IT MAY have provided the springboard for his eye-catching 2014 season but Bradley Neil will not be joining his Scotland team-mates on their South African training trip this year.
Instead, the 18-year-old Amateur champion from Blairgowrie is heading for America this month to start preparing for his dream Masters debut alongside Rory McIlroy & Co in early April.
Neil will begin his stateside stint by visiting the Golf Club of Georgia, where he’ll return the week before the season’s opening major to lock horns with Gunn Yang, the South Korean-born 2014 US Amateur champion, in the annual Georgia Cup.
He’ll then head to Augusta National and spend a couple of days playing and practising there, before continuing his journey through Georgia to Sea Island for the Jones Cup Invitational.
Played over 54 holes at Ocean Forest Golf Club, its recent winners have included US Ryder Cup player Patrick Reed, who beat Frenchman Victor Dubuisson in a play-off to claim the coveted title in 2010.
“It’s a trip that will allow me to get a lot of practice in and also get to see Augusta before Masters week,” Neil told The Scotsman. “That will be massive as I don’t want to go there in April not knowing what to expect. I can’t wait to get through those gates and drive down Magnolia Lane for the first time to see what it is all about.
“The Jones Cup is also one of the strongest amateur stroke-play events in the world, so playing in that will be great, too. I’ll be competing against a lot of the top American players and that will give me idea about how much the hard work I’ve put in this winter has paid off.
“The rest of the Scottish boys will be in South Africa and I certainly benefitted from the time we spent there early last year, but the SGU used to take players to the Jones Cup in the past and I’m certainly delighted to be getting the chance to play in it.”
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In another reward for becoming the first Scot since Forfar’s Stuart Wilson a decade earlier to win the Amateur Championship – he beat South African Zander Lombard in the final at Royal Portrush last June – Neil will also line-up in this summer’s US Open at Chambers Bay in Oregon.
“It is very exciting to think about what lies ahead for me this year,” he added. “Last year, I was able to step up really well in the men’s events [he was still eligible to defend his Scottish Boys’ title but passed up that opportunity after making such a promising start to the year] and that was down to a lot of hard work last winter.
“I’ve been working hard again this winter and hopefully that will enable me to go out this year and play even better golf. If I do that, I’ll have a chance of doing well in some of these big events. Not winning, but if I play really well then hopefully I might get a top-20 finish in one of them.”
Neil heads into the new campaign as the world No 10 – Britain’s highest-ranked player – after a 2014 season that also saw him finish runner-up (to compatriot Grant Forrest) in the St Andrews Links Trophy, help Scotland win the Nations Cup in Spain and qualify for a Junior Ryder Cup appearance at his home club.
“I think the worst week I had all year was in the Irish Open Stroke-Play at Royal Dublin in early May,” he reflected. “I didn’t play well all week. I didn’t get to grips with the course and I missed the cut by one. But that actually stood me in good stead for the rest of the year. ’d gone there having finished third in the Lytham Trophy so to miss the cut after that gave me a kick up the arse. I knew that I had to keep working hard for the year to become a good one and I put that in to the extent it paid off when I won the Amateur Championship.
“I learned an awful lot about myself last year, no doubt. I’ve always thought of myself as being a good player under pressure. I think it was more a case that I was playing well week after week most of the time, having gained an awful lot of confidence from the trip to South Africa at the start of the year.
“I was in contention for the first three tournaments of the season and that was great, especially considering I hadn’t been playing at men’s level for long. That helped me stamp some authority on the year and even without winning the Amateur Championship I’d have been happy with the season I had.”
Not that it needed any, the icing on the cake came late in the year when Neil, having been disappointed with his performance when missing the cut in the Open Championship at Hoylake, made it through to the weekend in the European Tour’s Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek in South Africa.
“I’d prepared really well for that,” he said of the time he’d spent in the United Arab Emirates with the rest of his Scottish team-mates.
“I knew the course really well, too, and that helped a lot. Scott Jamieson took me under his wing that week and that was great. He’s been out on Tour for a few seasons now and I learned a lot from playing with him in the practice rounds. His caddie, Ritchie Blair, was also a massive help and it’s important that players like myself listen to what these people have to say.”
Having been part of a St Andrews Trophy victory over the Continent of Europe in Sweden last August, Neil is a strong contender for this year’s Walker Cup at Royal Lytham in September, but is certainly not counting any chickens at this stage.
“Where do I think I stand for the Walker Cup? That’s a tough one, to be honest,” he admitted. “It’s obviously something I’d like to achieve but you’ve got to try and put things like that to the back of your mind. I learned a lot on 2011 when I was trying to get into the European Boys’ team. I went into every event focused on that and it proved costly as I didn’t play my best golf that season.
“This year I will just focus on trying to play well every week and hopefully things like the Walker Cup will take care of themselves. I had an operation last year which kept me out for a month or two so when I was out in the UAE before Christmas it was a case of trying to get my fitness back.
“Now I’m starting to push myself a bit more. We’ve identified that I haven’t paid as much attention to the fitness side as I perhaps should have and I’m pushing myself a lot more now. I know that I’ve got the ability. It’s just a case of trying to tweak little things here and there. In terms of preparation, I’ve learnt a lot over the last year.”
His goals have certainly changed since then. “It’s scary, to be honest,” he confessed. “This time last year I was getting excited about going out to South Africa for the first time and getting the chance to compete so early in the season.
“It’s hard not to think about the chances that I’ve got on the horizon and I can’t wait. I will learn so much from this year. Also, I didn’t think turning professional would come along so soon.
“The likelihood being that will happen this year. It’s something that everyone keeps asking about but I can’t really control when it will happen. It will come down to how I perform week in, week out.
“If I feel come the end of the year I’ve not been comfortable in professional events and don’t feel ready for that move, then I’m not going to rush into that. I’ll be 19 by then, so I’ve still got so much time on my side.”
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