IF the Amateur champion gets a chance to practise with his hero Tiger he’ll be there, however early it is, writes Paul Forsyth
BRADLEY Neil will not be short of options when he sets about trying to find a playing partner for the practice days at Royal Liverpool this week. Some of the game’s biggest names have already contacted the young Scot to offer him a helping hand at the Open Championship.
No sooner had he qualified by winning the Amateur Championship last month than Justin Rose was in touch to offer his services. So, too, was Stephen Gallacher. Matteo Manassero, who knows what it feels like to be thrust suddenly into the spotlight, is another possibility.
All of whose brains Neil would like to pick before Thursday’s opening round, but there is one player, more than any other, who he would love to walk with on Hoylake’s hallowed fairways. If only there was the remotest chance of Tiger Woods texting the 18-year-old Blairgowrie amateur and asking for company on one of his dawn excursions.
“He plays most of his practice rounds at five or six in the morning, but I know this much: if he said it would be OK for me to join him at that time, I would be up for it,” says Neil. “Just getting the chance to meet him and speak to him would be a dream come true. Tiger is the reason I started golf. He is the reason I tried to improve.”
Neil was ten when the Open was last played at Royal Liverpool. At that time, he was a pupil at Rattray Primary school, playing mostly on the “Wee Course” at Blairgowrie Golf Club. He remembers watching on television as Seve Ballesteros, with his son on the bag, played in his last Open. He can also recall Woods’ almost driverless conquest of the parched Liverpool links, two months after the death of his father, Earl Woods.
Neil can scarcely believe that, just eight years after Woods’ last Open triumph, they will be competing against each other at the same venue. That his first major championship also happens to be Woods’ first of 2014 – a year in which the American has been sidelined by injury – adds another thrilling dimension to what is already a fairytale.
“I always feel that Tiger being in the field makes every major, every competition, a lot more special,” says Neil. “For my first major to be his first major since he came back from injury… maybe there is a little bit of fate involved. I’m delighted that he’s going to be there.”
Being flung into the Open Championship without so much as a qualifying event can be a culture shock for the unsuspecting amateur, but if anyone can deal with it, Neil can. While many promising players have the shots to compete with the professionals, he also has the mentality to produce them under pressure. The 2013 Scottish Boys champion has repeatedly risen to the occasion this year. Before winning the final of the Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush in County Antrim, he was runner-up in the St Andrews Links Trophy and third in the Lytham Trophy. Some of his best golf has been at the business end of a tournament.
“The amount of times I’ve been in contention on the back nine this year can only stand me in good stead for the pressure of standing on the first tee at the Open,” he says. “My nerves will be pretty hard to control when I walk up there and hit the first shot, but after that, when I get settled in, hopefully I can relax and post a good score.”
His results in the amateur game’s most prestigious events reflect an ability to handle the country’s toughest links layouts. Neil has yet to play a competitive round at Royal Liverpool, but he knows it will suit him. He likes to work his shots both ways, his gritty short game makes up for the greens he misses and, perhaps most significantly, he responds well to adversity.
“I don’t get too down on myself. I don’t give up on too many things. I always fight to the last shot. And there will have to be a lot of fight and determination and grafting at the Open. The course will play tremendously tough and birdies will be hard to come by. You’ll have to hole an awful lot of good par putts.”
On the face of it, Neil is like any other 18-year-old. His dad and brother are decent golfers, but nothing special, he likes his football – Rangers and Arsenal, before you ask – and a free night in Blairgowrie is often spent at the Dreadnought, where darts and pool are his bag.
A confident lad, he is refreshingly talkative for his age and unlikely to be fazed by the huge galleries at Hoylake. In last year’s Dunhill Links Championship, he played in the final group at the Old Course, partnering Peter Uihlein to second place in the team competition. The former US Amateur champion later donated £10,000 of his winnings to the Scottish Golf Union so that they could invest it in Neil’s development. The money has enabled the teenager to enjoy warm-weather winter training in Abu Dhabi and South Africa.
Uihlein was among the first to congratulate Neil after his triumph at Royal Portrush. So, too, was Huey Lewis, the celebrity for whom Neil was a late replacement at the Dunhill Links Championship. There will be more where that came from should he record a high finish at the Open, which Neil insists is not outwith the bounds of possibility. “Obviously, I’d like to be the leading amateur, but I have the feeling that, if I go and prepare the best I can, and get my game into the shape it was for the Amateur Championship, anything can happen. If you get that little bit of luck along the way, who knows? Come Sunday, I might even be in contention with nine holes to play, which would be a dream come true.”
If he can do that, and follow it up with solid performances at the Masters and the US Open, his other rewards for being Amateur champion, it is safe to assume that he will turn professional sooner rather than later. Neil has always insisted that he will make the transition only when his statistics compare favourably with the Tour players, but he now has the perfect opportunity to make that judgment.
There is no right time to turn professional. While Rory McIlroy hit the ground running from the moment he relinquished his amateur status at the age of 18, Rose missed the cut in his first 21 professional tournaments after a spectacular Open debut in 1997.
“I can’t bear to imagine what Justin was feeling after missing all those cuts,” says Neil. “These are the kind of things I’d like to ask if I get the chance to play with him. It will be interesting to hear how he feels about what happened early in his career.”
As Neil is anxious to point out, both Rose and Mcllroy have since become major champions. “I don’t think it matters how you get there,” he says. “As long as you get there. You need a bit of luck obviously, but if you have the ability, you just need to keep working. You just need to keep believing.”