Access to Better

People always want to know about the difference between amateur golf and professional golf. Why do some make the step up and some don’t? Why do some of the best amateurs in the world fall off the radar? Why do players you’ve never heard of keep their card year after year? Why do players who have struggled on feeder tours for their whole careers suddenly win on the big stage?

I don’t have the answers to all of that (if I did, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post wondering if anyone is actually going to read it), but I do know one of the most obvious changes can be one of the most problematic. You tick a box or sign a letter to say you’ve turned professional, and suddenly there’s a cheque being waved at you with every event you play. Initially, that just seems like an incredible bonus… you’re doing exactly what you’ve always done, the thing you love, the thing you’ve put sweat and sacrifice and into… and now you’re getting paid for it. Unfortunately that novelty wears off pretty quickly because you realise just how many expenses you have. You realise exactly what position in what tournament you have to finish, just to break even. Just to make the life that you want, the life that you can’t imagine not doing, financially viable. Going from a little thrill of excitement when you check your bank account or see the ‘earnings’ tab next to your name on the leaderboard, to doing all you can to avoid mentally or physically comparing the relentless ‘money out’ column to the lonely ‘money in’ one. Or repeatedly logging in to your accounts page, desperately hoping the payment has gone in, so you can find something else to worry about for a few days. And that’s if you’re making cuts…

Even though I feel like the money side of things will make my head explode sometimes, I’m pretty lucky that I’m still young enough to not have my whole life revolve around which bills I need to pay. And at the highest level, golf can be an incredibly rewarding, even ludicrous sport from a financial perspective. But not at every level. It almost amused rather than irritated me last year as I realised that making a profit by playing on the Access Series is damn near impossible. (If anyone is interested, I’d say you pretty much have to finish top 5 to have a chance of breaking even in each event). But that’s not a dig at Access, because feeder tours are exactly what they say they are: feeder tours. You shouldn’t be able to sustain your career by playing them for the rest of your life. In my mind, sport, and life, are about pushing yourself to be the best you can possibly be… I can’t understand people who ever get comfortable with mediocrity.

Playing Access was my only choice last year; it was the only tour I was guaranteed playing opportunities. That was far from how I envisioned moving from the amateur ranks to the professional ones, but I will tell anyone who will listen now that it was the best thing that could have happened to me. And maybe it was because of the limited prize money that I was able to play myself into a much better position in a year… to improve mentally and physically. I read something recently about how providing a financial, or external, incentive has been proven to lessen your intrinsic motivation. Maybe playing a tour where it’s pretty impossible to be driven by the financials is actually a benefit; you can’t get distracted by a reason you didn’t fall in love with something in the first place. Your only choice is to concentrate on getting better…. Maybe that’s part of why there can be more hunger on feeder tours than on bigger tours.

But I also think there’s a lot of pressure, whether self-inflicted or not, on players who have had a good amateur career, and think they are ready to make their mark in the professional world. Social media is all about the superstars; the players at the top, the players who make instant breakthroughs as if it was the only logical next step. The reality is that there are a million and one ‘next steps’ that you can take.. and they can come at any point in a player’s career. Quite often, they might feel like a step back. But actually, if you keep your eyes forward, it doesn’t matter what direction each individual step goes in. Ultimately, you’ll end up exactly where you are supposed to.

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365 Days, 360 Degrees

Every time I’ve gone to write or add to this blog post, I seem to have a slightly different perspective on what I’m trying to say… and maybe that in itself is the thread that’s woven its way through 2017.

It started on my flight home from Dubai (anyone reading this who I saw the night before that flight will recognise that is an achievement in itself), and I was trying to find a way to piece together the story of that week, in the context of the whole year. Because in a way, that season-ending event felt like a snapshot of the twelve months that preceded it. Kind of like when a series that you really like has just begun its new season, and despite how obsessed you were with it previously, so many details have slipped your mind… and so they show you a 30 second crash course of the 20 episodes worth of drama that went before. The combination of controlled confidence, adrenaline, leaderboard-climbing and crashing, exhaustion, despair… and then perspective. It was like every single emotion I’ve felt this year was thrown at me in its most extreme form… but maybe it all happened to re-emphasize everything I’ve learnt in my first year as a professional. It’s funny how even when you feel like you are learning unbelievable amounts from every single day of every single tournament, of every practice session, of every travel dilemma and every person you come across – it’s still far too easy to let those lessons slip by you. Maybe that’s why everything in Dubai seemed so heightened… it was like a reminder to remember.

And another reminder to remember has hit me in the last few days, with LET Q School going on. Mentally, I was a little all over the place this time last year, but in a completely different way to how I was when I started writing this blog. When Q School was over last year and I hadn’t achieved my full card, and I hadn’t gained any status in America after I graduated from college in the summer, I had a battle with myself over whether I needed to take a massive step back and find the missing pieces, or whether I needed to commit everything I had to the small improvements I was already trying to make. There was a lot of doubt involved at that point… a lot of analysis and questioning and reflection. While wondering if I should be doing the complete opposite. Weeks like Q School can do that to you; when it feels like your entire career and self worth is balancing upon a razor blade of a missed putt or a pulled 5 iron.

But the point I managed to reach at the end of last year, and the point I’m at now the rawness of Dubai has passed, is that perspective is everything. While your initial emotions can be the most honest ones, taking a step back from situations can be what you need to see the whole picture. Sometimes you’re too close to have clarity. Some things this year hurt more than I thought was possible; for every moment of pride and satisfaction there have been infinite moments of frustration and pain. But I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve done this year, in how I’ve grown golf wise and character wise. And golf… golf is a sport where even one of the greatest sportspeople the world has ever seen, in Tiger, could never come close to a wining percentage over the course of a career.

Equally though, I think it’s incredibly important to see every angle. I don’t ever want to pretend those reactions; those emotions, those ‘losses’ aren’t real. I don’t think people are always willing to admit to, or accept, or maybe even let themselves see that there are both ends of the spectrum; there are highs and lows and that’s ok. Maybe it’s an element of success to be single-minded in your pursuit of a goal; to refuse to let weakness show itself. But I think there has to be a way to see it all, to feel it all, and to appreciate it all. Because if you choose to ignore anything other than self-satisfaction, I think it undermines both your desire, and your capacity for improvement… it undermines your potential.

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Depth Perception

As a Newcastle fan, admitting the world isn’t black and white is quite a difficult thing to say. Black and white makes things simple; makes them understandable. Black and white makes us feel like we know which side of the line we stand on. It’s easy to see why we would want things to be as straightforward as that… it lessens our doubt and strengthens our convictions.

Black and white also reduces our understanding, our balance, our empathy, our compassion and our reasoning. Our ability to see more than two (or one) sides of the story. To see things as more than our own self-interest. To comprehend that decisions made to affect long term change won’t necessarily have short term benefits. To realise it isn’t us versus them, or right versus wrong, or win versus loss. That every decision doesn’t come down to a yes or no check box.

Standing up for what you believe in is a very good quality to have. But having the maturity to see the picture beyond those beliefs is a better quality to have. Living in a comfort zone, and blaming everything outside that comfort zone for why you’re still there… the world doesn’t owe you anything and if you think it does, you’ll stop seeing the opportunities you’re being given every single day. It can also be difficult when you’re trying to achieve something to take time out from that. But committing to the bigger picture will improve your own position in it, if you have the patience to see how it all fits together. Zooming out to zoom back in.

Black and white and everything in between is relevant no matter where you look. Results and numbers on a screen are undoubtedly what matters when you’re in a results-driven profession, but that doesn’t mean they are the only thing. Being able to take a step back to understand what goes into that result, what influences it and creates it and what it means. It’s like a million brush strokes to create a single line. There’s a million chances there to make that line look different; a million ways to create a different result. But without taking the time, or the patience, or the understanding to view those individual brush strokes, you might never know they were there. Or how to make them better next time.

 

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Living

I’d say “living the dream” is probably one of my most used phrases. (“One latte please” is unquestionably number one in that category). It gets said to me just as much; phone conversations with family members, comments on social media, envious club members listening to my latest adventures. As players, we probably use it ironically more often than we should, but to be fair to us there is a very very unglamorous side to tour life too. A lot of people only see the highlight reel – as with so many distorted life summaries through the social media lens – but the crowd cheering chip-ins and par 3s running alongside beautiful beaches are the pinnacle, rather than the norm. (As further evidence, I’m writing this from the top of a bunk bed). There are a lot of lonely moments and a lot of sacrifices, but for every bunk bed week; for every cold, wet Sunday night searching for your car at an airport while you trail your golf clubs behind you with the strap cutting viciously into your hand; for every alarm when it’s still dark outside and for every six footer that slides past the hole… there are immeasurable moments that outweigh them.

We are living the dream. I am living the dream. But not necessarily because I’m a professional golfer getting to play sport for a paycheck, but because I get to do something I love. I love golf so much I keep it quiet for fear of sounding insane, but it’s true. I like forcing myself to get to the course early because I know I’ve done that extra bit of preparation. I like dragging myself out to practice in the rain because I know I’ll have that extra bit of confidence if I’m in contention on the final day and conditions are tough. I like struggling with a practice drill because I know when I eventually make the breakthrough it will feel even sweeter. I love what I do.

And you know why that’s so important? Because life is too short not to. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do something I love, but I think everyone can have that opportunity if they look hard enough. And it’s more than that; it’s about being the person you want to be, day in and day out. There is no time to put ourselves on hold; to assume that one day we’ll get around to maybe taking up that thing that we secretly kind of enjoy, or reaching out to someone we let things end badly with, or trying to learn from people we look up to. My heart breaks for what’s happening in Las Vegas right now, but the scariest part is that events like this aren’t as shocking as they should be. But if we become numb to horrific events like this shooting, or the Manchester bombing, or the France terrorist attack, or the infinite number of other tragedies… we lose our own power. Our power to make every single day worthwhile. To make every single day mean something. Because we don’t know how many of them we’re going to get.

 

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Snakes and Ladders

I might have taken board games too seriously when I was a kid. Remember snakes and ladders? You could take hours and hours to get to that top line of the board, just a few squares away from the victorious one, sensing the finish line. Potentially one move away. Thinking all the hard work was done. All that forwards and backwards, climbing and falling, and here you were. You were on the right level. You were there.

But there was always the longest snake of all right before the last square, one that would take your precious, hopeful counter all the way back to somewhere near the beginning of the board. All the way back…

I think the people who created that game deserve some credit for life lessons.

I could compare so many things to that board game scenario. Every round, every tournament, every year, every golfing or sporting or professional career pretty much has their own versions of that. I’ve had more than one tournament this year where I’ve finished high up the leaderboard, but I was one shot or decision away, on the very last hole, from winning. There are plenty of positives in that of course, but as professionals in an individual sport we are all selfish and (at least I think) we are all in it to come home with the trophy. That’s what sport is, when it comes down to it. Second place is first loser etc etc. The brutal thing about golf is you put so much energy and effort in for so long and one tiny thing at the end of hours and hours is what brings about ‘loss’. In time – and the recovery time is thankfully getting shorter for me – you recognise the good that you did and can be proud about it, and more importantly learn from it, but… you’re still left with an incredibly bitter taste in your mouth for a while. Like getting to the penultimate square and just as you get ready to step over the line you come crashing back down. (I’m not sure I felt quite as strongly about losing in snakes and ladders, but hopefully you see the point).

US Open was kind of like that to the absolute extreme. I know people want to know what happened, why I didn’t perform, if I was that much out of my depth and so on… but I had good performances before then and I’ve had good performances since then, just as I’ve had and will have bad. What I will say is I’ve learnt more in the last month than I would have believed possible, and as long as that keeps happening then I know I can keep progressing. And the flip side of disappointments like that is you have to get into that position to have them. Getting to the top level of whatever your board game is means you’ve climbed and plotted and battled our way up there. Every person that I’m lucky enough to say supports me will make sure I don’t forget that. Disappointments are one thing, but the context of your disappointments will tell you a few things too.

There’s something about being pulled backwards to go forwards again. Look at what Koepka did… he won the US Open and suddenly people remembered that he was playing on the Challenge Tour a few years ago. Look at Jordan Smith winning the Order of Merit on EuroPro, then Challenge Tour, and now an event on the European Tour. I think people are starting to acknowledge that bursting onto a major stage as a young prodigy isn’t the only (or even the best) recipe for superstar-dom. Taking paths like that can be tough when you watch a Spieth or Lexi Thompson winning majors at the age they are. And I know I would say this with where I am career wise, but feel like you can learn possibly even more by getting yourself cut a few times on your way up. Maybe that way, you’ll be sharper when you do get there. Call it grit, resilience, character… call it nothing at all if you want. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got more of it from the past 12 months than I would have if I’d had things all go the way I wanted them to. And I’m also pretty sure that’s a good thing.

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Drifting with Direction

I don’t drink alcohol very often for a few different reasons. The biggest one of those is I don’t like wasting my time – I have things I want to achieve, and every day spent not working towards them is a chance I’m giving up. But another reason I don’t drink very often, as anyone who has ever been out with me will confirm, is that I like to disappear. (And I’m very very good at it… you can see how that could cause potential problems).

But even if my mind has absolutely no sense of consequences on those nights, I kind of understand the fragmented logic it is attempting to follow. It can be suffocating spending too much of your time fixed in certain behaviour, or trapped in the same social circles, or forcing conversations you don’t care about, or curbing your jokes because people don’t get your sense of humour. Clearly alcohol for me is the switch where I just walk away from those situations (and away, and away, and away… I’d love to know what drink made me think walking twenty miles alone through downtown Miami was ever going to work).

In a similar kind of way, some of my most enjoyable nights out were when I either didn’t feel the need to wander off or I could quite happily drift from group of people to group of people. Every person and every place has something a little bit different about them and it’s not always what it appears to be. Everyone has pieces of their personality that don’t quite belong with the company they keep or the town they live in. Those under the surface parts of people are the parts I like discovering. And I think quite often we want to share them, we just don’t always know how to. We all get trapped by whatever boundaries we think frame the life we’re supposed to live; the conversations we’re supposed to have and the opinions we’re supposed to agree with. But it’s suffocating, and I think it’s ok to need a step back from that.

I think where I’m trying to go with this is that it’s ok to not feel comfortable. It’s ok to drift… whether it be from people, or places, or yourself. How anyone can know where they want to live “when they grow up” is beyond me. It can take time to find the people or the places that bring out all of the best versions of yourself.. it can take time and maturity to realise you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing (and you can figure that out without the influence of alcohol). You can care what people think of you, but only if those people are people you respect. Finding them is worth it… everyone else is probably too busy worrying about themselves to care anyway.

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No Halos for Heroes

It’s hard to imagine someone inarguably labeled as one of the best (if not the best) golfers to have ever played the game could be considered underrated. But I honestly think he is. His record when he was at his peak is one of those where you just look at the numbers and can’t really get a sense for what they actually mean, because they are so outrageous. For all the incredible players we have the privilege of watching right now – and perhaps the depth of the game at the highest level is stronger now, making it more difficult for anyone to be truly dominant – none of them have come close to maintaining that level over a sustained period of time.

What Tiger did was extraordinary. As I think Nick Faldo tweeted, he transcended golf; he transcended sport. Which makes the publicity and ridicule surrounding his downfall perhaps understandable (although still unacceptable in my opinion) – being on top of the world brings with it its own consequences. But for people to treat it all as entertainment… this is someone’s life. Since when is it fun to watch a sporting icon come crashing back down to earth?

I’m no mental health expert, and none of us have any idea what he’s really going through. But perhaps it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that he has had the issues he’s had when you consider how much he must have sacrificed to reach the level he did. We all know golf can be a lonely sport, and trying to pursue excellence in any field doesn’t always feel worth it when you see what you have to be willing to give up. But fortunately for the rest of the world, Tiger chose that path, and committed to it with a dedication I’m not sure we will ever see again. Maybe that’s what broke him.

I would never condone the things he has done. What he put his family through and the disrespect he’s shown to some people is inexcusable and ripped apart my own image of him as a hero. The person you are will always matter more than the things you achieve. But to forget about his achievements; to pretend they are insignificant, to remember one of the best athletes this world is ever likely to see as a police mugshot would be even more inexcusable on our part.

He inspired more people than it’s possible to count. In a sport where no matter how good you are, your chances of winning are about as good as Leicester’s were of winning the league, he made it ok to want more, to be dedicated to more, to give your absolute all and more in your quest to go down in history. To find a way to win at your worst, to never give an excuse in a game where so many factors are out of your control… and to do it all in a world which didn’t want people of his race there in the first place. Those doors that he opened and barriers he broke go far beyond him, and despite what I said earlier, they probably have little to do with his character and everything to do with his achievements. But his achievements… they inspired more than a generation.

There are so many mind blowing stats I didn’t even know which ones to pick. The wins are one thing, but the consistency is ridiculous…

  • In the entire year 2000, he only had one round above 73 (where he shot 75 on a day where the field average was 75.59).
  • There is only one other player in the history of the PGA Tour who has won a single event seven or more times. Tiger has done it four different times.
  • From 2002-2005, he only missed three putts from 3 feet or less… out of 1,540 (I feel like I should stop typing and go back to the putting green right now).
  • Out of 45 events where he had the outright lead with one round to go, he won 43 of them.
  • He’s the only player in PGA Tour history to win eight or more times on one course. And he’s done it at three different courses
  • He played 142 PGA Tour events IN A ROW without missing a cut
  • He’s spent 683 weeks as world number one. That’s six years. Or 4781 days… whichever number you can wrap your head around. (Golf Channel)

I count myself incredibly lucky to have been able to watch him when he was breaking and making all of those records. And to be honest I don’t think I truly appreciated at the time just how incredible that standard was… maybe it’s only now that I’ve been playing for longer and understand the game better that I can even begin to put what he did in perspective. He clearly has his flaws, and regardless of what the events of the past few days are about, I can never like his character properly because of what he did to his family.

But what he did for golf… and potentially what that meant for my own golf, and so many thousands or millions of others… that should never ever be underestimated or undervalued. Remember that.

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