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Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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Game Changers Pt. 1

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Toward the end of the 2018 season Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort in Belek hosted the Turkish Airlines Open, now an integral part of the Rolex Series events which conclude the European Tour’s annual Race to Dubai.
 
The tournament and the region have witnessed immense change and with that in mind we chatted to players who have also found their careers in transition over the last season or so, seeking insight into not only what prompted the advances, but also what the future might hold for them.
 
 
 
There are few more entertaining talkers about the game than the three-time major champion from Ireland. In recent years his PGA Tour performances have dropped away. The last three years alone have seen just one top ten finish in 40 starts whilst in the same period he has made six top tens in 36 starts on the European Tour. Talking after a first round 65 in Turkey, he was asked how he explained the difference between his efforts either side of the Atlantic.
 
“I love playing in the States – I really enjoy it – but not being in the WGC events or the top 50 puts you under so much stress trying to play both tours. The courses suit me better in Europe in terms of just that fraction slower greens. It gives me freedom around the greens because I don’t hit many fairways and with the faster greens in America, it’s tricky if you miss them. Here I can get up-and-down from everywhere.
 
“Another thing is that if you're just slightly off pace in the States it feels so much like a sprint, going hell for leather for birdies. And, look, I also enjoy the craic more in Europe, there's no doubt about it.
 
“Here’s something else. You can miss a cut in the States Friday morning and you play your next round of golf Thursday afternoon. That's six full days, okay, and this is why a lot of Europeans have struggled in the States. Six days is a lot of time to fill. You can only hit so many balls.
 
“I missed the cut this year in Wentworth and I was home for tea. It was almost like somebody gave me a bonus for missing the cut. That is just phenomenal, the difference in how I felt. You miss the cut in the States and you're kind of a little embarrassed to turn up and practise on Saturday and Sunday on the range. You miss the cut in Europe and you're home, you get your head sorted. You don't feel so bad once you get home and then you can have a couple of days practising. 
 
“I used to practise a lot, but there's only so much practise you can do. The practise you can do on a range is pretty poor. It really is. It really is questionable if the practise you do on a driving range is of any benefit.  
 
“If I was playing great golf, of course, it wouldn’t matter because when you're playing well, you're busy all the way to Sunday. You're having a rest Monday and then you're building up. Great. What’s the answer? Don't miss so many cuts, that would be the solution.
 
“There's nothing that really changes my legacy in the game. Maybe winning a Ryder Cup as a captain, that might help. But even winning another major, going from three to four, doesn't really change much. Winning another tournament doesn't, but I actually really like it. I enjoy doing what I do. I actually figured that out. This is what I want to do. I don't want to do anything else. I want to come out and win, and I think I can. In my head, I believe I can go and deliver and do the stuff. Practise this Tuesday morning? Yeah, it was the hardest thing ever. I don't have that enthusiasm any more, but I do have the enthusiasm to be out scoring on the golf course, card in my hand, looking for the win.”
 
 
 
As a rookie in 2011 the Italian finished second in the Challenge Tour rankings behind Tommy Fleetwood, failed to retain his card, but rebounded in style, grabbing top spot on the 2013 CT. Despite all that success he found himself at Q School last November. But he earned a card and what followed was remarkable: 17 top 30 finishes, six of them top tens, including a maiden victory in the Czech Masters. How did the 29-year-old Texas A&M grad turn it around?
 
“I worked hard on my game last year with a new coach in the States, but what was important is that it wasn’t too technical. Instead we worked on my course planning and my strategy. 
 
“I now look to play with what I have. If I’m playing really well, then fine, I can be aggressive off the tee. But otherwise, I’m playing safer and crucially I am playing to my strengths. I struggle to drive it like some of the top players, but for them it is the best part of their game and for me it's not. 
 
“I need to keep improving, but I also can’t keep banging my head against a wall, trying to hit long drives that I just can’t hit. My iron game is very good, I feel that, and I needed to start taking advantage of it so it matters that I find fairways.
 
“It’s funny though. When I won in Prague I didn’t actually play that well with my irons, but on Saturday I holed so many long putts. On Sunday I was playing with Padraig Harrington. He got a good start and I didn't yet I knew it would be a long day. I started hitting the ball better, but by now the putts dried up. I stayed strong though. I guess it was a bit of maturity because in the past I'd have lost patience. I just knew that it would only take a couple of shots for it to change and it did. I am proud how I stayed focussed.
 
“Playing with Padraig was good. He plays to his strengths like I have learned to. His European Tour podcast was inspirational. It proved again the importance of the changes I have made.”
 
 
 
The 23-year-old Englishman has always done things his own way, right from rejecting England honors as an amateur to focus on his own route to the top which has involved steady and deliberate steps up the tour pyramid. He started on the third tier EuroPro circuit, one year on the Challenge Tour was followed by three quick wins which earned Battlefield Promotion in 2017, and then in 2018 he retained his card safely enough. Shortly after Turkey he opened the 2019 campaign with victory in the Hong Kong Open, an intriguing development given how our chat started with the question of how an inexperienced player comes to terms with the challenge of new locations.
 
“The first priority during your first year is to keep status because the longer you're out here the more you learn, particularly with course set-ups. When you're at a course for the second, third, fourth time you're definitely in a better position compared to that first time. 
 
“It’s not just knowing the course, although I do like to understand the layout. It’s also because you can spread your time on other areas of your game rather than rushing around trying to know the course. Assuming that work pans out, you’re therefore a little more confident in your game and also a little more rested because scouting a course is not easy. Learning and planning to play a course is a skill in itself and can take a lot of energy.
 
“After a good start to 2018 my form dropped off, but I can still take things from that, not just positives but negatives. What worked and what didn’t? What worked to start with and then stopped working? I’m definitely a bit of a thinker, but it’s maybe a bit more learned that natural. I've made mistakes, but I think sometimes not getting it right first time can have long term benefits if you recognize it.”
 
In 2017 Rai won the Kenya Open, then on the Challenge Tour and as of March a new European Tour location. His mother returned to Kenya with him for that win, her first trip there since she left the country in the 1970s. He was treated as a local winner.
 
“I’m 100% going back because it will be massive. The atmosphere was amazing both years I played there and I can't wait to return.”
 
 
 
With victory in his third professional start in 2011, shortly after grabbing the first round lead in the Open as an amateur, everything seemed rosy for the Englishman. But his Race to Dubai rankings thereafter refused to drop below 94th and he lost his playing rights in 2016. The end of 2017 and start of 2018 was grim: seven missed cuts in a row. But a top ten at the Turkish Challenge in May was a tiny hint of better things to come and late in the season a CT win was quickly followed by a second Portugal Masters title. The return to Turkey was poignant, but could he have guessed what would follow that spring promise?
 
“Not at all. I think, being honest, that when you're used to failing, you start getting used to it. Does that make sense? You just never really know if you'll get it back and the only option is to work hard which is what I did and it turned around. I really want to play well in these final weeks of 2018, but long term if I can just keep building, just keep chipping away, I feel like the future will be strong. 
 
“A few things changed over the course of the summer. The first was that my short game got better and I started to hole putts. I've also built a good team around me. But I'm very happy in myself as well and there’s no doubt that helps.
 
“Getting so many first reserve spots last year and not getting a start, that was what it is. Sometimes things happen in life and you've got to deal with them. I needed to mature as a person and golfer – and it's happened. Take today, I shot 2-under and I felt uncomfortable out there. That wouldn't have happened last year and it's not what I've been able to do for a number of years: play bad, get a score.”
 
The next day Lewis shot an 8-under 63 on his way to T14 and two weeks later he was T7 in the DP World Tour Championship.
 
 
 
Like Lewis, the Finn was another whose return to Turkey prompted memories of a week which turned his career around. In the case of Pulkkanen he had spent the early months of 2017 honing his wedge game ahead of the Challenge Tour season after an early pro career that had repeatedly backfired. His first start back saw him finish second in the Turkish Challenge, a result he didn’t waste, going on to claim a first win at CT level and end the year top of the rankings. A month before our chat his solo fourth in the Dunhill Links confirmed his ET card for 2018.
 
“I played a lot of links golf as an amateur and I enjoyed it a lot so played as much as I could. I like it that you can survive with a creative short game. On some courses you might be short-sided, but on links golf if you have an imagination there is always a way to get out of trouble and that’s fun.
 
“My length from the tee has always been a mental, as well as a physical, advantage. I have always known that if and when distance matters I can call on it. That gives me mental strength. But what I’ve learned this year is that the course set-ups are harder at this level and that I need to hit more fairways in the future – I’m too sideways from the tee. 
 
“Last year my goal was to graduate. Then I said earlier this year that my goal is to retain my card and then I want a win within two years of being at this level. Getting to the European Tour I had so much confidence from the win in Kazakhstan and from leading the Challenge Tour. I lost it a little bit of confidence in my putting mid-2018 but I got it back.
 
“Where am I excited about returning? I didn't make the field at Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year, but I will this year and I think they might suit me. After the Dunhill result I can't wait to go back there. It would be nice to play the Irish and Scottish Opens better too.
 
“Finnish golf is having a little boom. Five players next year is a record and it's going to interesting. The media is picking up on it and because of the Olympics golf has a bigger profile. We've seen that a lot back home.”
 



Email :Matt Cooper



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