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Danielle’s battling through tragedy in Curtis Cup

By Karl MacGinty

The words triumph and tragedy are bandied about too often in sport, but Danielle McVeigh has recently come to know their true meaning.

At the age of 22, the Kilkeel woman is the oldest of the 16 players who represent the US and Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup which starts today at Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

She smiles as she recounts in a gentle Co Down burr how much pleasure friends and family have taken from her status as the ‘old woman' of either side.

“There's been some slagging from my sisters and that,” she admits. “It's crazy how low the age level is but I feel great about it. I certainly don't feel the need to be this old person giving everybody advice.”

Yet the strength and resolve she has shown since the death last month from cancer of her father Thomas, just 53, suggests this exceptional young woman is mature beyond her years.

An enthusiastic amateur golfer who played off four, Thomas McVeigh inspired his daughter's interest in the sport and remains her inspiration. “He was really fit and never drank, nor smoked,” says Danielle, adding: “It was a bit shocking when we first heard the news (in January) that he was ill.”

Initially, an operation appeared to resolve the problem. However, the disease returned more aggressively than before and when McVeigh won the Helen Holm (Scottish Ladies Stroke Play Championship) at Royal Troon in late April, her father was confined to hospital.

That famous victory sealed her place in the Curtis Cup team and McVeigh's first call was to her dad. “I rang him on Sunday evening after I'd won and he couldn't believe it,” she says. “He was so delighted, he was overcome. He was fully fit while he was in bed and knew 100pc what was going on, but he was so overwhelmed by the news he couldn't talk right then.

“He rang me back later on, he was so happy. I surprised him with a visit up in the hospital on the Monday morning,” she recalls with a smile, before adding: “He died just the week after that.”

It's another measure of her mettle that McVeigh, a golf scholarship student at the NUI in Maynooth, would sit her second-year exams in business studies barely seven days later.

“It was very hard getting ready in that week,” she admits. “It was just one of those things. You had to put your head down and keep going.”

Those beautifully simple words help explain the source of McVeigh's strength this weekend in Massachusetts as she underpins the bid by Great Britain and Ireland to end America's streak of six successive victories at the Curtis Cup.

Irishwoman Mary McKenna, a veteran of nine Curtis Cups and non-playing captain of the team at Essex County Club, made no bones about McVeigh's role in the side.

“Danielle is in a class of her own. She will lead my team. At 22, she's the oldest player but she's also a great character,” said McKenna, who, typically, has been a pillar of support for McVeigh in recent dark days.

“She's been really good with me the last few weeks since my dad passed,” says McVeigh. “She's instilled enough confidence in me to keep going. She just said, ‘Keep practising and you'll be alright'.”

At 6'1” tall, McVeigh jokes that her younger team-mates have to look up to her, but stature in golf isn't measured in feet or inches. Instead, it's built on character, talent and self-assurance, qualities that have helped McVeigh achieve several famous victories, including the 2007 World Universites’ Championships or last year's British Amateur Open Strokeplay.

Though gently spoken and blessed with a sense of humour, beneath McVeigh's affable exterior is a deep well of confidence, something which every champion golfer must possess.

It has been nurtured in McVeigh since her early childhood in the lee of the Mourne Mountains and on the shores of Carlingford Lough, where the family home sits today, overlooking Annalong.

“I first picked up a club at about 11 or 12 and didn't really like it for the first year but then I really got into it. I put all the other sports aside when I knew golf was the one for me.

“My dad always said I'd a very natural swing. Maybe I got a bit hot-headed very early on but he was very calm in his demeanour and just got me calmed down. My elder sister, Shauna, played golf as well. She and my dad got me into it and the competitiveness between the two of us kept me going as well.”

Like her sister Shauna, she went on a golf scholarship in the US. The late, lamented Dick Harmon, a hugely influential figure in Houston golf, was so impressed by McVeigh when, in her mid-teens, she attended a Red Bull Irish coaching seminar conducted by himself and his three brothers (Butch, Craig and Billy), he arranged a place for the Irish girl in the golf programme at the elite Texas A&M College.

After two years, McVeigh took stock of her situation. Realising she “wasn't getting better as a golfer” and yearning for an academic degree more challenging than the one she'd taken on in Texas, she made the tough decision to come home and begin again at NUI Maynooth. “I enjoyed every minute of my two years over there and I learned a lot about myself and my game.

“We travelled a lot. Because it was a top college, we played all the big events. You'd be in Vegas one day; a week later you'd be in North Carolina; then you'd fly across to LA,” she says. “I learned time-management skills, how to put everything together, how to balance the golf and the study and the social side as well. It just came to the point where I'd a difficult choice to make.”

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