Dublin – The joint-most successful Irishman on the European Tour might just be a rare case of an overnight success.
On 26 November 2003 and at the age of 50, Zimbabwe-born Mark McNulty became an Irish citizen, and so the Irish tricolour sat beside McNulty’s 16 wins on the European Tour’s roll of honour. (Rory McIlroy has since tied McNulty on that list, and can move ahead with victory at the K Club in next week’s Irish Open.)
McNulty was eligible for Irish citizenship as his maternal grandmother was born in Ballymena, and decided to get his passport owing to the situation back home under Robert Mugabe.
He was given the understanding that Mugabe’s regime were not going to renew his passport, and it was around this time that members of McNulty’s family had their farms confiscated by the government.
“They just weren’t renewing it”, McNulty tells The 42.
“That is a fact. Before that, they had said to me they are not going to renew it. Because I was not living in Zimbabwe, I couldn’t get a passport.”
McNulty was born in 1953 into Southern Rhodesia, then a self-governing British colony which became Rhodesia in 1965 when its white minority government declared independence.
15 years of international isolation and a war with black nationalist forces followed, after which the state of Zimbabwe was born from a peace agreement in 1980 and with the election of Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister.
Mugabe immediately pledged racial integration, and saw the redistribution of land to black farmers as its key tenet.
But when early land reforms did not have the desired effect, Mugabe launched a more radical plan in 2000, which forcibly confiscated farmland from white farmers, forcing them to flee.
McNulty had settled in England by this stage, but members of his family were forced from their homes.
“In total there were about 14 farms that were expropriated and confiscated”, says McNulty.
“They went to live in the cities instead and find another niche. Some did leave: some went to Australia, some went to New Zealand, some went to South Africa; some went to the cities and tried to do other businesses in which they wouldn’t get harassed, as such.”
This forced redistribution wrecked the national economy – GDP contracted by 40% over the next eight years – and by 2010, reportedly 40% of the farms had ended up in the hands of Mugabe and his allies.
Before these farms played a central role in a story of national decline, McNulty’s was the scene of personal tragedy.
He was only fourteen months old when his father was injured in a shooting accident while hunting along with his wife on the family farm.
He died on the way to hospital, and McNulty never discussed the accident with his mother.
“I never broached the subject”, he says.
“It’s just something she cut out from her life. People deal with deaths in all different kinds of ways. She never, ever talked about it. By the time I was seven she remarried, and she kept it out of the way not to upset my stepfather, or whatever it was. We never discussed it.”
His mother did open up the possibilities of professional golf.
“My mother was very good at sports”, says McNulty.
“When you’re in growing up in a country environment, I had the choice: watch her play some tennis, or go around the golf courts with her. That is when my love came. When I was five or six, I ended up bashing the ball around the garden, and it became a seriously passionate thing I really enjoyed.
“I just wanted to get better and better. Through my amateur days and then into professional golf, you just want to get better to play better to win tournaments. Luckily for me, I had a good share of winning a few tournaments.”
Talk about understatement. McNulty has won 59 times as a professional, and rose to sixth in the world at his peak.
Having played on the Sunshine Tour – where only Gary Player has recorded more wins – he made his debut on the European Tour in 1978.
Among the sweetest of his victories was the 1987 British Masters at Woburn, in which he beat Ian Woosnam on the very last hole.
Three years later he achieved his best-ever finish at a major, tying with Payne Stewart for second place behind Nick Faldo in the 1990 Open Championship at St Andrews.
“My mother’s father was Scottish, from Ayr, and he always wanted me to win an Open Championship in Scotland”, says McNulty. “Not that I was particularly close when I came second to Faldo – he won going away – but that British Open is something I will always remember. And not just because I came second.”
That Championship featured a flyover by the Red Arrows, during which one of the planes stuttered and peel back from the pack. McNulty saw it all unfold, and was left to assume the worst until he happened to spend a day with the Red Arrows later that year, and asked about the fate of the diverting plane.
“I asked them, why did he have to peel back? They said he had a bird strike and lost power, but has managed to save the plane by landing. If you were on the 18th green at St Andrews for prize-giving, you wouldn’t have known anything about it. That’s one of the reasons that tournament has always stuck in my head.”
McNulty turned 70 this year and is still playing on the Champions Tour, having been encouraged to join by his close friend Des Smyth. He was among the rain-soaked field who battled brutal weather at Royal Porthcawl at July’s Senior Open Championship, in which Padraig Harrington was pipped to the title.
“After playing 46 years professionally, you learn to play in bad and poor weather”, he says. “It’s not that something you really enjoy doing, but put it this way: if there was a nice social game at Portmarnock, I would say to the lads, ‘Listen, if the weather gets shitty, I am out of here and back to the clubhouse for a Guinness.’ But when it’s a tournament, you just have to knuckle down and get on with it.”
His passion for golf still endures, and all that maddening love.
“It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship. When you’re playing well, you love the Dickens out of the game, and when you’re not playing well, you want to put the clubs in the closet and say, ‘Go to sleep boys.’”
He still makes it back to Zimbabwe at least once a year, and is planning a return trip to Ireland having missed the recent Irish Legends field at Seapoint. A back complaint has curtailed his planned schedule of tournaments this year, but he isn’t contemplating the end just yet.
“Dessie [Smyth] is almost completely retired and I am getting there as well, if truth had to be said. The Covid years definitely slowed me down. It was at the wrong time of my playing career: most people, when they hit 70, have retired or are thinking about retiring. If you play the senior tour in America and here, it would be a time to say, ‘Let’s hang up the clubs.’ But while I am still able, I am still playing.”