Graham Walker, who has coached some of the world's best during the biggest transition of their career, answers one of golf's most important questions
Graham Walker has seen a multitude of incredible talents come through the ranks but the step up to the professional game is one of the big moments in a player’s career. With the Walker Cup and the road to the Q School final just around the corner a number of players will be weighing up their options of whether to leave the amateur game for the riches and uncertainty of the cut and thrust of playing for their livelihoods. So, when should a golfer turn pro?
When you sit down with an elite player what do you talk about in terms of preparing to turn pro?
The first thing I’ll always say to them is that you should want to turn pro and you should want to be good enough. Turning pro when you’re playing well is a big thing rather than doing it when you’re flat-lining. Some players decide to stay amateur for another year and then stop improving.
You need to have the skills to earn money. I’ll ask them if they have a €1 million golf game, because that’s what you’ll need. If you play on tour and you only play to 50 per cent of your ability is that enough to keep your card?
It’s about developing the skills and we try and do this through England Golf with our five colours of performance – world-class holing out, outstanding short game, precise wedge play, ball-flight control and strategy and tactical awareness. If you do those, and a few other things, then that will really help the transition. If you don’t have that level of skills then it’s going to be difficult in the professional ranks.
Is the gap closing between the amateur and professional game?
I think the gap between professional and amateur golf at the top end is closing because the top amateurs get opportunities through their national bodies in trying to become more successful. With England we will train for a week together in October and November and then have a week in Portugal in December and we’ll have four guys go to Australia in January and four to South Africa in February.
Then we’ll have another week in Portugal in March and then the Nations Cup later that month and then you’re into the amateur circuit and European teams.
As an amateur you are playing better and harder courses where the winning score is 3-under, you then go to a resort course on tour where 15-under just about gets you into the top 20?
In our training camps we will always have a day which we call ‘lay up and pitch’ where we will play a lot of shots from within 150 yards and that gets the players to feel under par.
We’ll also move some tees up and get the feeling of playing under par. We will always review our training camps and years ago Eddie Pepperell said that he felt that he wanted to know what the feeling was like to be way under par. That struck a chord with the coaches to do that for a day in our camps and so we do that now.
We want it to be an environment where we can encourage players to say what they feel and then we can put it into some sort of training regime.
What was it like working with Danny Willett as an elite amateur?
Dan had just become the World No. 1 amateur and he was always confident and I thought he’s going to get really cocky now so I wanted to get a work sheet together for him to succeed in the future. We do it now – it’s called the Player Development Plan – and this was before that was put in place.
I had seven or eight things on my list and I thought to myself he’s the best player in the world and I’ve got all these things written down that he could improve. The last thing that I had was to keep you the same as your life changes.
And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you think my life will change?’ I said that it would in a big way. He had a whole list of things he wanted to improve and I as so pleased as it meant that we had a plan for the future.
How much is it a case-by-case basis rather than just a generic checklist of what’s needed to succeed?
Some players, not all, need the other things outside of hitting it well to enable them to be more rounded individuals, like better mental skills, nutrition and fitness.
We were having breakfast in a hotel one morning where some tennis players were eating breakfast and they had such a measured approach, there was just the right amount of toast, eggs and nuts. Some people need that and others need burger and chips and, as a coach, you have to embrace that rather than try and turn them into some sort of mogadon person that they will never be.
Is there a right time of year to go pro?
For some people the Walker Cup is a great thing that they want to do, for others it’s not on their radar. You should turn pro on the ascendancy and be skilful enough – if you are good enough to make the Walker Cup team then that can help with management companies and invites and money so it can be a really good and desirable thing.
Players talk about their struggles and feeling lost when they leave the comfy bosom the amateur game?
What you would love to be able to do is to have some sort of management arm where you can continue to work with the players. We have a great track record at England Golf of having something like over 20 per cent of all players on the European and Challenge Tours and that strike rate is fantastic.
When I took over in 2011 we only had one player in top 100 of amateur rankings. So there are a lot of players who are being developed and we then get to the stage when they turn pro and we sort of cut them loose.
Other nations have a system for the first year or two where they continue to support their players in the professional game. I’d love to be able to do that. Some players start to try and find their own ways and put their own little systems in place before they turn pro.
Likewise other nations use their stars to pass on a few wise words, does this take place?
Last winter Paul Waring, who I coach, paid his own hotel and flight and trained with the players in Portugal. The players loved that and embraced that. And Paul got a lot out of it as it reset him in a way and he went on and won later in the year so it worked on both counts.
Graham is part of England Golf’s ‘Switch Off’ campaign which is an initiative to raise awareness of how the sport can help people to de-stress and improve people’s mental and physical well-being.