You first came to national prominence with your dis- plays in the 2008 and 2009 Opens. Where does your propensity for links golf come from?
I think it stems from my amateur days. A lot of the bigger championships are played on links courses, plus I always played a lot at Burnham & Berrow and Saunton and Trevose and St. Enodoc – all within easy reach of my home in Bristol and just fantastic courses.
I went down to those places a lot, to the extent that I probably played the majority of my golf on links courses growing up. Apart from my home club, Bristol & Clifton, which is parkland.
So the success I had in the Open comes from all the experience I gained playing a lot of golf by the sea when I was younger.
What kinds of shots do you have that particularly fit links golf?
I love hitting long irons off tees. I’m happy enough to lay back and have a longer shot to the green. The number one rule in links golf is you don’t go in the bunkers. So I hit a lot of 2-irons off tees and go in with 4-iron or 5- iron.
I don’t think taking the risk of hitting driver just to get, say, a 7-iron in is worth it. Plus, I love the variety that comes with links golf. Think about it. You can walk onto the fringe of just about any green on a links, drop your ball anywhere and use any club in the bag to chip with.
That’s the best part of golf for me. Links golf just gives me so many options. My imagination just goes off. It’s just so enjoyable. Far more than hitting lob wedge after lob wedge out of rough.
It’s 95 yards so it must be a lob wedge.
Exactly. I remember hitting 4-irons from 140 yards out at Birkdale during the 2008 Open. My dad was caddying for me. The wind was strong but it was great fun. And now that I am on the tour I hardly ever do something like that. Which is a shame.
It’s frustrating, particularly for someone like me who loves links golf. Every year I look forward to the few links opportunities we get. I’ll always play in the Scottish Open. The French Open is linksy. I’ll go to Paul Lawrie’s match play event. I love seeing events like that on the schedule.
What are your memories of your two great Opens?
At Birkdale in 2008 I was still an amateur – I was a pro by Turnberry a year later – and I was sharing a room with my then coach, Paul Mitchell. We were staying in a B&B somewhere in Southport and every night we would sit with a copy of a magazine that had a preview of the course.
We studied that and made notes about what we thought I should do on every hole. But my biggest memory is having had my dad on the bag. I’m not sure a father and son had finished in the top five at an Open – or won the Silver Medal – before. But we did it. And that will always be a great memory.
He’s a good player your dad isn’t he?
Yes. He plays off two.
Did he get emotional at any point?
Yes, I think we both did. It was special. And funny in places. I remember I played with Ian Poulter on the last day. Ian holed a great putt – maybe a 20-footer – for par on the 18th green. At the time it could have meant a lot.
We thought he had a chance when he made that putt. But what was funny was watching my dad shake Ian’s hand afterwards. “You’ve got massive bollocks,” he said. I’m not sure what Ian made of that!
That week must have dispelled any doubts you had about turning professional.
Not right away. I was always going to wait for the Walker Cup in 2009. But right after the Open Chubby Chandler invited me to play at Wentworth the following Thursday.
I played with Darren Clarke, Chubby and Chris Mitchell, a friend of mine. Walking down the first – I’ll never for- get this – Darren told me I would be a better player in a year’s time if I turned pro then.
That was what he did. He didn’t wait for the Walker Cup.
That’s right. And that was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever had. He was right. And, having been on tour for eight years myself now, I would advise anyone in a similar position to do the same. What Darren said has been backed up 100 per cent by my own experience.
When did you turn professional?
Officially, maybe four days later. Chubby got me seven invitations to European Tour events. So it was a no brainer. My first event was the Nordea Masters in Sweden. And I ended up getting my card through the school at the end of that year.
That’s quite a big jump. One conversation with Darren was enough to make you forget the Walker Cup.
True. But finishing fifth in the Open created the opportunity for me to turn pro. The offers I would perhaps get would be better than I might have got if I had waited a year. I might not have been playing so well by then. But it wasn’t necessarily to do with offers exactly – I actually didn’t have any [laughs].
It was more to do with the opportunity to play seven tour events. That gave me a chance to get my card. But at least I would get some great experience before I went to tour school. It was ‘you’ve made a bit of a name for yourself, now’s the time’ sort of thing.
Plus, the Walker Cup remains important but it isn’t as big as it used to be.
True. Since that time I’ve watched guys come on tour after playing in the Walker Cup. And when they get out here playing in that doesn’t matter at all. It means nothing. No one cares about the Walker Cup on tour.
After that 5th place at Birkdale you came even closer to winning at Turnberry in ’09.
I did. Missed the playoff by a shot. The shot that stands out is my second to the last hole. I hit a 9-iron 220 yards out of the semi-rough. It was a real “jumper.” My then- coach, Paul, was standing right behind me, like right down the line. He told me it was the best swing he had ever seen me make. It was a really good shot, headed I thought for the middle of the green. It was a bit like Tom Watson’s later. Anyway, the ball ended up in foot-long grass over the back. It was a very tough shot from there. It came out a bit dead. And I left the putt on the edge. Five. And I hadn’t really hit a bad shot. That really, really, really hurt. I didn’t feel like I deserved that.
Were you thinking a three would give you a real chance?
I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head. I had birded the 15th and the 17th to finish well. I remember waiting in the Titleist truck down by the range with Stuart Cage, my manager.
As a player you get a feel- ing when it isn’t quite enough, even when those around you are trying to be encouraging. I just knew though.
Dave McNeilly, my caddie, had disappeared. Which wasn’t unusual but there was a chance I could be in a play-off for the Open and he was nowhere to be found.
He was off packing the bag as it turned out. But, deep down, I knew it didn’t really matter. I knew I was going to come up short.