'You think the Walker Cup means a lot but you get on the Challenge Tour and nobody cares'September 14, 2017 Golf News
Michael Stewart and Jonny Caldwell both had stelllar amateur careers, the path since has been a little different.
Mark Townsend sat down with them.
Within the space of just a few days the whole amateur golf scene changes. Last weekend all the talk was about the very best that Great Britain and Ireland and the United States going head to head at the Walker Cup, now it is about who has joined which management group.
Jack Davidson is playing in the Dutch Open this week, Jack Singh Brar and David Boote have signed up and the majority of the rest will likely follow in the coming weeks and months.
All of a sudden you are not in the comfort of your national set-up but one of thousands of hopefuls trying to earn a decent crust in the pro game.
Jonny Caldwell and Michael Stewart have both been through this process, Caldwell played in the 2007 matches which featured the likes of Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson and Danny Willett. Caldwell’s foursomes partner was a local lad, five years his junior, by the name of Rory McIlroy.
Stewart was part of the victorious 2011 team at Royal Aberdeen. He and Tom Lewis led GB&I out (and beat) Harris English and Peter Uihlein. The rest of the week involved tussles with Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers – he came out of them with a further win, half and a narrow loss.
This week the pair were playing on the EuroPro Tour at Moor Allerton in Leeds and they were good enough to shed some light on what the transition from leading amateur to tour pro is really like…
How long after the Walker Cup did you turn pro?
Stewart: I waited for the South African Open at the end of November as I was the defending South African Amateur champion and I knew I would be playing with the defending champion. And that year it was Ernie Els, in his home town, plus the top-ranked South African. At the time Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen were committed to the event, in the end I played with George Coetzee as the other two were playing in the World Cup. Two weeks later I played in the Thailand Golf Championship as my pro debut.
With hindsight had I gone pro after the Walker Cup I would have got around six starts on the European Tour – I had just had a really good amateur year so I would have got invites to the Dunhill, Czech Republic, Portugal, Leopard Creek and the Joburg Open. I was with Chubby’s ISM and they thought there was no rush, and I did feel like I did owe it to the Scottish Golf Union as they had booked the flights and accommodation to South Africa.
Caldwell: I went back to college for my final year in the States so it wasn’t until the final stage of Q School in 2008. I had no real temptation to do it after Co Down, I thought I was better off going back to college as I felt like I had things to learn. Then getting so far at Q School made the choice for me.
How well supported were you at the time?
Caldwell: I signed with a management company. I had a basic ball, shoe and glove deal, I had a manufacturer deal and a grant from the Irish Sports Council so that helped but, in terms of being looked after with my travel, practice and even eating, I was then on my own. It was all a learning curve.
Stewart: Once I turned pro I was almost assured that I would be able to find sponsorship. Titleist/FootJoy looked after my clubs and shoes and gloves but I wasn’t under contract as I didn’t have a Challenge Tour card. Aberdeen Asset Management supported me straightaway up until this year which was incredible as I haven’t done much in those years.
I went to the Q School in 2011 as an amateur and didn’t get through the first stage so I went into 2012 on the EuroPro and had half a dozen starts on the Challenge Tour. The first cut I made was a Tartan Tour event in September.
You would chase the Challenge Tour starts and you might then get an invite on the Tuesday night so your flights and accommodation would be more expensive. I would then invariably miss the cut so I would have to move my flights to Friday which would cost money. In four events you might spend four grand.
What are the biggest challenges for a new pro?
Caldwell: You are so well looked after and then all of a sudden you don’t have the means to do these things for yourself. The money is there in the amateur game to look after all these top players with all the trips and transfers and dinners and then you have to do all this yourself or pay massively for it. A week on the main tour will set you back close to £2,000 a week.
My management company didn’t just look after golf, they were running other sports and they weren’t that accessible and it was so different to the Golf Union of Ireland.
Stewart: I struggled in my first year, I changed coach and my management suggested going for my Sunshine Tour card. That was one thing that I wish I had gone against. They said I might be able to get invites to the Joburg and Tshwane.
I got the card and then had to qualify for the first event which wasn’t even co-sanctioned. I shot level and didn’t get in. The next event was the Joburg Open, I shot 67 and was one of 11 playing for two spots in a play-off. I got first reserve, was there from 6.45am to 4pm and didn’t get to play.
The next one was at East London, I shot one under and didn’t qualify. So I had shot nothing worse then level par and hadn’t played more than one round in a row since Q School and spent a lot of money.
You think the Walker Cup means a hell of a lot but then you get on the Challenge Tour and nobody cares. I listened to a podcast with Eddie Pepperell recently and he had no interest in the Walker Cup, Laurie Canter was the same. For me my whole amateur career was about playing in it and then turning pro.
The hype doesn’t last very long, at home it probably did for two years at the most. Now the guys have got no idea if you played in it or not.
2011 Walker Cup, Royal Aberdeen – (L-R front row) Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay, Blayne Barber, Kelly Kraft, Jim Holtgrieve (captain) Nigel Edwards (captain) Stiggy Hodgson, Andy Sullivan, Rhys Pugh, Tom Lewis
(L-R back row) Peter Uihlein, Harris English, Nathan Smith, Chris Williams, Patrick Rodgers and Russell Henley, James Byrne, Alan Dunbar, Steven Brown, Jack Senior, Paul Cutler and Michael Stewart
What would you have done differently?
Stewart: One of the most intimidating things that probably set me back was playing with Lee Westwood in Thailand when he was the World No. 1. He started 60-64 and was leading Schwartzel by 12. He had Steve McGregor with him and he was in the gym twice a day for five days that week and I thought if he was doing that at 40 that I was so far away from that. I tried to do so much in so little time. Tyrrell Hatton has done the exact same things but just got better at it, I wish I had done the same.
As an amateur I was in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and saw my coach every day for four weeks, then South Africa for 11 weeks and I saw him every day. Then at home his job was to be at every tournament.
As a pro I stripped my whole swing back. I became so quick to nitpick with it, I should have just calmed down, golf is a long journey.
My manager Chubby is such a busy guy so you don’t want to feel like you are bothering him when you are 21 and starting out. He always told me to pick up the phone whenever but I never felt like I could do that and I wish I had have done as I know he would have been able to help.
Caldwell: I felt like I was mismanaged a bit with the starts I was getting and I should have been playing the Challenge Tour when I wasn’t playing the European Tour.
Then there is an element of learning what day to travel and how to do it correctly, then there are caddies and managing your own money with the accommodation.
Staying on site is massively more expensive but then you don’t know what will be better for your golf – it is a big learning curve and
What part of your golf would you have particularly focused on in your younger years?
Caldwell: I would have worked on my short game more. That is the easiest place to save shots, saving one shot per round is massive. If your stroke average goes from 71.5 to 70.5 that can be huge, four shots an event could make all the difference.
Stewart: Every single European drives the ball fantastically, the Irish and Scottish guys who have grown up on a links don’t drive it anywhere near as well.
I remember playing with Andy Sullivan in a Walker Cup get-together at Portmarnock, I hadn’t heard of him before. I just remember how well he drove the ball, Tom Lewis was the same and I genuinely thought then that they would get their cards.
A lot of us Scottish guys would be more defensive, they were just more who cares? Jordan Smith whistles it, he really strikes it well. Jordan hit driver everywhere on the EuroPro and his attitude was so carefree and he has taken that through to the main tour.
My mentality now would be to teach guys to get the driver in their hands and get as good and as carefree with the driver as possible.
On our Walker Cup team Tom Lewis was the stand-out proper ball striker and Andy Sullivan was very good. Look at the Challenge Tour guys, they are shooting 15 under to stand a chance.
Which of your Walker Cup team are you most surprised hasn’t kicked on?
Stewart: Alan Dunbar would definitely be one, he’s just had a kid, but what a player he is. Paul Cutler too, he has just got his amateur status back, he was so good and maybe one of our best players in that team.