C onnor Syme’s lockdown listening has included podcasts with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, both of which left the young Scot realising his path in golf had been carved out a lot later than the two major winners. While McIlroy and Thomas both had lives as professional golfers in their sights from a young age, Syme had a different career in mind until his mid-teens.
“When I heard both Rory and Justin saying they always knew they were going to be a pro, I was like, ‘I really wish I could say the same thing’, as I was much more into football when I was younger,” said the 24-year-old. “It probably wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 that I started to think about wanting to become a professional golfer.”
Syme, who was born in Kirkcaldy but brought up in Dumfries, was at Rangers when he was 13 before making it on to the books at Queen of the South. “It’s crazy to think when you consider I couldn’t be further away from that now, but, at that time, I would have picked football over golf,” he added. “I’d have wanted to play professionally for Queen of the South rather than go to the golf course. I guess I was just finding out what I loved doing most.
“Having said that, as much as I loved football, I wasn’t a great tackler, so I don’t know how long my football career would have continued. That was fine at under-12s, but, once you started playing against the hardy boys from Queen’s Park, it was a different proposition [laughing].”
Syme’s initial plan after choosing golf as the career he wanted to pursue was to head to college in the US. That didn’t work out, but staying at home didn’t do any harm whatsoever. He won the Australian Amateur Championship as he was honing his game under the watchful eye of his dad and coach, Stuart. Syme also helped Scotland land back-to-back Scottish Amateur Championship victories in 2015 and 2016. “After becoming really focused on turning pro, I thought it might happen around 23, but I was actually 22,” he said.
In his rookie season on the European Tour in 2018, Syme finished runner-up in the Shot Clock Master in Austria only to come up agonisingly short in his bid to hang on to his card. It spoke volumes for both his talent and mental attitude, though, that he bounced back straight away, using a win in the Turkish Airlines Challenge to regain a seat at European golf’s top table this season.
That was going along nicely – he’d recorded three top-15 finishes in seven starts to sit 61st in the Race to Dubai – before the circuit was shut down due to the Covid-19 virus. Four months on, it is set to crank into action again. The Austrian Open marks the restart this week, with Syme returning to Diamond Country Club near Vienna, where he recorded that eye-catching finish two seasons ago, to be among a small group of players flying the Saltire.
“It’s proving a bit of a nightmare as all the direct flights from the UK to Austria were cancelled this week,” said Syme, who enjoyed having a card back in his hand for the first time since the Qatar Masters as he played in a Clutch Pro Tour event at Hollinwell on Nottinghamshire on Monday. “We are now looking at driving over, which sounds absolutely mental. We will likely get down to London and work our way over from there. That’s the plan. It’s a bit challenging for the first one back. But, if we do end up driving, it’s not that bad. From a health point of view, I probably wouldn’t really want to be in an airport at this point. If we are able to drive, it will probably be safer. But it’s going to be a long trip.
“The fact I’ve got good memories at Diamond Country Club – not just in the Shot Clock Masters but also with Scotland in the European Team Championship – definitely had an influence on my decision to start back in this event. It’s a course I like and the fact I know it makes the preparations a little bit easier.”
Syme isn’t staying on in Austria for the Euram Bank Open, the second leg of a double-header, opting instead to get back to prepare for the start of an exciting six-event UK Swing, with the Betfred British Masters at Close House, near Newcastle, marking the circuit’s full return in just over a fortnight’s time.
“The plan is just to play in the first one in Austria then come home because the quarantine situation still isn’t totally clear. It might be that I fly back into England and stay down there to prepare for the British Masters,” he said. “I used the Clutch Pro Tour event as a warm-up for Austria, where I will hopefully be a little bit sharper and sharper still going into the UK events. The amount of time we’ve had off has been unprecedented, so I feel fortunate to have a few knocks before the real stuff starts again.
“It feels like a new season we are going into, which seems weird. The UK stuff is going to be awesome. We’re going to great venues [including Ryder Cup venues Celtic Manor and The Belfry] and I feel safe and positive going down there with the precautions the European Tour have in place.”
A strict “bubble” is being enforced at all six tournaments. “I think it’s amazing that we are close to getting restarted as I wouldn’t have been surprised if we hadn’t been playing again this year,” added Syme. “It’s awesome that [chief executive] Keith Pelley and everyone else at the tour have been keen to get us playing again. It’s a bit of a free run at it, too, because the card situation seems as though it is going to stay the same as it is this year for us. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of guys to have a real run at it until the end of the season.”
Lockdown life has certainly not been boring for Syme. Early on, he landed a €10,000 windfall for two charities – FoodTrain in Dundee and the Hospice of the Valleys – by winning a simulator event organised by the European Tour, with BMW as its sponsor, then added €2,000 for the former by sharing a five-way victory in another one. “I was really chuffed with that,” he admitted. “It was a cool thing for us to be able to do and great to see that, even in these tough times, the European Tour and BMW were still able to help people.”
His practice sessions at home have also proved eventful at times, posting a video on social media of a ball coming straight back off the frame of a net in his back garden and hitting him. “Honestly, I’m the worst guy ever with a net,” he said, laughing. “I couldn’t get it set up properly at all. I had a smaller net to start with and I had a nightmare with balls going over that into a couple of gardens over the wall. I then got a bigger net thinking I wouldn’t have any issues with that then bang, I get nailed myself. Other than that, it’s been good!”
In the middle of the shutdown, Syme also signed a new contract with Modest Golf!, the management group set up by Niall Horan, formerly of boy band One Direction and now carving out an equally successful solo career. “Since I signed with Modest!, I have always liked what they’ve done for me,” said Syme, who has subsequently been joined in the stable by Ryder Cup player Tyrrell Hatton, as well as two of the rising stars in world golf, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Italian Guido Migliozzi. “Even though they are still relatively new, it feels as though they have been doing it forever. It was a no-brainer when they offered me a new contract as I want to keep moving on with them and all our interests are aligned.
“As for Niall, he’s great. He’s mad about his golf. The other day, I had something on with Ping and he was in touch asking what was happening. It is cool to have him on board and he brings a lot to the team. He has a massive following, but he’s just one of us when it comes to helping us out with our golf.
“It was his idea to set up the company and he’s done a great job. Everyone who comes in might not be at the top of the ladder. Christiaan, for instance, was on the Sunshine Tour when he signed and he’s now a top-50 player in the world. Seeing those guys do well will hopefully push guys like myself on. It really is like one big family.”
Home for Syme these days is Drumoig, keeping him close to his real family. Dad Stuart, a former captain of the PGA in Scotland, owns Drumoig Golf Centre, having returned to his native Fife just under a decade ago, and also now runs the pro shop at nearby Scotscraig. “Although I feel as though I’ve found the passion for the game myself and my desire, my dad guided me from a young age,” said Syme.
“Even when I was more into football, I can remember all the tips he used to give me at the driving range. We’d be there on a cold winter’s night trying to get better and it all matters now. I don’t know how much golf would have been such a big part of my life if it hadn’t been for him.”
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