IT WAS difficult to tell whether it was scepticism or jealousy that was behind some of the comments being bandied about when the Scottish Golf Union decided a change of direction was needed with its winter training programme around 18 months ago.
Instead of sending players on week-long trips to Spain and Portugal, with the odd tournament in Australia, Argentina and the United States thrown in, plans were put in place for two longer blocks, one in the Middle East and the other in South Africa.
Taken at face value, it was probably not surprising that the odd eyebrow was raised about the cost of such trips. However, those doubters have been given cause to think again, because the work behind the scenes that went into making such ventures possible has resulted in Scotland becoming the envy of the other Home Unions.
Nigel Edwards, the Great Britain & Ireland captain, admitted as much in the build-up to last year’s Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen and, in his new role as the English Golf Union’s director of coaching, the switched-on Welshman will, once again, have been monitoring the SGU squad’s latest successful trip to South Africa.
This one was probably more rewarding because, a year ago, it was no major surprise to firstly see Michael Stewart win the South African Amateur Championship then, as an encouraging follow-up, have David Law claim the Northern Amateur Open title.
Following a mass exodus to the professional ranks at the end of last season – Stewart and Law were joined in making that switch by James Byrne, Kris Nicol, Ross Kellett, Philip McLean and Jordan Findlay – it looked as though Scottish amateur golf would have to wait until the talent pool was filled up again before similar successes could be enjoyed.
Yet, having first reaped the rewards of a practice stint in Abu Dhabi, where they were based at the impressive Yas Links Golf Club, a new-look Scottish squad has just come back from South Africa with a repeat trophy haul. Fifer Brian Soutar won the South African Amateur and Glaswegian Paul Shields, of the Kirkhill club, shared the Northern Amateur Open after the final was abandoned due to flooding.
Add in a Test match win over their hosts at Leopard Creek, where Aberdour’s Scott Crichton, who had earlier finished sixth in the South African Stroke Play, beat Brandon Stone, the South African No 1, three times and it was an encouraging trip ahead of the new domestic season. South Africa, after all, has produced two major winners, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, from its amateur ranks in recent years and the likes of Stone, as well as Hayden Porteous and Shaun Smith, are being tipped to be amongst the new wave of Springboks to sweep on to the professional stage
Shields, a product of the SGU system who has edged his way up the pecking order in recent years to make the Great Britain & Ireland training squad for this season’s St Andrews Trophy at Portmarnock, has been on both trips to the Middle East and South Africa.
“In Spain and Portugal, you got two weeks of practice in the morning and played for the sweep in the afternoon,” he recalled of the old winter way for Scotland’s leading amateurs.
“In South Africa, we get eight weeks of learning how to travel, learning how to plan for a tournament, playing real tournaments with world-class players and keeping up our fitness. I have found the last two years very beneficial because of the high standards around me. It’s true that success breeds success.”
Ironically, it’s a South African who is helping breed that Scottish success. Businessman Johann Rupert provided ‘in-kind support’ worth around £50,000 to the latest trip, the host of the Dunhill Links Championship in the home of golf every autumn having initially been encouraged to dip into his pocket, so to speak, by Douglas Connon, the recently-retired SGU chairman. Now the Scottish game’s ruling body is one of four beneficiaries – the St Andrews Pilgrim Foundation, St Andrews University and the South African Golf Development Board are the others – of the Alfred Dunhill Links Foundation, the event’s official charity, which was founded last year.
Without such support, as well as that provided by Aberdeen Asset Management and, of course, sportscotland, the outstanding opportunities up for grabs among Scotland’s leading amateurs these days would be a pipe dream and successes like those achieved by Stewart, Law, Soutar and Shields wouldn’t have been possible.
There should be no need for either cynicism or jealousy any longer, but here’s something to chew over as we constantly wonder how our players struggle to make the transition from amateur to professional. Shields talked about the challenge in South Africa being like “a game of darts”. In other words, target golf on courses that were so different to what the Scots are used to.
In a few weeks’ time, Scotland’s leading amateurs will be back playing links golf for most of the season. Lauded as Scotland’s links courses are around the world, a growing number are now questioning whether one of the reasons our players struggle, initially at least, as professionals playing parkland golf almost every week is that they have learned their trade on a different type of course.