NI Open: Veteran caddie David McNeilly still enjoying life ‘on the bag’

David McNeilly helped Matt Wallace to a top-20 finish at the US PGA Championship

It should be a week off for the father of the caddies’ house but Greenisland’s own David McNeilly can’t stay away.

On Sunday evening in St Louis, the 66-year-old cancer survivor was on the bag of Matt Wallace as the talented young English prospect earned a top-20 finish at the US PGA Championship in St Louis.

On this Thursday afternoon, McNeilly is shooting the breeze with some young practitioners of the bagman or indeed bagwoman’s art at the Northern Ireland Open at Galgorm Castle.

McNeilly has been on a few good bags in his time – Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Padraig Harrington to name but three.

Other tournament winners to have benefited from the Northern Irishman’s wise counsel down through the years include Mark McNulty, David Feherty, Alvaro Quiros, Matteo Manassero and latterly Wallace.

Finding his feet with Faldo

McNeilly was caddie for Nick Faldo at the 1983 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale

His relationship with Faldo began with a hilarious misunderstanding which the six-time major winner later recounted on a live TV appearance on Terry Wogan’s BBC chat show.

By his own admission, McNeilly had barely learned the rudiments of the job when Peter Coleman, who was to find fame as Bernhard Langer’s caddie, suggested that he should apply for the vacancy on Faldo’s bag which had come after a tournament in New Orleans.

“Pete Coleman said to me: ‘Faldo doesn’t have a caddie, do you want to work with him’. I said I’m not that good. I’m too green. But Pete said, ‘he doesn’t have a caddie, I’m going to put your name in.

“So I ended up phoning Faldo and he said to me, ‘give me a call on Monday morning when you are at Heathrow Airport’ and he put down the phone.

“So I drove down to Miami, sold my car and got an airline ticket to Heathrow and then rang him and said ‘hi Nick, it’s David McNeilly.”

“After telling me that I would have to get the golf balls sorted as well as the locker room and the chipping green, he then said ‘do you have a wheel?’

“Having come from America, I thought he meant a car (and not the yardage wheel which in used in those days) and I said, ‘no, I use public transport.

“He just completely disappeared for about 20 seconds. He was obviously underneath the table biting his arm. Eventually, he came back and said, ‘what was your name again?’.

“I said it’s David McNeilly. He said ‘do you use a double-decker bus to get your yardages? I’ll see you tomorrow at 10’.

“Funny enough Faldo told that story on the Terry Wogan Show. Fortunately he didn’t refer to me by name. He just said that he had this Irish caddie.”

McNeilly’s first week with Faldo saw the English finish in third place at the Martini International at Lindrick although the Ulsterman says it was no thanks to him.

“Faldo made me into a caddie. I was really thick skinned, wanted to learn. He was a serious hard taskmaster but I took it all.”

McNeilly’s time with Faldo included the Englishman topping the then European Order of Merit in 1983 after five wins that season.

But as it almost inevitable in the caddie world, the relationship eventually ran its course as Faldo’s game struggled for a time in the mid-1980s amid the swing changes that eventually were to yield six major titles for the Englishman.

“We’re actually good friends now but I probably had developed a bit of ego too at the time after the success we had.

“He had started to treat me really badly on the golf course because his golf game was suffering and I wasn’t taking it. I said, I’ve had enough. I’m going somewhere else’.”

After a brief stint with compatriot Feherty, McNeilly hooked up with Price and their “hugely enjoyable” time together included the Zimbabwean’s memorable battle with Seve Ballesteros during the 1988 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes.

Despite loving his time with Price, the arrival of son Oliver convinced McNeilly to step away from the globetrotting job in 1991 before he was coaxed back seven years later.

“My wife knew I was missing the caddying and I started working for Mark McNulty in 1998. A year later, Padraig (Harrington) asked me to work for him.”

McNeilly’s time with Padraig Harrington saw the Irishman narrowly miss out on major successes

‘Missing out on a major’ with Harrington

McNeilly’s time with Harrington saw the Irishman narrowly miss out on major championship success on a couple of occasions, notably at Muirfield in 2002, as he established himself as one of Europe’s finest players.

However in May 2004, Harrington dispensed with McNeilly’s services, as he put brother-in-law Ronan Flood on his bag, saying that the relationship had “gone stale”.

The moved shocked McNeilly’s fellow caddies and the Greenisland man says getting the news “was my most difficult moment in golf”.

“At the time, I was pretty hurt. But as time goes on, you think that everything happens for a reason. He had his reasons for doing it. That’s fine. It was justified. Look at his results (three major wins). You just have to move on.”

McNeilly’s moving on included helping young Italian Matteo Manassero win the BMW PGA Championship in 2013 but within a year the Northern Irishman was fighting a battle against prostate cancer.

“If you are going to get prostate cancer, Ireland is the best place to get it because there is a guy from Dublin called Professor Joe O’Sullivan attached to Belfast City Hospital who is the leading light into research into the disease. He got me sorted out.

“I was ready to work again pretty quickly but nothing came up for a while. You have a bit of a stigma because when people hear you’ve had the big C, they think you are done and dusted.”

Young English professional Callum Shinkwin has benefited from the experience of McNeilly

In Ryder Cup running?

But then out of the blue, IMG called offering him a job with young English player Callum Shinkwin, with whom he spent a year before linking up with Wallace early last year.

Since then Wallace has earned three European Tour wins and the Englishman has hailed McNeilly’s role in his emergence.

Having previously caddied for Faldo and Harrington at Ryder Cups, McNeilly says his young star Wallace believes he can make a late dash into Thomas Bjorn’s European team for the match in Paris next month.

“He told me last night that we’re going to play in the Czech Republic next week. He said that he has a funny feeling that if he could win that and have a really high finish in Denmark he might catch Bjorn’s eye.”

After helping Wallace achieve a top-20 finish at the US PGA last weekend, McNeilly is not putting any limit on what the 28-year-old can achieve in the coming weeks and beyond.

“He reminds me of Padraig. He’s very professional, very thorough and goes about and learns his trade very well, which is probably the reason he has had such a meteoric rise because he is open to criticism when it helps.

“Two years ago, he was on the Alps Tour and last week, he was playing golf with Jordan Spieth and loving it.”

McNeilly isn’t half enjoying his indian summer either.