to being the best player. On top of that, he gets a great education. I feel he’s got the work ethic and the knowledge.”

Cleary placed in the top five at the regional meet last spring advancing to the national meet. Last year’s national tournament didn’t go well. Cleary still looks to soothe the sting from that performance, while trying to continue his dream to golf the next two years and make a living in the game he loves.

“I really felt like I let the team down and we didn’t finish as well as we should have,” Cleary said. “All summer I thought in the back of my mind that I’m going to get better and better. It’s definitely pushed me. I want to make up for it this year, for sure.”

Cleary and Jacobi live with two other golfers. The first thing they did was made sure to cough up five extra dollars a month to get Golf Channel added to their cable package. The two compete with each other on the course, pushing the other to get better. The rib each other in order to improve and help the Eagles repeat as regional champs, and return to the NJCAA national tournament.

“We’re trying to beat each other, but we’re trying to make each other better,” Jacobi said. “We’re trying to better the team.”

It will be hard to nitpick Cleary’s short game. He credits his wedge and putter for scoring low. Cleary has a knack of being able to place it near the pin with his approach and finish the putt.

“I really think from 150 on in he does a great job of dialing in his distances,” Pint said. “I’d say from 50 to 150 yards, he’s one of the best we’ve ever had at our level at Kirkwood.”

Cleary has his sights on something grander than Kirkwood. This was the first step toward making a living in golf.

“That’s the end for me,” Cleary said. “I hope to turn pro, competitively and go on tour or become a teaching pro. Either way, that’s what I’d go for.”

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