AT the ripe old age of 43 (I can say that, I’m two years older) Richard Bland has just enjoyed his best season in 15 years on Tour – in 2002 he almost won the Rookie of the Year, Nick Dougherty pipped him.
Since then Bland has been steady rather than spectacular, on occasions it wasn’t even that with three seasons on the Challenge Tour. But 2016 has been relatively sensational.
There have been six top 10s, a high of 28th on the Race to Dubai (two places below ‘Beef’ and three adrift of Thomas Pieters) and over £1m trousered. And all done in a modest, low-key fashion – Bland is the sort of bloke you’d probably want to be mates with if you were out on Tour.
At some point next year he is off to Augusta, albeit through a friend’s invite. One big win though and he might be there for the Masters.
This time last year you were 275th in world, now you are just outside the top 100. What’s brought about the big upturn?
Both 2014 and 15 were good years, not spectacular but I felt good enough to get to where I had and I thought could go even higher. You think you will maybe progress 20 places a year and I have done it all in one go this year. I’ve secured an Open spot at Birkdale already and there is so much more to play for early next year – the top 100 get in the PGA and top 50 Masters so I’ll need something special for that.
I’ve only played one Open, in 1998 at Birkdale. I can’t remember an awful lot so it will be nice to go back and not worry about qualifying.
What has changed?
I got together with sports psychologist Lee Crombleholme about 18 months ago and that has made a big difference. We sat down last December and talked about what we thought was possible and I have tried to play more aggressively this year and trust myself a lot more. You have to back yourself that you will hit the shot and, if you don’t, you should still be closer to the flag anyway. That was the main difference.
When you are in contention you have to keep trying to go forward and keep playing the golf that has got you into that position.
What has been missing to get you that first win?
Quite a few times someone has shot a low one on Sunday, at Cannes Alex Noren shot 65 on Sunday, Francesco Molinari did the same in Italy and Joost Luiten shot 63 in Italy, they have shown that it’s doable and I haven’t done it yet but, to do that on Sunday, it’s tough so you have to take your hat off.
The British Masters was maybe my best chance, I got within one with six to play and Alex hit a poor shot but than hit an unbelievable shot to 30 feet and that probably won him the tournament. He birdied two of the last four, that’s how he’s been playing all year. More often than not you need to do something special to win a tournament.
Presumably you now feel different to playing in the last few groups on a Sunday these days?
The more you get in that position, the more you get used to it and I’ll take that into 2017. It’s the same as anything, it’s a learning curve.
You know you’ve been there and shot good scores, you know how to handle yourself and you can fall back on that experience. It is so much easier to freewheel without the pressure of trying to keep you card but it still hurts if it doesn’t happen as there are a lot of world ranking points to play for.
And when it’s not going well?
You should always be focusing on what you are meant to do but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. If you are fighting for your card you’re not human if you’re not thinking about it, those who say otherwise are lying through their front teeth.
You played 30 weeks this year, is that a lot?
It would be a few more than usual but there is a tournament nearly every week and sometimes it is difficult to find a space to take time off when a big tournament is happening. I got into the HSBC in China and then Dubai and that adds another two. You will put question marks next to those type of events and it’s nice to tick those boxes when you have played well to get into them and the Final Series events, I played all four of them.
What do you make of the new Rolex Series?
It is great for us, playing for $7m you have to applaud Keith Pelley. George O’Grady did a great job through some tough times but if we are going to compete with America you have to entice some players from over there.
Keith is a really nice guy and is taking the Tour forward, he has got support of the players, is approachable and a good bloke to talk to. You have to judge him on the next couple of years, if he delivers the Rolex Series the Tour will be in a really strong position and will be an exciting place to be in the next few years.
You have had one coach, Tim Barter (of Sky Sports fame) in your time on Tour?
I first started working with Tim 14 years ago in my first year on Tour, he was local to me and I liked the way he talked about things. Obviously we have had our ups and downs like anyone but he has been great and I certainly think he will be with me until I quit playing. I can’t see ever having any desire to go anywhere else, he knows my swing inside out so it is easy to fix myself or if he is there.
Ball: TaylorMade, Tour Preferred X
Driver: TaylorMade, M2 10.5˚
Fairway Woods: TaylorMade, Aero Burner 15˚Burner Superfast 18˚
3 – 9 Iron: TaylorMade, Tour Preferred MB (No 3-iron)
Wedges: TaylorMade, Tour Preferred EF 47, 50, 54 and 60˚
Putter: Odyssey, Tank Cruiser 7
Did he not sort you out at the start of the week at The Grove?
I didn’t play well at the Dunhill (Bland tied for 18th) and I couldn’t hit the ball on the Tuesday at the British Masters. We figured a few things out, I said what I thought was happening and we worked on some simple things and kept that going all week and I was competitive for the four rounds.
The Sunday, playing in the final group, was disappointing but I spoke to Tim after and he could see that I was disappointed. But he quickly reminded me that if someone had offered me fourth at 10am on the Tuesday I would have bitten their hand off. At that point I didn’t have a chance of making the cut.
And you started working with a new caddy, Gary Tilson, this year?
We got together at the Irish Open. We had done a couple of weeks together and I always thought I could work with him but it never came about.
Gary messaged me one day and said he was around and Tim and Lee thought it was a good idea, they knew Gary was really good, so we agreed to get together in Ireland. He’s a great addition to the team and I trust him completely on the course. We make mistakes but I have a lot of confidence in what he says and he puts that across and that is a big thing to have.
So when you sit down at the end of the year what goals will you have for 2017?
It is difficult to set goals, I obviously want to win but you can finish second after someone has holed a putt from across the green. If I play well other good things will happen, 156 start the week and one player wins.
Do you feel 43?
I feel OK, there are the odd aches and pains but I try and look after myself. You know what works for you and what doesn’t, I’m never going to be Mr Universe but I’m not trying to be.
You just want to get a little bit stronger and keep your distance up as that’s a big part of the game but I’m never going to swing the club as fast as someone who is 23 years old. I can’t do what they do so you focus on what you can do.