IT MAY be Aviemore rather than Augusta and the Cairngorms instead of Chambers Bay. But Bradley Neil has been warned to expect a learning curve as steep as the surrounding mountains when the 19 year old from Blairgowrie makes his professional debut in the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge starting today at Macdonald Spey Valley.
Neil, last year’s Amateur champion, is embarking on his new career with invitations for the forthcoming French and Scottish Opens in the bag, as well as having secured spots in two other European Tour events – the Made in Denmark and Hong Kong Open – later in the season. He is also in with a good chance of landing berths in the Dunhill Links and British Masters.
It is different playing as a pro but, unlike some players, he’s got a pedigreeJamie McLeary
Collectively, they will at least give Neil a chance of earning enough money to secure his European Tour card for next season without having to pay a visit to the Qualifying School at the end of the year, but first up is an appearance on the second-tier circuit in the tenth staging of the Scottish Challenge.
“It is a steep learning curve,” said Jamie McLeary, the 2009 winner and victor for a second time on the Challenge Tour in the KPMG Trophy in Belgium a fortnight ago, of what his young compatriot should expect now that he’s come out of the comfort zone of amateur golf to play the game for a living.
“There’s more depth out here and the scoring will be different to what Bradley is used to. For example, if we have two days here in good scoring conditions the cut is likely to be four or five-under whereas if it was an amateur event it would probably be level-par. It is different playing as a pro as an amateur, but, unlike some players, he’s got a pedigree behind him, having won the Amateur Championship at 18. He’s also got the experience of playing in proper deep events over the past few months, meaning this will not be as big a test as Augusta and Chambers Bay (where Neil signed off as an amateur in the US Open).”
According to McLeary, his compatriot has two factors in his favour as he follows in the footsteps of Italian Matteo Manassero, who played in this event as a rookie professional in 2010 before going on to re-write a string of European Tour records. “I’ve heard he hits it quite far and that always works in your favour as a pro,” added the Bonnyrigg-based former European No 1 amateur. “I’d also encourage anyone to turn pro as soon as possible. I felt I made the move too late. I was living with my fiancee at the time and had bills to pay whereas I’m sure Bradley is still living at home. He doesn’t have that to worry about.”
In truth, Neil is a young man who doesn’t seem to worry about anything. He tasted success throughout his amateur career and believes he is now ready to see if he can prove the world No 1, Rory McIlroy, right by showing he can cut the mustard in the paid ranks.
“Things took a massive turbo boost when I won the Amateur,” admitted Neil as he reflected on his decision to make the switch now rather than waiting to see if he could make the Great Britain & Ireland team for the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham in September. “I’m starting right at the bottom, but I’ve made those steps up before, having gone from playing in the juniors to playing in men’s event. Obviously none have been as big as this, but it’s a perfect challenge and I can’t wait to get going. I don’t really feel any added pressure. I’m just hoping to play well. Beyond that I’m not sure what to expect. But I’ve made the cut in pro tournaments before, so that’s something I’m definitely aiming for, and hopefully get a cheque at the end of the week – that would make a positive week for me.”
A positive already for the home contingent is that the field contains 30 Scots, with both McLeary and George Murray, the 2010 champion, bidding to land the title for a second time. “I’ve been playing quite well,” admitted McLeary, who heads into the £180,000 event sitting eighth on the money-list. “Indeed, the guys I was playing with in the pro-am today said they were off to put a bet on me for this week. That’s a nice thing to hear, but we’ll need to wait and see. I certainly like playing this course. The year I won the scoring was a bit higher than in other years here. It’s a lot softer this year and very scoreable. Having said that, the rough is up and I normally play better when it is hard.”
His win in Belgium was a welcome boost after dropping off the European Tour at the end of last season. “Belgium was good because it validated my win here,” said the 34 year old, who is heading to Glasgow Gailes on Tuesday hoping to come through the Open Final Qualifying there for the second year in a row. “For that success in 2009 I felt things were more in my favour than going against me. I’ve played a lot better in tournaments and not won than I did when I won here. I felt I played a lot better in Belgium.”
In addition to the Challenge Tour regulars and a mixture of Tartan Tour stars and young professionals, the Scottish contingent also includes four amateurs. One of them, Kirkhill’s Craig Ross, already has a pro win to his name after a victory on the PGA EuroPro Tour at Mar Hall last year.
On a pretty dreich day, the Cairngorms were shrouded in low cloud for the pro-am. It’s a scene that has become all too familiar at this event and it would be nice if its milestone could be marked by at least one day of this stunning area being shown off in its full splendour.