Nick Poppleton not only leads the 2020protour Order of Merit, he's in pole position in the Birdie Challenge. He has 18 holes left to make six. Alex Perry chatted to him

There’s been an intriguing side competition to this year’s 2020protour in its eye-catching debut season. Any player carding 100 birdies or more across the 22 events gets £20,000 in prize money.

Leading the gender equal tour‘s Birdie Challenge – and, thanks to three wins, the Order of Merit – is Wath’s Nick Poppleton.

‘Pops’, as family and friends know him, needs six birdies in the final event of the season to take home that life-changing prize pot. That chance will come in the Grand Final at Huddersfield on Monday.

Last week it was 15 needed from three rounds, but Cookridge were forced to cancel and Bradley Hall stepped in to save the day. This made things tougher for Poppleton.

“I really fancied my chances when I played my first practice round at Cookridge,” Poppleton tells NCG. “I’d played there before and knew there were opportunities. I was thinking I could have had seven.

“Sadly I didn’t really have many birdie chances [at Bradley Hall]. The greens were really slopey and they had just done their winter maintenance. It was damage limitation – but I got four and we’ve got two venues with birdie chances to come.

“Everyone was saying ‘it’s five a round’ but I was thinking if I could make six or seven in a round then I’d really be like, ‘Oh hello!’ For me, one really good round with plenty of birdies was key.”

Next up was Bradford Golf Club, where he added five more to leave six needed at Fixby.

The 2020protour players are in a strange situation. Winning the Order of Merit carries some fantastic prizes, such as a year-long clothing deal and a five-star trip to Spain, but, as Poppleton explains, “20 grand would pay for all those things anyway”.

“All year I’ve thought more about the Order of Merit,” he adds. “But as it’s got closer to the end it’s been more like, ‘Well, winning the Order of Merit is great, but actually it’s not as good as getting the birdie count over the line.’

“I’m sure other players are thinking the same, so it’s been a really strange mindset coming towards the end of the year – but priorities have to be with the birdie count.”

With that in mind, does Poppleton have a specific tactic in mind?

“I tried playing aggresively earlier in the year but it really didn’t suit my golf,” he explains. “I’m obviously trying to create as many opportunities as I can and that’s going to help me going forward playing full-time on EuroPro – or any chances I might get on the Challenge or European Tours – next year. But I’m just going out there to do my business and stick to the plan.

“I found that when I got a bit too aggressive I didn’t create enough opportunities, so I’m just going to go and take every hole as its own chance to make birdie. Sometimes that might mean taking driver and getting it as far down as I can and sometimes it means being smart and giving myself a chance to hit the second one close.

“Making birdies isn’t always about how far you hit your tee shot, it’s about making sure you get your second shot tight or in the right areas and relying on your putting.”

There is the very real possibility that, at some point during Monday’s Grand Final at Huddersfield, Poppleton is standing over a putt for £20,000. How does he think that will change his mindset? His answer is perhaps rather surprising.

“It won’t,” he says. “At the end of the day I get to go home to my girlfriend, and she works for the NHS, so as long as I’m going home to her and my dog it won’t bother me.

“The money will be fantastic, don’t get me wrong, and it would mean not having to worry about funding next year, but if I come into a situation where I’ve got a three-footer for 20 grand, whether it goes in or not it’s going to be a good growing experience.

“Hole it or miss it, it will help me in the future. I’ll see it as experience and we’ll move on.”

We’re all rooting for you, Pops.

You can watch live coverage of Monday’s 2020protour Grand Final on NCG’s Facebook page.