SCOTLAND’S leading amateur golfers, including Masters-bound Bradley Neil, have been told to take nothing for granted in their bid to ensure the home of golf is represented in this year’s Walker Cup.
In 2013, the last staging of the biennial bout, the Great Britain & Ireland team failed to include a Scot for the first time since 1949, the bitter disappointment coming hot on the heels of a tartan trio finishing 44th behind Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe in the Eisenhower Trophy in Turkey.
With Blairgowrie teenager Neil, helped by winning the Amateur Championship last year, sitting as the highest-ranked British player in the world rankings at ninth and Craigielaw’s Grant Forrest not far behind in 25th, hopes are high for some Scottish representation being restored at this year’s match at Royal Lytham in September.
But, while pleased with the feedback he’s receiving from coaches and performance managers about the attitude being shown by the current crop of internationalists, Hamish Grey, the Scottish Golf Union chief executive, said it is down to the players to do everything they can over the coming months to earn a place on a side being captained for the third clash running against the Americans by Welshman Nigel Edwards.
“It’s very cyclical,” said Grey as he reflected on the disappointment at the National Golf Links of America two years ago being followed by three Scots – Neil, Forrest and Glenbervie’s Graeme Robertson – making last year’s winning St Andrews Trophy team as well as two of their compatriots – Ewen Ferguson (Bearsden) and George Burns (Williamwood) – being on a winning Jacques Leglise Trophy side in Sweden at the same time.
“You only had to look at the players we provided for GB&I last year – both boys and men – compared to the year before,” he added. “We’ve got some very good players, they’re working very hard and we are doing everything we can to support them. But it comes down to them. Their desire, their commitment.
“The reality of the Walker Cup now is there is such a churn of players that there’s always going to be players we might think will make it now but won’t necessarily do so. Hitting the ground running and playing well in the key events is going to be critical for all our hopefuls.
“I think we are doing everything we can with winter training, having already had a group out in the United Arab Emirates and also the opportunities coming up soon in South Africa for those available for that trip.”
Neil’s success last June was the first tartan triumph in the Amateur Championship in a decade and, according to Grey, it is only going to get more difficult for Scots to achieve such triumphs.
“We have a range of players who are very good,” added the Kiwi. “Realistically, though, it’s only a small number that are going to make it as a professionals. We box above our weight just now and we will do everything we can to continue that, but it’s not going to get easier.
“Countries like China and India are going to be developing the game. The emphasis in those countries has changed due to golf going back into the Olympics. They don’t necessarily understand the value of an Open Championship the way we do, but they understand a gold medal. It challenges us to keep our players competitive.
“Look at the number of countries that are competitive now at amateur level in Europe. Norway winning the Boys’ Team Championship 30 years ago would never have been considered as a possibility, but they now have one of the strongest teams consistently. We have to be realistic where we sit in that.”
Realism is something Grey hopes would be more prevalent when it came to players deciding to turn professional. Fuelled by a proliferation of third-tier circuits around Europe, players seem to need no encouragement – or little financial support – to join the paid ranks, the result being that the national team is constantly changing and, therefore, lacks experience.
Grey believes too many players lack either evidence or sufficient miles on the clock to make the switch, a view that is probably being backed up this year by the fact the youngest Scots holding a full European Tour card are both 31 – Scott Jamieson and Richie Ramsay.
“I think there is a real challenge for amateur golf worldwide because more players are turning professional,” he said. “They are playing on a plethora of Tours yet I don’t see any more making the grade than did before. They play there until the money runs out or realisation hits that they aren’t going to make it and then seem to be lost to the game because even those reinstated as amateurs don’t come back and play at national level. Such is the rate of players turning pro that our standard has probably dropped.
“I don’t have proof of that but, if it’s true, that’s a worry if people are using it as a measuring stick for turning professional. Players need to look at their statistics. If they can’t dominate at amateur level, what chance do they have to be good enough to play well consistently to make money?”
The likelihood is that Neil, who recently turned 19, will turn professional later this year but, while excited about his progress, Grey has been in that position before, only to have learned that nothing is guaranteed in the professional game.
“I could count on one hand the people that have been ready to turn pro at 18 or 19 in my time in this job,” he said. “There are exceptions, but we have to be careful not to judge the progress of young players against exceptions. By that, of course, I mean the likes of Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Matteo Manassero.
“I’m bemused at times by what is the rush. It’s not just about playing ability. It’s about an ability to manage yourself off the course, being comfortable in your own company because pro golf is different to the amateur game when it comes to travelling and being away from home. It’s a whole new ball game.
“Not many, in my experience, are ready to turn professional at 18 or 19. The average for players making the transition from amateur to professional is three to five years. Instantaneous success only comes for a very few.”
SGSL policy earns backing
HAMISH Grey is adamant that Scottish Golf Support Ltd is trying to help the right players make the transition from amateur to professional and says players such as James Byrne and Michael Stewart have missed out so far as they’ve not earned the backing.
Launched in 2011, the initiative, which involves the SGU, SLGA, PGA and sportscotland, was set up to hand out £1 million worth of support to fledgling Scottish professionals.
Kylie Walker, a two-times winner on the Ladies European Tour last season, received some of that assistance, as did Sally Watson, who was pipped in the race to be 2014 Rookie of the Year on that circuit.
On the men’s side, Scott Henry used SGSL support in 2012 to earn a step-up to the European Tour, while others to receive backing include David Law, Wallace Booth, Duncan Stewart and Ross Kellett.
Walker Cup team-mates in 2011, Byrne and Stewart have had to make do with help with Qualifying School costs and “ongoing support from sportscotland’s Institute of Sport” due to the fact they’ve been unable to meet the criteria of holding a Challenge Tour card.
Asked about SGSL’s inability to offer more help, Grey said: “It is certainly disappointing to see two talented golfers not realising the potential everyone, including themselves, thought they might have. They are still quite young so that might change. But golf is about an ability to play on a certain Tour and if you don’t have those playing rights it is hard to be able to support them.”
Paul McKechnie, a former EuroPro Tour No 1, made accusations of “ageism” when his bid to secure support was knocked back last year after he’d secured a return to the Challenge Tour at the age of 37.
However, Grey said: “It’s for the early days of someone’s professional career; it’s not for someone 10-15 years down the line. There’s limited resources and you’ve got to decide where that’s going to have the biggest impact.”
l In part one of our interview with Hamish Grey we quoted him as saying that 26 per cent of new boys’ golf club members last year were Clubgolf recruits. That figure should in fact have been 56 per cent.