Former Montserrat cricket player Lionel ‘Dougie’ O’Brien finds his true calling on the golf course

(Extracted from the Montserrat Spotlight)

Lionel “Dougie” O’Brien can’t help but wonder what might have been.

He began playing golf in his early teens while working as a caddie at the Belham Valley Golf Club in Montserrat. He learned the game on his own by observing the club members when they played, and he even went on to win a caddies tournament.

But his true love was cricket, and for 15 years (1970 to ’85) he shelved golf clubs in favor of a bat. He was a solid opening batsman, first for his village team in Cork Hill and later for the Montserrat national team, for whom he played from 1977-83.

After his cricket career ended, golf came calling again. He earned a spot on the Montserrat golf team in 1985, sharing the course with local standouts Neville Bradshaw and Ivan “Pocket” Hixon, among others. He represented Montserrat for several years, with the pinnacle coming in 1991 when he was selected for the Herman Cup, a tournament featuring the top golfers in the Caribbean.

After migrating to Antigua in 1995 following the Soufriere Hills volcanic eruption in Montserrat, O’Brien’s game flourished. To date he has won 13 tournaments around the Caribbean, including the Antigua Seniors Open six times.

“I always ask myself, ‘Why didn’t someone spot me [early on] and take me to the United States,’ ” says O’Brien, who wonders if he could have played on the prestigious PGA Tour. “If I knew better back then I would have stuck to golf. But it’s gone. It can’t be undone.”

O’Brien earned the nickname “Dougie” during his youth days playing friendly cricket games in Cork Hill. One day a friend told him he bats like Doug Walters, the Australian Test cricketer. Everyone called him “Dougie” after that.

Although he didn’t achieve stardom in cricket, O’Brien says the fundamentals required to be successful in cricket and golf are similar.

“Your left hand controls the ball in golf, just like in cricket,” says O’Brien, who swings right-handed. “But you have to be mentally stronger in golf than cricket because it’s a very hard game. The most bad words you will ever hear is on a golf course. They’re not cursing you, they’re cursing themselves.”

O’Brien says the key to his golf success is his short game.

“From 150 yards to the hole I’m deadly,” he says. “A lot of them can [drive] the ball longer than me, but chipping and putting is my strength.”

When O’Brien resumed playing golf in 1985 following his cricket career, he was a 17-handicap. At his peak in 2007, when he won three regional tournaments, he was a plus-1 handicap. He is currently a 4.

The “handicap” is a figure assigned to amateur golfers in order to level the playing field during tournaments. A 17-handicap is typical for a beginner. If that player shoots a round of 90, for instance, his score is adjusted to 73.

Despite his success, O’Brien says it’s unfortunate that he has not represented Montserrat for all his victories. When he relocated to Antigua he still played for Montserrat in regional tournaments, and sometimes would even pay his own fare to attend and compete in tournaments in the region. But he later switched to playing for Antigua.

Amateur golfers don’t receive cash prizes, and they depend on the countries they represent to provide funding for travel and other expenses. O’Brien says that has been a sticking point in his quest to play for Montserrat.

“In 2007 after I won in St. Croix they played the Antigua national anthem and I was standing next to the Antigua flag and I felt bad,” he says. “I really wanted to play for Montserrat. But due to circumstances I have had to play for Antigua.”

Regardless which country he represents, it’s the result that counts. O’Brien, who recently competed in a tournament in Barbados, says he’s considering taking a step back from competitive golf.

“I believe I’ve done enough,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over and I’ve done it all. Also, playing golf has taken me away from church. I’m a Seventh Day Adventist.

“I will continue to play golf on Sunday as usual, but just for fun.”